Commonly heard at dinner parties: “Why don’t they teach REAL life skills in school? Like how to manage your money, cook nutritious, healthy meals, and get along with others?”
Well, to date, there is no answer to why public schools don’t address these crucial topics. But one thing is sure – most of them don’t.
Out of all these important life skills, the ability to deal with others is the most crucial, and can make the difference between success and failure, good or bad health, chaos or contentment, success or failure in both work and love.
And this mastery of one’s feelings, called emotional intelligence, or EQ (as distinct from intellectual intelligence, or IQ) is best taught from infancy, when the child is most easily influenced. Babies start learning the day they’re born, and as parents, you are their first and most potent teacher.
So you know that that means. It’s up to you, the parent, to become your child’s coach to emotional mastery. But don’t worry, there’s lots of help along the way to support you, you will be rewarded beyond your expectations with a closer and more fulfilling relationship with your child, and guaranteed, it will improve your other relationships, too.
Good parenting requires more than intellect. It touches a dimension of the personality that’s been ignored in much of the advice dispensed to parents over the past thirty years. Good parenting involves emotion.
In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships. For parents, this quality of “emotional intelligence”– as many now call it– means being aware of your children’s feelings, and being able to empathize, soothe, and guide them. For children, who learn most lessons about emotion from their parents, it includes the ability to control impulses, delay gratification, motivate themselves, read other people’s social cues, and cope with life’s ups and downs.
“Family life is our first school for emotional learning, ” writes Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, a book that describes in rich detail the scientific research that has led to our growing understanding of this field. “In this intimate cauldron we learn how to feel about ourselves and how others will react to our feelings; how to think about these feelings and what choices we have in reacting; how to read and express hopes and fears. This emotional schooling operates not just through the things parents say and do directly to children, but also in the models they offer for handling their own feelings and those that pass between husband and wife. Some parents are gifted emotional teachers, others atrocious.”
[Intro to Dr. John Gottman’s “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child”]
Emotion coaching was developed from decades of research conducted by clinical psychologist Dr. John Gottman, working with research teams at the University of Illinois and the University of Washington. They observed how parents and children interacted when emotionally charged. These subjects’ physiological responses were measured and tracked, and parents were interviewed about their marriages and reactions to their children’s emotional states. Over time, entire families were followed to see how their children fared in terms of academics, health, emotional development and social relationships. The results were clear: children whose parents helped them understand and regulate their emotions were by far more successful by all measures, both in childhood and later as adults than children who were not.
Positive Effects of Emotion Coaching:
Emotion coaching is the single most powerful thing a parent can do for their child to make a difference in their future. Kids who are emotionally coached and can understand and regulate their emotions benefit in the following ways. They are:
- physically healthier
- more self-confident
- more respectful
- get along better with peers and friends
- are less aggressive and violent
- have fewer behavior incidents at school
- are better able to soothe and compose themselves after being upset
- experience fewer negative emotions, and
- perform better in new social situations
One thing is certain – if you, as a parent, decide you’d like to pursue emotion coaching, you will need to take a look at how you feel about emotions yourself.
How Emotion Coaching Works
Some approaches to modifying child behavior fail to address the feelings beneath that behavior. It’s easy to forget that emotions are an essential survival mechanism, nature’s way of guiding us through life. They help us learn to trust our perceptions, determine our safety, understand our needs, and make meaning of our experience. Emotions are meant to be felt, and acknowledging them is crucial to well-being.
But how people feel about emotions affects how well they parent. They may love their children deeply, and yet continually dismiss or criticize certain feelings, setting the stage for their kids to become alienated from themselves and others.
It’s true – how people feel about emotions affects how they parent. You may have grown up in a family that doesn’t allow for emotions to be expressed, or only allows certain ones. You may have been punished if you felt fear, sadness or anger. This may influence your parenting style. Dr. Gottman identified four distinct types of parents regarding attitudes toward emotions. Of these, three of the types less productive. Are you one of these three types of parent?
Dr. Gottman identified four “types” of parents in his research that reflect stereotypes we often learn ourselves, or from our peers, 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 the 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 other others or form friendships, can’t regulate their emotions in a healthy way.
- The Emotion Coach 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.” …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 – when you felt that they could really relate to you, when you were truly understood. https://www.gottman.com/blog/an-introduction-to-emotion-coaching/
If you recognize yourself as having one of the first three styles of parenting, then your journey has begun, because awareness is a healthy first step. We will be recommending an affordable course in emotion coaching at the end of this article. In the meantime, check out the following example to give you a better idea of how emotion coaching works:
This first step to coping with negative emotions (in yourself, your children, or in your mother-in-law) is to figure out what they are feeling and to accept those feelings. Even if we don’t accept the bad behavior that often accompanies negative emotions, we still want to send the message that all feelings are okay, even the worst ones. Terrible feelings like jealousy and fear and greed are invitations to grow, to understand ourselves better and to become a better person. When you see these “undesirable” emotions in children, think of them as opportunities to both learn more about their inner-world and—importantly—to teach them how to deal with negative emotions now and in the future.
Step One: Label and Validate the Feelings-at-Hand
Before we can accurately label and then validate our children’s feelings, we need to empathize with them—first to understand what it is they are feeling, and then to communicate what we understand to them. This is simple, but not always easy.
Say Molly is feeling bad because she got into some trouble at school for talking too much in class (no idea where she might have gotten that tendency). Kids frequently displace negative emotions onto their loving parents and caregivers, meaning that while Molly might be mad at herself, a classmate, or her teacher, it would be normal for her to displace that emotion onto me when she got home. So when I tell her she can’t have a playdate with Claire right that second, it provokes an angry fury, during which she throws her backpack against the wall I’ve asked her to hang it on and calls her sister a “stupid idiot” she would never want to play with “in a million years.”
Instead of dealing with the bad behavior right away (time out!) this is a terrific opportunity to accomplish the first step in emotion-coaching: validating and labeling the negative emotions.
Me: “Molly, I can see that you are very angry and frustrated. Is there anything else that you are feeling?”
Molly: “I am SO SO SO MAD AT YOU.”
Me: “You are mad at me, VERY mad at me. Are you also feeling disappointed because I won’t let you have a playdate right now?”
Molly: “YES!! I want to have a playdate right NOW.”
Me: “You seem sad.” (Crawling into my lap, Molly whimpers a little and rests her head on my shoulder.)
I’ve now helped Molly identify and label several feelings: angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad. The larger our children’s emotion vocabulary is, the easier it is to label emotions in the heat of the moment. I have also validated how Molly has been feeling: she knows I think it is okay to have felt all those “bad” things. Interestingly, now she is calm, tired—clearly needing a snack and a cuddle.
Step Two: Deal with the Bad Behavior (if applicable)
At this point, I just want to move on and forget about the back-pack throwing and name calling. But it is very important to set limits so that kids learn how to behave well even in the face of strong, negative emotions. I tell her that she needs to go to her room and have a 5 minute time-out, and I make it clear that these behaviors are not okay: “It is okay to feel angry and frustrated, but it is never okay to throw things or call people mean names. When the timer goes off, please apologize to your sister and come have a snack.” Ten minutes after the initial incident, I am sitting with Molly while she eats. Time for step three.
Step Three: Problem Solve
Now is the time to dig a little deeper, to help Molly figure out how to handle the situation better in the future. After we’ve labeled and validated the emotions arising out of the problem, we can turn to the problem itself: “Molly, did anything happen at school today that is also making you feel bad?” At this point, Molly told me all about the scene at school where she had to sit at a table by herself because she was too disruptive during reading. I relate to how bad it would feel for my hyper-social and teacher-pleasing child to be both isolated from her friends and to have disappointed her teacher, so it was easy for me to empathize here. We talked about how sad and lonely she felt doing her work alone when the other kids were working together, and how embarrassed she felt by being singled out. We also talk about how she felt hungry and exhausted when she came home from school.
I did not tell her how she ought to feel (“Molly, I hope you feel bad for throwing your backpack against the wall”) because that would make her distrust what she did feel (the backpack-throwing might well have felt good). The goal is to put her in touch with her emotions, good or bad. So even during the problem solving, I was labeling and validating more of her feelings: lonely, embarrassed, hungry, tired.
Next, brainstorm together possible ways to solve a problem or prevent it from happening again. The more we parents can stay in our role as a coach—holding back all of our terrific (bossy!) ideas and letting kids come up with their own—the better. When we talk about what Molly can do when she feels angry (instead of throwing her backpack, for example), she is more likely to actually try the solutions if they come from her. She decides the next time she comes home from school feeling frustrated and disappointed, she’ll walk the dog around the block while she eats her snack until she feels better.
That’s all there is to it! First, label and validate the emotions you see. Second, deal with misbehavior if you need to. Finally, help your child solve the problem.
You are now a bona-fide emotion-coach.
The five steps of emotion coaching are clearly outlined in a handy PDF prepared by Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, Gottman Educator and issued to parents of pre-school children by the West Seattle Preschool Association. The link to the PDF is included, so you can print out this guide from your home printer.
The Five Steps to Emotion Coaching
- These critical steps have been developed to help us as parents work through issues with our kids.
- The steps are simple, but the application is what is hard-it has to be learned and practiced.
- It is easy for us as parents to ―react‖ to our children. Instead we need to view it or reframe the experience and as a gift every time our child acts out or becomes emotional
1.Recognize lower intensity Emotions
What Can You Do?
- Recognize when your child is upset, sad, afraid, or happy.
- Stand in your child’s shoes when he is struggling with an emotion & see things from his perspective.
- Listen during playtime to find clues about what makes your child anxious, scared, proud or happy.
2.Recognize this as a time to connect with child and for teaching
What Can You Do?
- Pay close attention to your child’s emotions—don’t dismiss or avoid them!
- Think of emotional moments as ―opportunities to draw closer‖ to your child.
- Encourage your child to talk about her emotions and try to share in the feeling yourself.
3.Listen Empathetically and validate your child’s feelings
What Can You Do?
- Encourage your child to share what he is feeling. (“Tell me what happened/Tell me what you’re feeling…”)
- Reflect your child’s feeling back to her by saying, “It sounds like you are feeling ______ .”
- Don’t dismiss emotions as silly or unimportant. Never criticize your child’s feelings.
- Listen in a way that helps your child know you are paying attention and taking her seriously. (“You didn’t like it when he said that to you. That really hurt your feelings.”)
- Share your own feelings, when it’s appropriate.
4.Help child to label emotions
What Can You Do?
- Start to name emotions early—even before your child can talk. (“Oh,look/sound really mad!”)
- Work very hard to identify the emotions your child is feeling, instead of telling her what she ought to feel.
- Listen in a way that helps children know you are paying attention and taking them seriously.
- Find a way to show your child that you understand what he or she is feeling—don’t judge or criticize the emotion.
5.Set limits while problem solving
(see 5 steps to problem solving)
(Last step of emotion coaching)
- Set Limits–feelings are not the problem, the behavior is the problem. Discuss limits with your partner so that you are coordinated in your parenting (―It’s okay to feel ______, its not okay to do_______.‖)
2 .Identify Goals: Ask your child what he/she wants to accomplish or what they need (Ex-What do you want/need, are you trying to get my attention, the toy, do you want your sister to play with you, etc?)
- Think of Solutions: Allow your child to brainstorm ideas. Help, but don’t take over.–(“Do you want to know what other kids have tried?” Offer some suggestions -some kids …. ” or “what have you done before?” “Remember the time when you….”) With young children under 3 give 2 choices.
- Evaluate the solutions based on your family values-” How would that work for you?”or ―What will happen if you try …?‖
- Allow your CHILD to choose a solution.
Source: Gottman, John, Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child and The Talaris Institute
Another vital tool to help you coach your child is a list of emotions you can use when teaching them to describe and name what they’re feeling. The following parent created a detailed chart of emotions and then went searching for a child’s version to use as an instructional aid:
I don’t know about you, but my kids love the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. It is such a fun story, and I really enjoyed the whole concept of “which emotion is at the control panel right now?” It has become more than just a fun movie for our family, too, as we’ve begun helping our kids identify their emotions using the characters Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, Anger, and Surprise (Bing Bong!).
One way we’ve been doing this is through a chart I’ve created. I found this image from lifehacker.com that clearly categorizes most emotions under each of the above categories.
I then transferred the emotions to a homemade chart I made using images from a Google search. Here’s what I came up with.
You can download a copy here.
I printed the lifehacker chart on the back of the page and laminated the sheet. So now, when my kids are having difficulty expressing their emotions, we can go to the chart and work through how they’re feeling until we have identified it. It has helped with overall communication and lessened the number of breakdowns because we can calmly point to pictures instead of yell talk through it. It has dramatically increased the peace in our home, which is never a bad thing.
Finally, if you want to learn the method from the originator, go here to purchase an affordable course that will make you an expert coach to support your child throughout all his or her growing years: