Parental Behaviours Make A Difference

John Gottman

]Introduction taken from the book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph. D. reproduced by New Horizons in Learning with permission of the author - and New Nurturing Potential via Gottman Institute].

Good parenting requires more than intellect. It touches a dimension of the personality that's been ignored in much of the advice dispensed to parents over the past thirty years. Good parenting involves emotion.

In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships. For parents, this quality of "emotional intelligence"-- as many now call it-- means being aware of your children's feelings, and being able to empathize, soothe, and guide them. For children, who learn most lessons about emotion from their parents, it includes the ability to control impulses, delay gratification, motivate themselves, read other people's social cues, and cope with life's ups and downs.

"Family life is our first school for emotional learning, " writes Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, a book that describes in rich detail the scientific research that has led to our growing understanding of this field. "In this intimate cauldron we learn how to feel about ourselves and how others will react to our feelings; how to think about these feelings and what choices we have in reacting; how to read and express hopes and fears. This emotional schooling operates not just through the things parents say and do directly to children, but also in the models they offer for handling their own feelings and those that pass between husband and wife. Some parents are gifted emotional teachers, others atrocious."

What parental behaviors make the difference? As a research psychologist studying parent-child interactions, I have spent much of the past twenty ears looking for the answer to this question. Working with research teams at the University of Illinois and the University of Washington, I have conducted in-depth research in two studies of 119 families, observing how parents and children react to one another in emotionally charged situations. We have been following these children from age four to adolescence. In addition, we are in the process of tracking 130 newlywed couples as they become parents of young infants. Our studies involve lengthy interviews with parents, talking about their marriages, their reactions to their children's emotional experiences and their own awareness of the role emotion plays in their lives. We have tracked children's physiological responses during stressful parent-child interactions. We have carefully observed and analyzed parents' emotional reactions to their kids' anger and sadness. Then we have checked in with these families over time to see how their children developed in terms of health, academic achievement, emotional development, and social relationships.

Our results tell a simple, yet compelling story. We have found that most parents fall into one of two broad categories: those who give their children guidance about the world of emotion and those who don't.

I call the parents who get involved with their children's feelings "Emotion Coaches." Much like athletic coaches, they teach their children strategies to deal with life's ups and downs. They don't object to their children's displays of anger, sadness, or fear. Nor do they ignore them. Instead, they accept negative emotions as a fact of life and they use emotional moments as opportunities for teaching their kids important life lessons and building closer relationships with them.

The process of Emotion Coaching that my research colleagues and I uncovered in our studies of successful parent-child interactions typically happens in five steps. The parents:

1. become aware of the child's emotion;

2. recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching;

3. listen empathetically, validating the child's feelings;

4. help the child find words to label the emotion he is having; and

5. set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand.

The Effects of Emotion Coaching

What difference does it make when children have Emotion-Coaching parents? By observing and analyzing in detail the words, actions, and emotional responses of families over time, as we have done in our studies, we have discovered a truly significant contrast.

Children whose parents consistently practice Emotion Coaching have better physical health and score higher academically than children whose parents don't offer such guidance. These kids get along better with friends, have fewer behavior problems, and are less prone to acts of violence. Over all, children who are Emotion-Coached experience fewer negative feelings and more positive feelings. In short, they're more healthy emotionally.

But here's the result I find most surprising: When mothers and fathers use a coaching style of parenting, their children become more resilient. The kids who are Emotion-Coached still get sad, angry, or scared under difficult circumstances, but they are better able to soothe themselves, bounce back from distress, and carry on with productive activities. In other words, they are more emotionally intelligent.

Indeed, our research shows that Emotion Coaching can even protect kids from the proven harmful effects of an increasingly common crisis for American families-marital conflict and divorce.

With more than half of all marriages now ending in divorce, millions of children are at risk for problems many social scientists have linked to family dissolution. These problems include school failure, rejection by other children, depression, health challenges, and antisocial behavior. Such problems can also affect children from unhappy, conflict-ridden homes even when their parents don't divorce. Our own research shows that when a couple constantly fights, their conflict gets in the way of their child's ability to form friendships. We also found that marital conflict affects a child's schoolwork and increases the child's susceptibility to illness. We now know that a major result of the epidemic of ailing and dissolving marriages in our society is an increase in deviant and violent behavior among children and teenagers.

But when the Emotion-Coaching parents in our studies experienced marital conflict, or were separated or divorced, something different happened. With the exception of the fact that these kids were generally "sadder" than the other children in our study, Emotion-Coaching seemed to shield them from the deleterious effects suffered by so many who have this experience. Previously proven effects of divorce and marital conflict, such as academic failure, aggression, and problems with peers, did not show up in the Emotion-Coached kids; all of which suggests that Emotion-Coaching offers children the first proven buffer against the emotional trauma of divorce.

While such findings are obviously relevant for families who are currently struggling with marital problems and the aftermath of a divorce, we expect that further research will reveal that Emotion-Coaching can buffer children against a whole host of other conflicts, losses, and heartaches as well.

Another surprising discovery from our research has to do with fathers. Our studies found that when dads adopt an Emotion-Coaching style of parenting, it has an extremely positive impact on their children's emotional development. When fathers are aware of their kids' feelings and try to help them solve problems, children do better in school and in relationships with others. In contrast, an emotionally distant dad-one who is harsh, critical, or dismissing of his children's emotions-can have a deeply negative impact. His kids are more likely to do poorly in school, fight more with friends, and have poor health. (This emphasis on dads does not mean that a mother's involvement doesn't affect children's emotional intelligence as well. The effects of her interactions with her children are significant. But our studies indicate that a father's influence can be much more extreme, whether that effect is good or bad.

At a time when an alarming 28 percent of American children are growing up in mother-only households, the significance of a father's presence in a child's life cannot be overlooked. We shouldn't assume, however that any father is better than no father. An emotionally present dad can be a tremendous benefit in a child's life, but a cold and cruel father can do great harm.

While our research shows that Emotion-Coaching parents can help their kids develop into healthier, more successful adults, the technique is by no means a cure for serious family problems that require the help of a professional therapist. And unlike proponents of many other parenting theories, I will not promise that Emotion-Coaching is a panacea for all the normal problems of family life. Practicing Emotion Coaching does not mean all family arguments will cease, that there will be no more harsh words, no more bruised feelings, no more sadness or stress. Conflict is a fact of family life. Still, once you start using Emotion Coaching, you will probably feel yourself growing closer to your children. And when your family shares a deeper intimacy and respect, problems between family members will seem lighter to bear.

And finally, Emotion Coaching does not mean and end to discipline. Indeed, when you and your children are emotionally close, you are even more invested in their lives an can therefore assert a stronger influence. You're in a position to be tough when toughness is called for. When you see your children making mistakes or slacking off, you can call them on it. You're not afraid to set limits. You're not afraid to tell them when they've disappointed you , when you know they can do better. And because you have an emotional bond with your children, your words matter. They care about what you think and they don't want to displease you. In this way, Emotion Coaching may help you guide and motivate your kids.

Emotion Coaching requires a significant amount of commitment and patience, but the job is essentially the same as that of any other coach. If you want to see your kid excel at baseball, you don't avoid the game; you get out in the yard and start working with him. Likewise, if you want to see your child handle feelings, cope with stress, and develop healthy relationships, you don't shut down or ignore expressions of negative emotion; you engage with your child and offer guidance.

While grandparents, teachers, and other adults can serve as Emotion Coaches in a child's life, as a parent, you're in the best spot for the job. After all, you're the one who knows what rules you want your child to play by. And you're the one who's going to be there when life gets tough. Whether the challenge is infant colic, potty training, sibling warfare, or broken prom dates, your child looks to you for signals. So you might as well put on the coach's cap and help your child win the game.

Copyright 1997 John Gottman