5 steps of emotion coaching help kids grow, develop, researchers say

Published: Friday, Dec. 28 2012 6:55 p.m. MST

John Gottman's studies showed that helping children learn to deal positively with negative emotions resulted in greater self-confidence, improved school performance and healthier social relationships.

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Helping children learn to manage their emotions isn’t easy, but it pays off, say advocates of “emotion coaching.”

John Gottman, a Washington state-based psychology researcher, wrote the book “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting.” Gottman studied 120 families over many years to develop techniques parents can use to help children tame their emotions. His studies showed that helping children learn to deal positively with negative emotions resulted in greater self-confidence, improved school performance and healthier social relationships. He breaks the emotion coaching process down into five steps:

• Become aware of the child's emotions — which also requires parents to understand their own emotions

• Recognize emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching — negative emotions are not threats to authority, or something for parents to fix or deny

• Listen empathetically and validate a child's feelings — simple observations might work better than probing questions

• Help the child find words to label the emotions they experience, without trying to tell them what they ought to feel

• Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand

Succeeding with emotion coaching depends on letting children know that it’s OK to have bad feelings, without accepting the bad behavior that sometimes accompanies negative emotions, wrote Christine Carter, a sociologist for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

“Terrible feelings like jealousy and fear and greed are invitations to grow, to understand ourselves better and to become a better person,” Carter wrote. “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.”

Carter uses an example of working through her own child’s tantrum about not being allowed a play date at a moment’s demand. She tells her daughter Molly that she can see she is very angry and frustrated, then asks if there is anything else she is feeling. Molly is helped to understand and verbalize her feelings, but the teaching moment doesn’t end there. It’s time to deal with the tantrum, which included name-calling and throwing her backpack.

Molly is told that these behaviors are not OK, even when she feels angry. Molly goes to her room for a five-minute timeout. After that, it is time for talking and problem-solving. Carter learns that Molly was already upset about something that happened at school, and the two brainstorm ways to fix the problem.

“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,” Carter writes. “Molly 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.”

It's a simple story, but demonstrates something many researchers are talking about. A long list of studies show that children who haven’t learned at home how to regulate their emotions and behavior are more likely to experience peer rejection, negative contacts with teachers, unpleasant family interaction patterns and school failure.

A paper compiled by Vanderbilt University’s Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning identifies certain social skills as essential for academic success. Those include getting along with others, identifying and regulating emotions and behavior, thinking of appropriate solutions to conflict and correctly interpreting other’s behavior and emotions.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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