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Emotion Coaching Step 3: Treating a Child’s Feelings with Empathetic Listening and Validation

Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggest a combination of attentiveness, offerings of simple observations, and validation of your child’s emotions in difficult moments. 

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Emotion Coaching: Treating a Child's Feelings With Empathatic Listening and Validation

Read Step 2 here.

To truly connect with your child when in a psychologically difficult moment, it is important to read between the lines. Rather than asking a child how they feel, observe their facial expressions, body language, gestures, and the tone of their voice. If your toddler is crying, they probably don’t know why. Asking won’t help. However, age is not the whole story here. Asking your twelve-year-old son if he feels nervous will likely elicit a negative response. Instead of asking questions to which you already know the answers, Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggest a combination of attentiveness, offerings of simple observations, and validation of your child’s emotions in difficult moments.

Frieda’s daughter, Agatha, ten, ambushes her as soon as she walks in the door from a long day at the office. All rage and tears, Agatha follows behind her mother as she walks to the living room, angrily recounting her “awful” piano lesson a few hours earlier. As Frieda gathers from the tirade, punctuated by intermittent stomps and declarations of quitting immediately, she discovers that her daughter’s instructor made some negative comments about Agatha’s practicing. Or lack thereof. Feeling irritated by her daughter’s constant complaining about the lessons she had begged for forever, Frieda remembers the third step of Emotion Coaching and takes a deep breath. “You seem frustrated with your piano teacher right now,” Frieda says, “Is that true?” “Yeah! And she made me feel so guilty,” her daughter answers. Seeing her daughter’s reddened cheeks and teary eyes, her mother sits down beside her on the bed. She strokes Agatha’s hair and talks to her seriously: “I hate it when people make me feel that way. It really stinks. What do you think would make you feel less frustrated with piano?” A few thoughtful moments later, Agatha excitedly asks to play a duet with Frieda for her next recital. As Frieda agrees, her daughter grins. Seeing her Mom as an ally gives Agatha the confidence to work through this temporary impediment, and to continue in pursuit of her love of creating music. Harmony is restored.

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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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