Helping children tame negative emotions

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23 2013 12:10 p.m. MST

"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."

Broader implications

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."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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