An Introduction to Emotion Coaching

Learn how to help your children navigate their feelings through being an emotion coaching parent.

Learn how to help your children navigate their feelings through being an emotion coaching parent.

Learn how to help your children navigate their feelings through being an emotion coaching parent.

The common notion that “children are our future” puts a lot of pressure on parents to do their best with their kids, but unfortunately buying a veritable library of parenting books is often not the best idea. Many books on parenting seem to take a great deal of “evidence” from popular myths, common misconceptions, and personal anecdotes. Recognizing the limitations of this narrow perspective, Dr. John Gottman undertook a variety of scientific studies, which led him to the conclusion that the key to good parenting lies in understanding the emotional source of problematic behavior.

There are four identified “types” of parents that reflect stereotypes often learned as children:

  • The Dismissing Parent disengages, ridicules, or curbs all negative emotions, feels uncertainty and fears feeling out of control, uses distraction techniques, feels that emotions are toxic or unhealthy, uses the passage of time as a cure-all replacement for problem-solving.
    Effects: Children learn that there is something wrong with them, cannot regulate their emotions, feel that what they are feeling is not appropriate, not right, and abnormal.
  • The Disapproving Parent is similar to the dismissing parent but more negative, judgmental and critical, controlling, manipulative, authoritative, overly concerned with discipline, and strangely unconcerned with the meaning of a child’s emotional expression.
    Effects: Similar to dismissing parenting techniques.
  • The Laissez-Faire Parent (is endlessly permissive, offers little to no guidance about problem-solving or understanding emotions, does not set any limits on behavior, encourages “riding out” of emotions until they are out of the way and out of sight).
    Effects: Kids can’t concentrate, can’t get along with others, or form friendships, can’t regulate their emotions in a healthy way.

The fourth and last “type” of parent identified by Dr. Gottman is not a common stereotype, perhaps because it isn’t negative, or because when we were kids, playing with Tommy and Phoebe on the playground, they didn’t really understand what made their parents so “good.” This “good” parent is  The Emotion Coach. When you look back on memories of your own childhood, you may recognize that some of the strategies below were used by your parents when you felt the closest to them, that they could really relate to you, and when you were truly understood.

The five essential steps of Emotion Coaching:

  • Be aware of your child’s emotion
  • Recognize your child’s expression of emotion as a perfect moment for intimacy and teaching
  • Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings
  • Help your child learn to label their emotions with words
  • Set limits when you are helping your child to solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriately

Your child’s mastery of understanding and regulating their emotions will help them to succeed in life in a myriad of different ways. They will be more self-confident, perform better in social and academic situations, and even become physically healthier.

When your child expresses challenging emotions or misbehaves in some manner, try to figure out the underlying cause of their feelings. Put the steps of Emotion Coaching to work in your relationship with your child. Try the following exercises in the next few days, and discover the benefits of these strategies.

  • Show your child respect and understanding in moments when they feel misunderstood, upset, or frustrated. Talk through their feelings with them and try to understand their source.
  • Be aware of your child’s responses to your method of working through the moment with them.
  • In difficult interactions, make your child feels your empathy, by patiently validating their feelings and getting to the root of their expression.
  • Instead of focusing on your parental agenda in these situations, show your child that you respect their attempts to solve problems, and guide them with trust and affection. Work through these experiences together.

Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute and editor for The Gottman Relationship Blog.