A Social-Emotional Approach to Parenting


Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Aug 28, 2023

By Katherine Johnson Martinko

Take a moment to think about who you call when you need to talk. If you have happy or sad news to share, who is always there to listen? “Be that person to your child,” says Dr. Erika Bocknek. “It can begin as early as infancy, starting to match and exchange internal states [and] paying attention to emotion cues.”

Bocknek is a psychotherapist, adjunct professor at the University of Michigan, and mother of three. She is an expert on social-emotional learning, the theme of a podcast and video interview with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk. 

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Medical, and a researcher, Dr. Erica Bocknek is also a marriage and family therapist, and a mother of three children under the age of 12. She joins us today from Franklin, Michigan. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you so much for having me.

Now, social emotional learning is a term that is familiar in the educational industry, among educators and social workers, certainly. But for parents, perhaps less. So I thought we could start by having you define what social emotional learning is.
So I think very fundamentally, social emotional learning is what it sounds like. It’s an opportunity for children to learn about their feelings, about relationships, about ways of communicating with others, alongside the other important subjects that they’re learning in school.
So from a parenting perspective, then what does a parent need to know about social emotional learning and how to teach it, practice it, foster it within the household.
So here’s why this becomes I think, a conversation that is ongoing out in the world, social emotional learning is in many ways compared to at least the other subjects that kids learn in school math and science and reading, social emotional learning is relatively new. And it’s continuing to evolve in terms of what actually is getting taught what actually kids are practicing, and what we’re learning as we go about best practices. But what I can say that I think would be useful to those listening out there and who want this information is that in school, social workers and teachers may be likely to focus on aspects of feelings and relationships that are very relevant in the school environment. They’re going to talk to kids about peer conflict, peer relationships, sharing, caring kindness, as well as being able to use emotion, vocabulary words, being able to identify, I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m excited. And then what to do if those feelings become so big, they inhibit the social skills that we expect kids to have in the classroom. What parents can know about that is they can support their kids in what they’re learning at school and the way those skills help children in the school setting. And then separately, they can do some thinking for their households, about what emotions and social relationships mean, for the family and the community.
Can you give us some examples of the how, in terms of how parents do that exactly what you just described, but the actual tools that they need to have explore, to be able to teach that to their children.
I want to answer this in two ways. I want to tell you that what’s a really popular practice is for parents to learn how in their home to use emotion, vocabulary, be able to identify their own feelings, talk to their kids about about their feelings, role model, good behavioral coping strategies that help you manage the either amount, you know, amount that you feel or the context in which you’re having that feeling and how it might be inhibiting your interaction. So for example, a lot where this comes up a lot at home is when children are feeling disappointed. I’ve got one just outside the door is feeling a little bit disappointed right now. And parents can talk with their kids about what they might be feeling disappointed, angry, frustrated, and also in our family. When we feel that way. We talk it out, we get a hug. But also we focus on the task at hand. How can we do that? Now that’s an example. What parents can also do in low stakes moments, is talking about that process for themselves, be willing to narrate their own internal states, and talk about how they’re actively coping. What I want to add to this is a couple of things. One is that we’ve gotten really hyper focused on the management of negative emotion states because we don’t want our kids or ourselves to feel flooded with things like anger and frustration. But emotion regulation isn’t just suppressing negative emotions that may feel too big for the environment that you’re in. It’s more broadly actually learning how to use emotions as information. If you feel something, it’s relevant in some way to an experience that you’re having. So being able to open up the conversation with your kids and talk about the whys with the environment, what you’re feeling right now what that’s telling you about your experience can be really powerful. And it’s great to start that in low stakes moments when you’re not running out the door, when you’re not yourself trying to manage a moment of conflict. But when you’re around the dinner table, or when you’re sort of all in the environment together, it’s a great time for parents to open up conversational space.
Some parents might listen to that and say, You know what, I grew up in a very different time, I was raised in a very different way. We were taught to be stoic, the culture I come from was very different from this. So emotions, and sharing of them were things that we just didn’t do in our family. Now I’m being asked to you share my emotions with my children in order to help them manage theirs. What would you say to that parent?
I love this question. And this is actually where I feel like a lot of SEL models are falling down on the gym. The thing is that emotions are only one kind of internal state, and you heard me use that language a moment ago. Feelings are one internal state, and the words that we assigned to them like sad, angry, excited, it’s a vernacular we’ve all agreed on. But it doesn’t even necessarily describe the internal feeling you’re having. It’s just a way to communicate, there are some feelings that don’t have a name. And my family we say it’s like a balk NIC feeling to be excited and scared all at the same time. Because that’s how we deal with novelty is that that gets like kind of smushed together. And we just know that that’s the feeling. Other internal states include thoughts, beliefs, knowledge, expectations, physical sensations that you can identify motivations. These are all things that fit into all families, all cultural groups, that aren’t necessarily like I’m feeling scared right now. To say that you want something is an internal state. So simply getting into the habit with your kids of revealing internal states at your comfort level, is a really important way just to open up the space about feeling states, you don’t even have to drive the conversation towards feelings words, I don’t think that’s the most important thing again, because it’s only kind of it’s one kind of internal state. And sometimes people trample on the other ones, by trying to force a feelings word in there. If your four year olds wants the purple cookie, and not the blue cookie, some parents are really, it’s their instinct to be like, I know, you’re sad that you can’t have a cookie that you want. But like maybe you’re not sad, wanting something is a legitimate internal state. And so just to be able to say you want that and I get it, I want things, here’s something I really wanted today. That’s the same thing is really connecting and sharing on kind of that, you know, transparent internal state level.
Let’s say that this is all new information to you as a parent, and you now have a tween a teen, you know, maybe even a young adult. And you’re listening to this thinking, You know what, it’s high time I’m convinced, I’m going to start really looking at my parenting style through a social emotional lens, more and more, what would be an appropriate starting point for that parent?
The best starting point, no matter what stage, you’re at newborn, a 11 year old, 24 year old emerging adulthood as a whole parenting stage, no matter what the best starting point is our relationship. Think about who you like to reveal your internal states to Who do you organically, not because someone has called you and been like, you know, how are you feeling about X or Y or Z? But who do you organically think I’m going to call up my best friend, my partner, I just want to tell them how excited I am about this thing that happened. You want to be that person to your child, and it can begin as early as infancy starting to match and exchange internal states paying attention to emotion cues. For example, if your child looks like they’re available to you to have a conversation, talk to them about literally anything. Even if it’s a four minute conversation about the latest video game, a song on the radio when you’re in the car. These are all parts of it. Contrary, to start opening up conversational spaces, and become the kind of partner for you who your child is going to want to share internal state language when
what about the parents who may, you know, contemplate whether their child can actually handle that kind of language, whether their child is mature enough, you know, is too young, maybe is an anxious about other things in their lives. And now the parent is questioning, you know, should I be adding this and this type of approach to this child who’s already under duress for multiple reasons? What would you say to them?
Dr. Bocknek Can you tell us what would you say to a parent who perhaps thinks that their child isn’t mature enough, and for whatever reason, maybe too anxious, etc, to actually be able to handle having that parent share their emotions on a regular and consistent basis with that child.

So I think, again, it’s about picking a starting point that is organic, that feels like a good fit. It may be a maturity issue, or it may be a readiness issue, it may be a trust issue. And it simply may be wrong place wrong time, you need room to grow. Oftentimes, we think about parenting, as though it’s a professional role. And you’re there to implement a protocol. And if something’s not working, either there’s something wrong with the object that you’re implementing the protocol on your child’s, or there’s something wrong with you as the worker B, you’re not doing it right. And I hope when I describe that folks can sort of hear, huh, yeah, that doesn’t exactly sound like how this is supposed to go. Parents and children are in a relationship. And we forget that because we are so worried about getting it right. But the parent child relationship is the basis for all of human survival and adaptation and innovation. The fact that we nurture babies and children and mentor them, is the reason the very reason we have thrived all these years, and we didn’t used to have books and Instagram influencers, and all these ways that we now have this kind of like curriculum, it seems like for parenting. Wherever you are in your parenting journey, however, you come away from this conversation and think I am really interested in how my child feels about the world, how their beliefs are getting shaped what they’re motivated to grow towards, I am really interested to know, what do they think of their relationships? I’m looking at my baby, and I am really curious, what will they will kinds of people will they be drawn to the more you start to do that kind of mentalizing, the more you’re going to find that it’s actually very natural to start conversations. And whenever I feel awkward or stuck, because there are some things that I just can’t relate to when it comes to my kids. My oldest is a 12 year old boy. And despite having a pretty high EQ, sometimes he tells jokes I don’t get. And in those moments, I just say what’s true. I don’t get it. But thank you for sharing it with me. And also, you know, maybe Daddy will get the joke of you tell to him later. I just work through it. Right? Like we’re just two humans in a relationship.

When we’re talking about social emotional learning, I wonder if you could illustrate for parents who will be listening or watching this show, as to how it equips what tools does social emotional learning equip a child with for now today and into their future?

So the goal of social emotional learning is that we hope children will learn how to identify what they feel inside. Have an awareness of it so that they can use that emotional information wisely, before the emotion starts to become detached from the from the child’s ability to eat. manage the feeling itself or manage the, the stimulus the trigger for the feeling. And we hope the children will learn skills to help them adapt to relationships of all kinds across all contexts, we are raising changemakers, that that’s the hope. Because as humans evolve, we need the next generation to grab the baton. And we believe the way of the future is to, is to be the kind of person who can understand how people feel, who can understand how they feel, and be able to use that information in relationships and cooperation, to innovate, to grow, to evolve this world further. What I do think maybe getting lost at school, and this is where the family and community really has to step in, is that these relationship skills and emotion regulation skills can be taught theoretically, and they can be practiced a bit in the school environment, but you get a lot of bang for your buck, practicing them at home with the people who know you best. And in the relationships that are going to be the relationships of your lives, the centered relationships, and the family and community is the best place for cultural influences to be discussed in terms of how emotions get expressed, how emotions and positionality interact, how different people in different community groups might feel about what we discussed, and how we think about the role of emotions in our lives. That is something that families and communities do well and should be really the leaders in when we think about social emotional learning.

I wonder what kind of trends you’re seeing in your practice as a relates to specifically this subject matter of social emotional learning and what concerns you if anything about those trends?

Yeah, so I think that there’s two things that I’m seeing that I’m concerned about. One is that children have a growing list of emotion vocabulary words, when somebody asks asks them to name how they feel about something, an experience they’ve had, or something that’s about to happen. Oh, you have a new baby brother coming? How do you feel? When someone says how do you feel children have been really coached and socialized to use a feelings word. But then when I probe a little bit deeper, it isn’t clear to me that children have a depth of understanding in context of what they feel. So that’s missing a bit. And that’s why I say families and communities can play a big role in really socializing these things in real life. The other trend that I’m seeing that is the biggest concern I have is that there is a real deficit, I think in empathy development for children and adults. And this is something that I think we really need to slow down and put a bit more thought into what our kids need from us to be sure that their empathy development is expansive.

Let’s drill into that a little bit more and unpack that. First of all, how do you define empathy?
It’s a great question. A lot of people hear the word and I think I mean, compassion or kindness. What I mean by empathy is a much more foundational thing. Empathy means I know what my internal states are, if I’m in conversation with you, I know what I feel, I know what I’m thinking, I know what my beliefs are, that are shaping these things, for example. And I know that you have internal states that are separate from mine. in being able to identify those two things, it puts me in a position to essentially believe you, when you tell me you feel a certain way, or think a certain way I can see us as sort of being separate human entities. Now what that can translate into I’m so sorry, let me just plug my computer and you’re getting the best of me here in terms of working motherhood.

Not to worry.

What that means, then what that translates into is once you have that established, then we’re able to do the things behaviorally that most people think of when they think of empathy. But the foundational part about really being able to separate out how do I feel and what do I think, how do you feel? What do you think, is actually the most important part for building foundational things for future change? changemakers like, being able to take risks, feeling psychologically safe in groups and being able to achieve True relational equity, being courageous about examining your bias and power dynamics and relationships, empathy is actually the cornerstone of those things. What I think we started socializing people to do in this fast paced world is to skip over the actual not have empathy, and sort of perform compassion and kindness, someone says a feeling to you. And we in a very robotic way, or like you feel sad, I hear that you feel sad, because and that is sometimes the behavioral result of empathy. But standing on its own, it’s pretty empty, empty.

That is a really important point that you just made, because I think a lot of people who listen, who will listen and watch this interview might fall into that category, in the spirit of trying to be helpful, and, you know, provide solutions, they’re now trying to mind read or, you know, assume things that may not be true. So how does one avoid that? Especially as a parent?

Oh, no, it’s, uh, yeah, it’s, it’s a great question. Because again, I know this is all in the popular discourse, I know that I’m saying something that’s gonna sound really like difference or bold, there’s a couple of ways to disrupt that. One is to take a relational stance, which is what we were talking about earlier, that you’re not there to coach, you’re not there, you’re, you know, we like to say parents are their kids first teacher. And that’s true, except you can’t get too rigid about that role. What you are is something no one else’s, you’re a parent. And that’s a relationship. And if you can start adopting that stance, and trying to let the bug in your ear that says you have to do it a certain way, fall away, you might be better positioned to look at your child, all of two years old. All of 13, which can seem very confusing sometimes to parents, as a whole human with thoughts, beliefs, awareness, motivations, and have a stance of wonder. Everybody says they’re anxious these days. And what anxiety is, is when you’re thinking, you’re problem solving, gets trapped inside your own brain. And you think the answer is in there somewhere. It’s a very constrained, very rigid approach to problem solving. If instead you have an attitude of wonder, the unknown isn’t scary. It is just unknown. Sometimes it’s not great. The future, sometimes it’s exciting. And we just don’t know, wonder lets us expand our thinking. Wonder is also the thing that helps position you for empathy, because you approach the conversation from a not knowing stance, but also not helplessly. I wonder what you’re feeling about this, tell me. I wonder what you want. But the thing is, you have to believe your child, even if it sounds crazy, even if what they’ve said, I just really want to wear, you know, I want to wear a mini dress to school, and it’s the middle of winter. And if you really assess your own internal state, which includes things like values, if this is reasonable with your own values, and your child is saying she wants it. You you nurture a bond by saying, I believe you. Let’s sit let’s test drive this one. Let’s see how it goes. And then through those experiences, now you have fodder to reflect on together. How did that go? What do you think about it? How did it make you feel? Now there’s all this internal state dialogue to be had. So it’s so much more than just reflecting back what you heard. It’s this deeper level of bond that includes trust in their voice, believing what they have to say, and in general, approaching the world in this curious way, that lets you evolve your own internal state dialogue.

You know, it’s such an interesting topic to talk to you about, and to contemplate and sort of dive into, especially in the time we live in today. Right? So, when we’re talking about social emotional learning, we’re talking about a lot of parents who have been helicopter parents, we’re talking about, you know, a global epidemic of youth mental health challenges. We’re talking about, you know, social media, and a whole confluence of factors that are contributing to either the increased need for this approach to be used, and also the complexity of potentially practicing it on a consistent basis. So how would you sort of Go about kind of explaining all those different factors and how they contribute, or not to social emotional learning in the household.

So this is a really big question. What I can say briefly today is that parents aren’t getting it wrong. I think that there’s a lot of stuff out there that makes parents feel like if I do it this way, I’ll be this. And if I do it this way, it’s too much this. And there is a wonderfully technical term in the developmental science literature, it’s called good enough parenting. And what we mean by that is that parenting only explains 30% of children’s behavioral and developmental outcomes. Now, that’s a meaningful chunk, not a lot of things explained quite that much. So parents matter. But there is a plateau in terms of how much our good intentions can shape our children. So I want people to start their day, with some perspective. There’s a lot of like well intentioned, loving, kind of mediocre parents out, they’re at the standard of the sort of big parenting movements, right? That’s what I mean, by mediocre, they’re not doing all the things all the time. And they’re going to raise wonderful children. And they’re not going to be any less wonderful than the parent who has read every parenting book out there. There’s a lot on our shoulders. There are a lot of big world events taking place all at the same time, we’re having a lot of existential crises, but the relationship development that our kids most need from us, the spaciousness to wonder and be empathetic towards one another, is constrained by the feeling that everything is literally on our shoulders to get it, right. So to the extent that we can, there’s a bit of surrendering, that needs to happen to the world around us, to the knowledge that we are not going to be the only influences on our children. And I, I really invest in that thinking daily, my child, my children, they’re going to be out in the world where and I’m not there with them, I can’t control what they say what they do, how they treat people, what I can do is be a role model of my own values, I can stay close to them and invest in relationships with them, so that I’m in their head a little bit when they’re out there in the world. And I can be a thought partner with them, when they want to reflect on choices that they’ve made. And so I go hard on all of those things. Instead of thinking to myself, How do I buffer them all the time, against the impacts that this world is surely going to bring?

Final word for parents, Dr. Bach next on how they can embrace and practice and sustain social emotional learning in their homes with their children.

Start with family values, get down to brass tacks, what do you actually care about? And from there, what social and emotional capacities need to expand in order to make sure that your child is being mentored within that set of values? That’s it, what matters to us? And how are we all manifesting what matters out in the world?

Certainly lots of food for thought Dr. Erica Bocknek. We so appreciate your time and your perspective today. Thank you. Thank

Bocknek defines social-emotional learning as “an opportunity for children to learn about their feelings, about relationships, about ways of communicating with others, alongside the other important subjects that they’re learning in school.” The concept is familiar in educational settings, but less so in homes. She would like to see more parents fostering social-emotional learning outside of school.

Parents can do this by using emotional vocabulary to identify feelings, and by narrating their own internal states to a child, explaining how they are coping in real time. If a parent feels uncomfortable about vocalizing emotions, Bocknek points out that internal states can include “thoughts, beliefs, knowledge, expectations, physical sensations that you can identify, motivations.” You don’t necessarily have to admit things like, “I’m feeling scared right now.”

Keeping lines of communication open is crucial, says Bocknek. “If your child looks like they’re available to you to have a conversation, talk to them about literally anything. Even if it’s a four-minute conversation about the latest video game [or] a song on the radio when you’re in the car, these are all parts of it… Start opening up conversational spaces.”

Bocknek, Dr. Erika.headshot.resized

Dr. Erika Bocknek

Bocknek emphasizes the importance of believing what your child tells you about their social-emotional states and says this is best achieved by having “an attitude of wonder.”

In that case, “The unknown isn’t scary. It is just unknown… Wonder lets us expand our thinking. Wonder is also the thing that helps position you for empathy, because you approach the conversation from a not-knowing stance, but also not helplessly:

‘I wonder what you’re feeling about this, tell me. I wonder what you want.’ But the thing is, you have to believe your child, even if it sounds crazy.”

In her conversation with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Erika Bocknek also discusses:

  • The tools that social-emotional learning provides
  • The trends she sees in her own practice that cause concern
  • How she defines empathy
  • How parents can best practice and sustain social-emotional learning at home

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