Emotion Coaching Part 2

December 11, 2019

Do you remember our mini-series from November about Gottman’s 4 types of parents? If you haven’t gotten the chance to yet, we recommend that you read these 2 posts first before reading this one:

These are the 5 steps of Gottman’s Emotion Coaching:

  1. Become aware of the child’s emotion
  2. Recognise 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 they are having
  5. Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand

We last left off after discussing the first 2 steps, and are back now to explore the last 3 steps!

Step 3: Listen empathetically, validating the child’s feelings

What’s the difference between plain old listening, and listening with empathy? Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. To listen empathetically means seeking out the feelings that underscore your child’s words, facial expressions, or body language, so as to use those feelings as a point of connection.

If your child approaches you with a problem, like losing their umpteenth water bottle, rather than listening to their story with the intention of finding the part where someone must have done something wrong (“Aha! So you left it on the bus after school? I told you always to keep in your bag immediately”), listening with empathy is attempting to understand and connect with them on the basis of their feelings (“You sound frustrated. I remember when I misplaced my car keys, I thought I was going to lose my mind!”)

Step 4: Help the child find words to label the emotion they are having

Have you ever had a new injury or felt an unfamiliar pain in your body? Perhaps it was a strange pinch in your hip that you’ve never felt before, and your words weren’t sufficient to describe the sensation adequately. You went to the doctor, who examined you and helped you realise that you strained your hip flexor, so the pain you were feeling came from an inflamed muscle. You may take some painkillers, you may go to physiotherapy, but a great part of your relief is just in knowing what that sharp pain was, and finding out that it’s not terribly uncommon. Other people have experienced this too! Plus, now you can properly describe your injury to the next person who asks what happened to your leg.

It’s the same with kids and their many feelings. In spite of their youth, kids experience a wide range of nuanced emotions, often many at a time. They just don’t always have the words to name them! In the same way that the doctor giving the unidentified pain in your hip a name was the first step to helping you understand what to do, helping your children label their feelings is the first thing you must do before you can start thinking of emotional regulation or management strategies.

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Step 5: Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand

This might be the step that parents are traditionally most familiar with: lessons and boundaries. There is a reason, however, that Gottman listed this as step number 5 -- that is to say, after feelings have been acknowledged and validated.

Your kids are very smart and resourceful people. Like you, they don’t want to be stuck in a rut and they want to fix their problems. Gottman breaks down this all-important Step 5 into 5 smaller points:

  1. Limit setting (“Let’s think of some strategies, but here are some limits: absolutely no violence, and no name-calling is allowed.”)
  2. Identifying goals (“You want your brother to know how upset you are that he broke your toy. Secondly, you want to play with your toy again.”)
  3. Thinking of possible solutions (Let your child begin this process. Hear what solutions they propose first.)
  4. Evaluating proposed solutions based on your family’s values (“One idea you had is to break your brother’s toys so he knows how you feel. However, that is repaying his accident with unkindness. Though it’s okay to feel angry, in this family, even anger isn’t an excuse to be mean.”)
  5. Helping your child choose a solution

Remember that you’re solving the problem (the broken toy), and not correcting your child’s emotion (anger). You might be surprised to see that once Steps 1-4 have been patiently completed, your child – resilient and creative – will wipe their tears away and get back up on their feet, suggesting ways to solve their own problems.

Are any of these steps particularly challenging or interesting to you? If you’re spending extra quality time with your kids this December holiday, this is a great opportunity to practice these 5 steps of Emotion Coaching and share them with your fellow caregivers!