Even the most confident parent sometimes wonders, “Did I do that right?” This question commonly comes up in times of discipline, so we usually end up giving more thought about how to engage with our children at those times. But not every moment of interaction with our children is about handling unwanted behavior. How can we go about engaging more conscientiously with our children when there is not a conflict to resolve?

John Gottman, Ph.D., a renowned relationship researcher, posits that how we go about connecting with our child when they’re experiencing a difficult emotion is crucial to our relationship and their development. The difficult emotion is sometimes paired with inappropriate behavior, so we might be inclined to address the behavior and be done with it. In Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child – The Heart of Parenting, Gottman implores us to explore the more vulnerable emotions behind the anger and use the moment as a bonding and teaching experience. Gottman identifies four types of parenting styles: Dismissing, Disapproving, Laissez-Faire, and Emotion Coaching.

The Dismissing Parent views their child’s difficult emotions as harmful and their focus is for these feelings to go away quickly. They fear intense and difficult emotions because they don’t know how to handle them, plus they feel burdened as they interpret the child’s feelings as a demand that we fix something. They discount the child’s feelings as unimportant and irrational and they minimize them by making light of them or distracting the child. They don’t help the child understand these feelings nor do they teach problem-solving. Children raised in this environment tend to believe that there is something inherently wrong with them to have such feelings, and they learn to discount themselves. They have trouble with emotion regulation.

The Disapproving Parent is similar to the Dismissing Parent but more negative. They see difficult emotions as a sign of a bad character and their focus is to make the feelings go away quickly and for the child to understand they should not express them. They use criticism, reprimands, punishment, and set a lot of limits to make this happen. They believe children use emotions to manipulate and tend to be very concerned with obedience. They believe that children need to become emotionally tough to survive. The effects on children are the same as with Dismissive Parents. but with the added effect of chipping away at their ego with shame.

The Laissez-Faire Parent views all emotions and emotional expression as acceptable. They offer comfort to the child in distress but they don’t help them understand their emotions or problem-solve because they believe the only thing you need to do with emotions is express them and wait for them to pass. They typically are permissive and offer few limits and little guidance on behavior. Children of Laissez-Faire parents tend to have trouble concentrating, forming friendships, getting along with others, and regulating emotions.

The Emotion-Coaching Parent views difficult emotions as opportunities to bond with their child. They believe that difficult emotions are normal and healthy, and are able to sit through them with their child while setting limits on inappropriate expression. They respect the child’s emotion and allow them to feel whatever they feel. They teach the child about emotions, and guide them in problem-solving. These children learn skills for problem-solving and emotion regulation, trust their feelings, have a high self-esteem, and tend to do well socially and academically.

So how do we become Emotion-Coaching Parents? This is Gottman’s five-step approach:
1. Notice the child’s emotion.
2. See it as an opportunity to bond and teach.
3. Use empathic listening to validate their feelings.
4. Help them label their emotions.
5. Set limits on appropriate behavior and help the child problem-solve.

While it seems simple on paper, each step can be a challenge for any parent. The key is to start with the beliefs that experiencing a full range of emotions is healthy and normal and that feeling bad doesn’t give us a free pass to behave however we want (the initial obstacles for Dismissing, Disapproving, and Laissez-Faire Parents). Then you can jump in to the middle of the emotional maelstrom and weather the storm with your child, helping them navigate their way out of it so the next storm isn’t so brutal.


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