Could ‘Emotion Coaching’ Be the Key to Good Parenting?
Sick of parenting advice? Then read on, because according to experts, this may be the last piece of it you’ll ever need. “Emotion Coaching”—a lifelong process designed to teach children how to manage their difficult feelings—was designed by psychologist Dr. John Gottman. His theory? “The key to good parenting lies in understanding the emotional source of problematic behavior.” Bookmark these five simple steps in advance of your kid’s next meltdown.
Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotion
“Show your child respect and understanding in moments when they feel misunderstood, upset, or frustrated,” writes Gottman. Rather than tuning out 'til the storm passes, distracting, bribing or punishing them, roll up your sleeves and get in there. “Talk through their feelings with them and try to understand their source.” Your goal is simple: Empathy. Put yourself in his little shoes to understand what’s motivating his strong emotion.
The next time your son hits his sister, for example, do not lose your cool and immediately send him to his room for a time out. Instead, try saying something like: “I can see that you’re really mad that your sister knocked down your tower. Do you also feel frustrated because you worked on it all morning and now you need to start over? Does that make you feel overwhelmed?” Try offering up your own experience: “Once, when I was working on a big work project, my computer broke and erased it all! I remember I felt so hopeless. But I redid my work, and it came out even better in the end.”
Step 2: Recognize your child’s expression of emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
This step is simply about shifting your perspective. Try looking at the-stuff-of-nightmares outbursts (e.g., tantrums on the floor of the cheese aisle) as the definition of “a teachable moment.” Of course they will trigger your own anxiety. But by supporting your child when she’s in crisis-mode, you are—in a funny way—actually controlling the moment. Best of all, you’re creating memories she can later recall to self-soothe, teaching her, ultimately, to work through problems herself.
Step 3: Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings
“Rather than asking a child how they feel, observe them—their facial expressions, body language, gestures, and the tone of their voice. If your toddler is crying, she probably doesn’t know why. Asking her won’t help,” explains one of Gottman’s colleagues. Instead of drilling down with questions, offer simple observations (“You seem really upset”) and validation (“My feelings would be hurt if my friend pushed me, too.”). Once your child is calm, collaborate on problem-solving strategies or solutions. (“Would it make you feel better if we all had a talk about taking turns? Or should we try playing with something else?”)
Step 4: Help your child learn to label their emotions with words
Per Dr. Gottman, finding words to describe a problem “can help children transform an amorphous, scary, uncomfortable feeling into something definable, something that has boundaries and is a normal part of life… [something that] everybody has and everybody can handle.” Naming emotions has even been shown to calm a child’s central nervous system, he writes. Adds UC Berkeley sociologist Dr. Christine Carter of Gottman’s method: “The larger our children's emotion vocabulary is, the easier it is to label emotions in the heat of the moment.”
Here’s a Gottman-supplied sample dialog between a father and son (emphasis ours):
Dad: “It sounds like you feel upset about the math test.”
Son: “Yeah… I feel like I could have done better. I should have studied more. Jimmy got an A. He told everyone.”
Dad: “I know how that goes. I used to HATE it when I had messed up on something and other kids shouted out their good grades. It made me so jealous.”
Son: “It’s sooo annoying! It felt really bad… I guess I was jealous.”
Step 5: Set limits when you are helping your child solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriately
After you empathize, validate, connect, etc., your work as a parent is not done. You still need to deal with the problematic behavior. The key is to treat the behavior as unacceptable—not the child. Describe the problem without making it personal, blaming or shaming: “Feeling angry is ok but hitting is not. Hitting hurts. Little sisters are not for hitting.” Then, problem-solve together. You might ask: “What could you do the next time you feel angry with her?” He might suggest: “Count to ten? Take a walk? Hit a pillow? Come and tell you?” Helping your child decide on a solution is empowering, writes Gottman, because it enhances “their abilities and confidence in thinking for themselves.” With enough repetition, he promises they will.