As bullying incidents and violence in schools increase, parents and educators are seeking ways to help children tame their negative emotions and develop empathy toward others.
A technique called emotion coaching is one of the best ways to help children deal with destructive emotions that can cause social and school problems, said sociologist Christine Carter, of the University of California-Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.
Carter is author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents" and writes an award-winning blog for PsychologyToday.com that draws on psychology, sociology and neuroscience along with her adventures as a mother. She used an incident in the life of her daughter, Molly, to help her illustrate how emotion-coaching works.
Steps to follow
Molly threw a tantrum after school one day because she wasn't allowed a play date at a moment’s demand. Instead of dismissing her daughter's feelings, Carter told Molly that she could see she was very angry and frustrated, then asked if there was anything else she was feeling.
By listening carefully and showing empathy, Carter was following emotion-coaching steps pioneered by Seattle psychology researcher John Gottman, author of "The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child."
Gottman's first emotion-coaching step calls for parents to acknowledge their children's emotions, even if the emotion is a negative one. The method encourages parents to approach emotional displays as opportunities for intimacy and teaching instead of denying or dismissing negative feelings.
"Negative emotions are not threats to our authority, or something else we need to fix," Gottman said. "When you talk to your kids when problems are small, you show that you are their ally, and that together you can face their difficulties."
In Carter's example, she helped Molly understand and talk about her feelings — to name the unpleasant emotions she felt. Questions from a parent can help the process: "You feel very angry, don't you?" or "You really wanted to play with your friend, didn't you?"
This important process of helping a child learn to recognize and label emotions is Gottman's next step, but there are more. So, Carter's teaching moment with her daughter didn’t end with helping Molly label her feelings. Next, it was time to deal with Molly's tantrum — which had included name-calling and throwing her backpack.
Molly was told that these behaviors are not OK, even when she feels angry. Molly went to her room for a five-minute timeout. Afterward, when she was calmer, Carter took time to talk and problem-solve with her daughter. She learned that Molly was already upset about something that happened at school, and the two brainstormed ways to fix the real 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 wrote in her blog. “Molly decided 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.”
Carter's empathetic approach to Molly's tantrum, and her effort to help Molly avoid such outbursts in the future, followed Gottman's final emotion-coaching step: set limits and explore ways to solve the problem at hand.
There are other methods for teaching children to understand and regulate their emotions, Carter said, but she likes Gottman's approach because it is evidence-based and well-tested.
"It is important for parents to understand that emotional literacy is not an innate quality children are born with," she said. "We need to teach that literacy the same way we teach kids to read — by working with them on it."
As children become better at identifying and responding to their own emotions, they become more empathetic toward others' feelings, too.
"This is something that builds social intelligence as well as emotional intelligence," Carter said. Some parents follow these steps instinctively, Gottman said.
"If the parents were raised in a family that valued their emotional expression rather than dismissing their feeling, they might naturally emotion-coach," he said. "But parents raised with dismissive or disapproving parents sometimes become emotion coaches because they want to react against that."
The example of Molly's tantrum is a simple one, but it demonstrates something many researchers are talking about. A long list of studies compiled by Vanderbilt University's Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning shows 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 interactions and school failure.
Gottman's longitudinal research on building emotional intelligence, which included a study of 120 families over many years, came to similar conclusions.
"Kids who are not emotion-coached are more impulsive, and tend to be more aggressive in the way they deal with stressful situations," he said. "They tend to externalize the problem by striking out, or to internalize, becoming depressed."
When children don't have insight into their own emotions, they suffer in a variety of ways.
"If you don't know what you feel, you just feel depressed and don't know how to make it better," Gottman said.
His research showed that helping children learn to deal positively with negative emotions resulted in greater self-confidence, improved school performance and healthier social relationships.
"We know a lot of smart kids who can't sit down and focus their attention," Gottman said. "They become under-achievers because of their inability to self-regulate."
Inability to concentrate, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), tops the list of common emotional disorders among children ages 8 to 15, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But kids who are in tune with their emotions adapt more easily to the up-and-down rhythms of school life — concentrating during teachers' instruction, running and playing at recess with gusto, then calming themselves down to do desk work again, Gottman said.
"It's easy to teach people to do this," Gottman said. "And parents not raised with this approach can learn."
In homes where domestic violence is the answer to negative emotions, the stakes for improving emotional literacy are especially high. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology showed that children of such homes are at risk for anxiety, depression, externalizing problems and general difficulty with emotion regulation and expression.
"Children are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence, and continued exposure may have a long-lasting psychological impact on their developmental trajectory," the study said. "Emotion coaching, or teaching children how to identify, express, and manage their emotions, has been linked to positive outcomes related to overall child adjustment. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that children learn how to regulate their emotions through parent-child interactions."
Teaching a child to master emotions is a gradual process that requires patience, but the rewards are great, said psychologist Jim Taylor in an article published in Psychology Today.
"Each time children make the right emotional choice, they are making it easier to choose the next time," according to Taylor. "The ultimate goal of emotional mastery is for children to be able to fully experience the entire spectrum of emotions, embrace the positive emotions, and resolve in a healthy way the negative emotions."