A common reason for families to seek counseling is to improve their child’s behavior. It can be difficult parenting in the world today. We have more access to parenting podcasts, articles, and books than any other time in history. However, many of those messages contradict each other or can be difficult to implement depending on each family’s unique situation. There is however, one parenting strategy shared by Dr. John Gottmam that can be used with any parenting style. 

Dr. Gottman is a psychological researcher and clinician. He has conducted over 40 years of research and published several books and academic articles. One of his books on parenting titled, “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child,” discusses how higher emotional intelligence predicts greater success and happiness in life. Through this concept, they developed a research-proven method called Emotion Coaching. Emotion Coaching is a 5-step method that helps children build emotional resilience and more connection between parent and child. 

The 5 steps of Gottman’s Emotion Coaching are: 

1) Be aware of your child’s emotion. 

2) Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching. 

3) Listen empathetically and validate the child’s feelings. 

4) Help the child verbally label their emotions. 

5) Set limits. 

Each of these steps are clearly explained in Dr. Gottman’s book, but there is one key principle that is foundational to emotion coaching – empathy. Being attuned with your child’s emotions and experiences, and then striving to see the situation from their perspective, is a key component of emotion coaching. Giving children emotional understanding helps them to see their parents as allies, and they learn how to better regulate their own emotions. 

 “Empathetic listeners use their eyes to watch for physical evidence of their children’s emotions. They use their imaginations to see the situation from the child’s perspective. They use their words to reflect back, in a soothing, noncritical way, what they are hearing and to help their children label their emotions. They use their hearts to feel what their children are feeling.”- (From Dr. John Gottman’s Book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, p.94) 

Pay attention to your child’s body language, facial expressions, and gestures. These are all clues that your child is offering to help you understand their experience. 

One of my favorite tips to help increase empathy, is to imagine your child’s experience from an adult context. Things that don’t seem like a big deal to an adult, can often be very troubling to a child. They are often experiencing that emotion for the first time. One tip that can help when trying to understand and validate your child, is to think of how that same situation might feel from an adult perspective. Think about your child’s experiences in a similar adult experience. 

Brian Regan has a comedy skit that compares a child losing his balloon, to a parent’s wallet floating away. (If you want to watch it, you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0jSR5Mm53U). Although he exaggerates for humor, he might not be wrong about the comparison. From a parent’s perspective, losing a balloon might not seem like a big deal. But, if your wallet suddenly started floating away, you would probably be more concerned. 

 For a more realistic example, imagine that you come home from work and tell your partner about a hard day you had. Imagine that they start asking questions to figure out what you did wrong to make your day go sour. What if he/she then started telling you how to solve the problem. You’d likely feel pretty unheard and invalidated. You would probably prefer to just have your partner be there to listen to you and offer empathy, right? But, how often do we do this with our children? Oftentimes we jump in to solve their problems for them, rather than validating their experiences and being a listening ear. 

When children feel validated, they are more likely to want to cooperate. They let go of feelings of defensiveness. They feel more understood and therefore can process and move through their emotions, rather than bottling them, which often leads to emotional reactivity later in the day. 

Some of the benefits of emotion coaching that Dr. John Gottman has found through his research include better physical health, higher academic scores, fewer behavioral problems, improved ability to get along with friends, less proneness to acts of violence, greater emotional health, and more resilience. Further, children who are raised using emotion coaching are better able to soothe themselves and bounce back from distress. 

If you would like to learn more about emotion coaching and how this can be implemented in your family, give us a call at Desert Consulting.

  • Jaisha Evans, MFTi