At the University of Illinois and then at the University of Washington, Dr. John Gottman and his colleagues studied families, at first examining children from age 3 longitudinally up to age 15. Dr. Gottman developed the concept of Meta-Emotion, which is how people feel about emotion, specific emotions (like anger) and emotional expression and emotional understanding in general. Meta-emotion mismatches between parents in that study predicted divorce with 80% accuracy.
The idea of emotion coaching emerged from this research, which was a scientific validation of the work of child psychologist Haim Ginott. In a newlywed study Dr. Gottman began studying the transition to parenthood and learning how to do research on babies and parents.
Research on emotion coaching, on the impact of marital discord, and the transition to parenthood are all elements of Gottman’s parenting research agenda. At the heart of these projects are the emotional lives of children and the emotional communication between parents and their children. As Gottman and his colleagues studied parents and children over time, they made a number of observations and discoveries about the powerful impact that emotional processes can have on children and their parents.
“Much of today’s popular advice to parents ignores emotion,” says Dr. Gottman. “Instead it relies on child-rearing theories that address children’s misbehavior, but disregards the feelings that underlie that misbehavior. The ultimate goal of raising children should not be simply to have an obedient and compliant child. Most parents hope for much more for their children.”
Gottman’s research also discovered that love by itself wasn’t enough. “We found that concerned, warm, and involved parents often had attitudes toward their and their children’s emotions that got in the way … when the child was sad or afraid or angry,” he writes. “The secret to being an emotionally intelligent parent lay in how parents interacted with their children when emotions ran hot.”
The researchers ultimately determined that successful parents tended to do five very simple things with their children when they were emotional. Gottman calls these five elements “Emotion Coaching.” He discovered that children who had “Emotion Coaches” for parents were on an entirely different, more positive developmental trajectory than the children of other parents.
Gottman and other researchers also observed that children benefit the most when parents themselves have a strong relationship. “In families where the parents aren’t living with each other or are not going to stay married, the parents can best help their children by minimizing their children’s exposure to destructive conflict. High levels of parental conflict create emotional distress in children and decrease effective parenting skills.”
Gottman’s laboratory–designed to study the psychophysiology of emotion and marital and parent-child interactions–has been used to study the correlation between marital discord, parent-child interaction, and child outcomes. In studies examining parent-child interactions, child’s emotional expressions, at-home peer interaction, and self-report of marital distress, a number of negative consequences of marital discord on child outcomes were demonstrated. Marital discord can influence children indirectly by decreasing the effectiveness of the parents’ monitoring, emotion coaching, and other parenting skills. And it can influence children by creating emotional distress on the children. This research, conducted with Lynn Fainsilber Katz, also demonstrated that children of maritally distressed couples show an amazing strength and resilience. Ongoing research continues to examine how marital discord affects children, but also seeks to understand how some children remain resilient despite the stresses and strains of an emotionally unstable home.
Transition to Parenthood
The Gottmans first began testing their interventions by exploring what happened to a couple when the first baby arrived. In this longitudinal study they began studying young couples in first marriages a few months after their wedding, following couples into pregnancy and studying parent-infant interaction using the Lausanne Triadic Play paradigm. They discovered that 67% of couples experienced a precipitous decline in relationship satisfaction in the first 3 years of the baby’s life. Gottman’s student Alyson Shapiro compared the 33% of couples who did not experience the downturn in satisfaction with the 67% who did. This is the same method of comparing the masters to the disasters and designing the therapy empirically. They studied them even a few months after their wedding, and during pregnancy as well. They developed the Pregnancy Oral History Interview. The predictions of the baby’s temperament from the last trimester of pregnancy was impressive.
Furthermore, Alyson Shapiro’s thesis showed that they could predict the baby’s vagal tone, how much the baby laughed and cried at 3 months from the way the couple discussed a conflict in their last trimester. Again, based on the differences between the “masters” of relationships and the “disasters” of relationships, Drs. John and Julie Gottman designed a couples’ workshop and a couples’ therapy. Based on the comparison of the couples who declined and did not decline in relationship satisfaction after baby, we designed the highly effective “Bringing Baby Home” (BBH) workshop. They performed a randomized clinical trial study with long-term follow up. That workshop has now been taught to 1,000 birth educators from 24 countries. The effects have been replicated in Australia and Iceland.
Our initial findings from this continued research indicate that both the BBH workshop and support groups led by family educators are effective in promoting positive marital relations, parent-baby interactions, and overall infant development through the first year after the baby is born. The specific results of our evaluations to date are broken down below:
- Both fathers and mothers who took the BBH program (compared to those that did not) showed greater sensitivity and responsiveness to their infant’s signals. This was particularly true for fathers.
- Parents who took the BBH program demonstrated better coparenting abilities in that they were able to work together more positively during family play with their 3-month-old baby.
- Babies expressed more smiling and laughter during family play if their parents had participated in the BBH program. This was true for both 3 and 12-month-old infants.
- Several indicators of father-infant attachment security were rated more positively in families who had taken the BBH program.
Infant Development & Temperament
- There were less language delays in one-year-old infants of parents who took the BBH program.
- Mothers who took the BBH program rated their babies as showing less distress in response to limitations (such as having a toy out of reach).
- 1-year-old babies in the workshop group were rated as responding more positively to their fathers’ soothing (this is likely to reflect something about father-baby interaction quality as well as infant temperament).
- Fathers who took the BBH program reported being more involved in parenting and feeling more satisfied and appreciated for their parental contributions.
- The quality of father-baby interactions was more positive if fathers had taken the BBH program.
Couple Relationship Quality
- Couples who took the BBH program reported high stable relationship quality. Those who did not take the BBH program showed a decline in relationship quality over the first year after the baby’s birth.
- There was less hostility expressed by both husbands and wives during conflict discussions if they had taken the BBH program.
- Fewer mothers who took the BBH program showed symptoms of postpartum depression, the baby blues, and other indicators of psychopathology such as anxiety.
- Fewer fathers who took the BBH program showed signs of depression, anxiety and other psychopathology after the baby was born.