There's a long-standing and sometimes contentious debate in psychology about the degree to which parents play a role in the way their children turn out. Although many have claimed that parents are not the most important factor in who or what their children grow up to be, clearly parents are an extremely influential factor in this equation.
In some respects, however, being an effective parent today is more difficult than it was, say, 50 years ago. The average parent today works more hours than ever before, and more than half of all children in the U.S. will live in a single-parent household at some point in their childhood. Parents still interact with their children a great deal, but the growing infrequency of these occasions has made them that much more important.
For this reason, we think the writings of psychologist John Gottman are especially relevant. Although Gottman is best known for his research on marital interaction and his uncanny ability to predict which couples will get divorced, we believe his research on parenting is even more significant. We thought we'd offer a brief (and radically condensed) overview of Gottman's observations here.
Gottman has found that some parents are remarkably adept at helping their children deal with difficult emotional experiences, providing their children with the skills necessary to regulate their emotions as they get older. As a result, these children grow up to be more resilient, socially skilled, and emotionally mature, while still maintaining a rich emotional life. "Emotion coaching" parents, as Gottman calls them, use a number of different strategies in response to their children's negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger, sadness).
As a general principle, emotion coaching (EC) parents teach their children that feeling a certain way or having certain thoughts is never wrong; only particular behaviors can be wrong. Thus, it should always be okay for people to talk about how they feel.
Rather that viewing their children's unpleasant emotions as something to be avoided or distracted away from, EC parents see these experiences as opportunities to teach their children how to manage their emotions. Negative emotions are an inescapable aspect of being human. When parents dismiss or disapprove of their children's feelings, they signal that there's something wrong with their child for feeling that way and leave the child ill-equipped to deal with these feelings in the future.
Instead, EC parents: 1) are attuned to what their children are feeling, 2) encourage their children to express their emotions, 3) validate these emotions, and 4) help them cope with these feelings or find appropriate solutions to a problem.
First and foremost, being aware of a child's emotional state allows a parent to address any negative feelings as they arise. Very young children don't yet have the ability to label their emotions, and older children often aren't aware of which emotions they're experiencing or what triggered them. EC parents help them identify these feelings in a way that the child can understand.
The nature of a child's emotions won't always be obvious, though. In these cases, EC parents give their child the opportunity to describe her feelings and what might have brought them on. This can be done with simple observations that prompt the child to say what's on her mind ("You look upset"; or "Is everything alright? You seem sad today"). It's important that this probing doesn't come across as confrontational ("What's wrong with you?"), which may convey that she should know how she feels or that there's something wrong with the way she feels.
Once it's clear what she's experiencing, EC parents communicate that they understand what she's going through and that it's okay to feel like that ("I'd be upset too if someone took my toy away" or "I used to get nervous myself before the first day of school"). These responses are critical to early emotion coaching because they affirm that the child is not wrong for feeling a certain way. In addition, the child learns that her parent understands her, takes her feelings seriously, and can be trusted to be there when she's distressed. For these reasons, emotional disclosures are an excellent chance for parents to connect with their children.
Sometimes listening and validating a child's feelings are enough to allow the emotions to pass. However, very often the negative emotions will have arisen in response to a particular concern or an ongoing problem. At this point, parents can offer advice or work with the child to come up with solutions. If possible, encouraging the child to think of ways to deal with the problem and then guiding her toward appropriate courses of action are ideal because they cultivate her ability to solve problems for herself.
Lest we give the impression that EC parents are overly permissive or indulgent, we should emphasize that setting limits on inappropriate behavior is an essential part of emotion coaching. EC parents tend to have well-defined rules about what is and what is not acceptable behavior. These rules are enforced with a high degree of consistency, but with some flexibility to accommodate special circumstances. Anger, when expressed honestly by parents, can be an effective means of discipline, as long as the anger is aimed at the problem or the misbehavior, and not at the child's character or personality. When children have a genuinely strong attachment to a parent, the parent's anger and disappointment alone will pain the child, which is sometimes punishment enough.
It's difficult to overstate the importance of successful emotion coaching. Children will not only function better psychologically and socially, but by maintaining closer and more authentic bonds with parents, they'll carry a lower risk of depression, substance abuse, violence, premature sexual behavior, and other problems. The good news is that parents have a tremendous amount of sway over their children's future well-being, and these strategies can be adopted by anyone, regardless of the child's age.
We can't nearly do justice to Gottman's complete perspective here. His book discusses each of these points more comprehensively, with detailed examples of how parents can handle a variety of different circumstances. Our hope is that we've stimulated your curiosity enough for you to investigate matters further!
(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)
Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child: The heart of parenting. New York: Simon & Schuster.