Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we are thrilled to invite back Zach Brittle, LMHC, who we featured as a guest blogger back in September. He challenged you to “choose for better” in your relationships, regardless of the pros or cons of technology. In today’s posting, Zach tackles parenting in the Digital Age, speaking not only from the perspective of a therapist specializing in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, but also as a father of two daughters.

3 Reasons I Am A Terrible Emotion Coach

By Zach Brittle, LMHC

As a therapist, I can easily wrap my head around the theory of the Emotion Coaching parenting style taught by The Gottman Institute. As an actual parent, I have a much tougher time. Everything I know about the practice of Emotion Coaching I’ve learned by messing it up. I am a terrible Emotion Coach. Just ask my kids.
Yesterday, my 2nd grader threw a tantrum because I wouldn’t let her play with my phone at a restaurant. It was maybe the 40th time she’d asked in a two minute span, so I flipped out and made a scene of my own until she “apologized.” She said, “I’m sorry, Dad, but I really love screens.” She couldn’t have been more matter of fact and, because I’m not a liar, I had to tell her, “I love them too, sweetie.” She answered, “Of course you do, Dad.”

There are a number of reasons that I am a terrible Emotion Coach. The first is that I’m distracted. At this very moment, I have three screens within arms’ reach and the television is on. Later tonight, I’ll fall asleep reading an eBook on yet another screen. The first rule of Emotion Coaching is to be aware of our child’s emotions. With so many invitations to distraction, it’s pretty easy to break that rule.
In order to be aware, you have to pay attention, but the Digital Age has wreaked havoc on our ability to do so. Especially children. I’m not going to make that argument now, but you can consider it here and here and here. In my house, however, my kids learned distractibility from me. I can blame it on screens all I want, but I’m a grown up so I need to take responsibility for my behavior – which probably means no more tantrums in restaurants.

Another reason I’m a terrible emotion coach is that I’m tired. The second rule of Emotion Coaching is to recognize your child’s expression of emotion as an opportunity to connect.Even when I pick my head up long enough to become aware of my daughters’ emotions, I often miss the opportunity to connect with them. This is usually because I’m edgy from a long day, or my back hurts, or it’s Thursday.

Kids require a lot of energy. Not leftover energy. The best energy. It’s so much easier to plop them down in front of a TV show. Sometimes, I pretend that watching shows together is connecting – and indeed, sometimes it is – but more often, Nickelodeon or Monday Night Football serves as a temporary (and shallow) respite from the demands of parenting. Authentic connection is about turning towards our children. But turning means moving, and that’s hard to do when you’re tired. Amiright?

The third reason is that I’m a terrible Emotion Coach is that I’m ill-equipped. Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of regard and gratitude for the job my parents did bringing me up, but Emotion Coaching wasn’t their style. Our first and primary lessons about how to parent come from our parents, so adopting a new style can be difficult, if not impossible. It doesn’t help that the third rule of Emotion Coaching is one of the toughest: Validate your child’s emotions with empathy. If empathy is the magic potion for emotional intelligence, technology may be the poison apple.

During a recent appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the comedian Louis C.K. explained why he would never get a smartphone for his kids. As the parent of a 5th grader who neeeeeds an iPhone, I was grateful for his argument:

I think these things are toxic, especially for kids…they don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, “you’re fat,” and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, “oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.” But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write “you’re fat,” then they just go, “mmm, that was fun, I like that.”

It’s an argument against smart phones, but more importantly, it’s an argument for empathy – the capacity for sharing another person’s feelings experiences and emotion. This is an essential and complicated life skill to learn, especially when you’re distracted and tired and ill-equipped.

So…what would Therapist-Me tell the Terrible-Emotion-Coach-Me?

Give yourself a break. With parenting, slow and steady wins the race.

That said, moments count, so put down your phone, turn off the TV, and check your email after bedtime. Pay attention to your kids, but take care of yourself.
Get plenty of sleep. Drink lots of water. Exercise…maybe even with your kids. If that’s too daunting, invest in a good board game or some Legos.

Most importantly, remember: You are not your parents. You are their parents. Take a minute, or several, to see the world through their eyes. You might be surprised by what you see. Especially when you look at yourself. You might discover you’re not as terrible as you think you are.

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: 3 Reasons I Am A Terrible Emotion Coach

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.