Every parent has faced something similar dozens of times: it doesn't have to be a three-year-old, it could be a fight over a bicycle with an eight-year-old just as the in-laws are coming for lunch. The crucial point is that the child is experiencing a strong negative emotion and you have to deal with it. "Parents tend to see these situations as problems," says Professor John Gottman of the University of Washington in Seattle, "but actually they are opportunities. Get in the habit of handling them in the right way and not only will life at home be a lot easier, but the child will do better at school and have better relationships with his peers."
What Gottman is talking about is emotional intelligence - a concept that was popularised last year in a bestseller of that name by Daniel Goleman. The idea is that for years we have concentrated on IQ and academic ability and largely ignored emotions, but recent research shows that EQ - the measure of the ability to handle your emotions and respond to others' - is a much better predictor of success not only at school but also in business.
Now Gottman, who has made extensive studies of adult relationships and how parents get on with their children in his Seattle lab, has produced a book entitled The Heart of Parenting: How to raise an emotionally intelligent child to help conscientious parents give their children even more of a head start.
How is your child going to do? Here are your options for dealing with that wailing three-year-old. Which would you favour?
1) Tell him not to be so silly because there is nothing to get upset about and that there is no reason to feel sad about leaving the house. Then try to make him forget he was feeling sad by offering sweets or telling him about all the fun things he will be doing at the nursery.
2) Tell him he's a selfish and naughty boy for making you late. Say you are fed up with him behaving in this way and if he carries on you'll give him a spank.
3) Give him a cuddle and say you quite understand him wanting to stay at home and then offer a deal - we'll play a game for 10 minutes and then leave with no more tears.
4) Say you understand that he wants to stay at home and sometimes you feel just the same but that you've promised to be somewhere. Then when he still cries you say how you know he feels disappointed and sad and that you feel sad too but you and he can spend time together tomorrow and then ask him what would he like to do to make that a special day.
You've probably guessed that No. 4, known as Emotional Coaching, is the "right" answer, even if it's not what you, or indeed most of us, actually do a lot of the time. But even if 2) is an obvious no-no, albeit occasionally very tempting, you may be wondering what exactly is wrong with 1) and 3).
"The person who regularly behaves like No. 1 is what we call the dismissive parent," Gottman says. "She's dismissing the child's emotions. Parents like this use phrases like 'snap out of it', 'don't be silly', 'don't be a cry baby'. Usually they do it from the best of motives. They may believe that focusing on a negative emotion only makes it worse or they may believe that girls shouldn't get angry or that boys shouldn't cry. Then they try to jolly them along or distract them. But the message the child gets is that their feelings are somehow bad or don't count, certainly no one wants to know about them so they start hiding them or repressing them."
No 3 is known as the laissez-faire parent. He gets the first bit right and acknowledges the child's emotion and sympathises with him, but then he gets stuck. He behaves as if once they have let off steam that's it. He wouldn't dream of scolding or spanking and he'd be unhappy with a bribe, but he's no good at setting clear boundaries or helping the children to solve problems, so the child learns that by pushing and playing up he can get what he wants so he'll do the same thing next time. Children of both dismissive and laissez-faire parents tend to have more problems at school.
What parents should be aiming for, says Gottman, is to be Emotional Coaches for their children. They need to let the children know that it is OK to feel angry or sad or disappointed or frightened and then to help them to find ways to deal with it. "The first step is to become aware of the child's emotions" he says.
"Some men think this is going to be hard at first but what we have found in the laboratory is that men and women are equally good at spotting emotional changes. When you show a husband and wife a playback of one of their arguments and ask them to say what emotions their partner is feeling at particular points, men do just as well as women. What men aren't so good at is expressing emotion."
Recognising an emotion is important because it is all too easy, especially if you are feeling tired or harassed, to concentrate on the fact that the child is shouting or wailing or being generally difficult. So you need to spot the emotion behind it and sincerely acknowledge it. Say you really understand what they are feeling, maybe even talk about how you feel in similar situations. Very often, as with adults, just the feeling of being understood is enough.
"The other vital thing for parents to do at this stage, especially for younger children, is to help them find the words for the emotions they are experiencing. Children whose emotions aren't taken seriously have more difficulty identifying how they are feeling and that can lead to problems later. We've had cases of girls with an eating disorder who confused feeling anxious with feeling hungry."
But Emotional Coaching isn't a soft option that lets the children do what they like and talk about it. After acknowledging how they feel, the parent helps the child to find a way of dealing with whatever it is that is upsetting her.
The great thing about empathy is that by the time you think up a solution, usually within a minute or two, the child is ready to listen to you. Here's a typical exchange with a dismissive father. Eight-year-old William comes into the house looking dejected because the kids next door won't play with him. His father, Bob, looks up from the paper, guesses what has happened and says: "Not again. Don't be such a baby, William. You can't get upset every time someone won't play with you. Just forget it.
Call a friend. Read a book." Good advice, maybe, but feeling the way he is, William is hardly likely to take it.
But if Bob was an Emotional Coach the exchange might go something like this:
Bob: You look a bit sad, what's happening?
William: Tom and Patrick won't play with me.
Bob: I bet that hurt your feelings.
William: Yeah, it pissed me off too.
Bob: I can see that. What do you want to do about it?
William: I don't know.
Bob: Do you want to talk to them about it?
William: No I'll just leave it.
Bob: You could read a book or call a friend.
William: Yeah, I might do that. They'll probably change their minds tomorrow.
Gottman doesn't claim that Emotional Coaching will solve all your parenting problems, but he does say that children who are treated in this way are generally happier, healthier and do better. Establishing that sort of rapport with children means that physical punishment doesn't even become an issue and later on, when you get to the choppier waters of adolescence, there's a firm base of trust and affection to sort out a whole new set of crisesn
"The Heart of Parenting: How to raise an emotionally intelligent child" is published by Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99