The second step of Emotion Coaching, according to Dr. Gottman, is seeing your child’s expressions of emotion as opportunities for teaching and intimacy. Rather than seeing negative expressions of emotion as a problem that needs to be “dealt with” or “fixed,” or even as the result of some kind of parental incompetence, the realization that such moments can be used to teach your child may come as a huge relief. Our research has shown that these are the times in which your youngster needs your support the most. Working through your child’s emotions with them, teaching them how to process their emotions, and showing your care for them will allow them to grow in a multitude of ways. For example, it will help them to become better at self-soothing and they will learn to work through problems themselves. Improving your child’s ability to navigate low-intensity situations, such as the loss of an ice cream cone, a poor grade on a test, or a trivial argument with a friend, will encourage them to come to you during more difficult times in their life. Their trust in you will also allow the intimacy in your relationship to grow.
Now we’d like to show you how to put Dr. Gottman’s second step of Emotion Coaching to the test! In the following example – which may feel all too familiar to you parents out there – we’ll walk you through our method for handling potentially stressful and emotion-fraught situations in a way which teaches your child that you are there for them, so that they may learn to navigate such difficulties on their own in the future:

Kendra’s six-year-old son, Ben, has always wanted a dog. Really, really wanted one. A dog person herself, she would love to make his dream a reality, but living in a small apartment in the city makes their mutual desire impossibile. Taking a walk in the park one day, she and Ben spot a few youngsters gallivanting joyfully through the playground with several adorable puppies. He predictably bursts out crying. At the end of her own emotional leash, feeling helpless and exhausted, Kendra cannot believe that she has to deal with “the conversation” all over again. But this time, with the help of Emotion Coaching, she has the tools to lead it in a different, more positive direction.

Bending down to eye level with her son, Kendra asks him what’s wrong. “All the other kids have dogs,” he mumbles through tears, “If you really loved me you’d let me have one too!” “I do love you, more than anything in world,” Kendra says, stroking Ben’s hair. “I want a dog too, and I really wish we could have one right now. Maybe when we move out of this apartment, we can think about getting ourselves a puppy of our own! Wouldn’t that be great?” The boy nods. “Those kids out there probably live in a place where their puppies can roam free. You don’t want the puppy we get to be stuck inside, miserable, with no place to go, do you?” Her son shakes his head. 

Ben is still upset, but he is no longer sobbing hysterically. His mother’s words have soothed him temporarily, but their long-term effect will be much greater. As he watches the children play with their dog, and imagines having one of his  own someday, he sees that his Mom understands him and feels that his feelings are being taken seriously. This six-year-old has learned a little bit about the values of patience and compromise. In the future, when the sight of another kid and his dog trigger his envy and sadness, he will remember his mother’s words, and their effect will last – he will feel more confident in his ability to soothe himself with the gain of some perspective on his short-term desires.

Seeing your child’s expressions of emotion as opportunities for teaching and intimacy will allow the two of you to build mutual trust while also relieving your relationship of anxiety and frustration in difficult times. When you observe your child struggling with a problem and expressing fear, sadness, or anger, take the moment as an opportunity for their emotional growth, and for the growth of your relationship.

This Friday, look forward to some simple exercises you can use to apply the first two steps of Emotion Coaching to better equip yourselves and your children in handling stressful situations. Next week, we will go on to Emotion Coaching steps three and four: validating your child’s feelings and helping them label their emotions in words that they can understand.

More in Emotion Coaching
Emotion Coaching Step 2: Seeing Expressions of Emotion as Opportunities for Teaching and Intimacy

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.