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Helping children tame negative emotions

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23 2013 12:10 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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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.

Expert voices

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.

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