Our research shows that adults can help kids who struggle with moments of emotional intensity, largely due to children’s natural inexperience in understanding what on earth they are going through. Youngsters are new to the experience of emotion, and their lack of comprehension of their feelings may lead to the misconception that their emotions are unnatural. This is where Step 4 of our Emotion Coaching system comes in: Helping Your Child To Find Words For Their Emotions

According to Dr. Gottman, “providing words [to describe the 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.” Remarkably, research studies have shown that expressing empathy while giving kids the tools to label their emotions with words not only helps to heighten their confidence in dealing with everyday problems, but is also effective in soothing their nervous system and allowing them to recover faster from stressful events! Here, we will guide you through an example of how this strategy works:

Don’s nine-year-old, Garnett, comes home one day in a funk. Dropping his skateboard with a crash in the middle of the hallway, getting mud all over the floor, he throws himself into his room and turns up the music. After tiptoeing around his son throughout dinnertime as per his wife’s advice, Don loses patience with the boy’s monosyllabic moodiness and accosts him on his way out the door. “Where are you going, kid?” “To Mickey’s,” Garnett offers sullenly. “Is anything wrong?” After a few minutes of meandering aimlessly in circles, Garnett finally relents. “I failed my math test today.” What should Don do with this admission? His initial disappointment and frustration are replaced with confidence as he remembers the fourth step of Emotion Coaching. He has a way to turn the situation around.

Though it is obvious that adults continue to struggle with relation to their emotions (wanting to understand them, not wanting to understand them, wanting them to not exist, pretending they don’t exist, trying to frantically wave their arms so that they would stop existing), it would be nonsensical to think that children and adults are on the same page. Don can say with relative self-awareness that his son’s confession of failing a math test in school makes him feel frustrated and upset. If he looks deeper, he may notice that he also feels kind of guilty and irresponsible. He may notice a twinge of anxiety about his parenting skills. Did he tutor Garnett enough over the summer when he was struggling with Geometry? Why didn’t Garnett come to him sooner? Is Garnett afraid to come to him with problems in general? Garnett’s silence, on the other hand, communicates a very different message: the boy has no idea how to deal with the situation, and he may not understand why.

To help his son, Don’s job as an Emotion Coach is to find out how his son is feeling. The process is NOT about what Don thinks Garnett OUGHT to be feeling about the problem he is faced with, but about working together to determine the true emotions in the situation. Here is how the conversation might go:

Don: “It sounds like you feel upset about the math test.”
Garnett: “Yeah… I feel like I could have done better. I should have studied more. Jimmy got an A. He told everyone.”
Don: “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.”
Garnett: “It’s sooo annoying! It felt really bad… I guess I was jealous.”
Don: “That’s totally normal! We all go through it sooner or later. Is this all about Jimmy, though?”
Garnett: “No… I feel like I should have studied more.”
Don: “So you feel kinda guilty?”
Garnett: “Yeah…”
Don: “Would it help if we went through some Geometry problems together this weekend?”
Garnett: “Could we? Thanks… that would be so great.”

Knowing that his Dad has been through the same experience, and that it made him feel the same way, allows Garnett to realize that his experience is normal. That he isn’t a creature from outer space. The words Don offers to his son in describing the emotions Garnett is feeling makes these feelings easier to handle, and makes the boy see that this episode is just a part of the normal human experience. That it isn’t the end of the world. It also helps him to trust his Dad more – to see him as an ally. Together they can practice some math problems and work through the situation as a team.

The fourth step of Dr. Gottman’s Emotion Coaching system is one in which you, as a parent, have the opportunity to help your child through difficult moments in a manner that is both incredibly easy for you, and astoundingly useful for them. If you practice it often, it can increase not only your child’s ability to cope with problems, but bring the two of you closer together!

In this Friday’s blog post, look forward to Step 5, the last step of Dr. Gottman’s Emotion Coaching system. We hope that with all of the tools we have provided to help you become a better Emotion Coach, you and your children can build confidence both in yourselves and as a team! After all, isn’t that what family’s for?

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Emotion Coaching Step 4: Helping Your Child to Find Words For Their Emotions

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.