Emotion-Coaching Parents

In The Science of Trust (2011), Dr. John Gottman identified two different types of parents: “emotion-coaching” parents and “emotion-dismissing” parents. Through research and coding interactions, they found that emotion-dismissing parents were trying to get their children to change their negative emotions into positive emotions. They disapproved of the negative emotion and used distraction, tickling, efforts to cheer the child up, or suggestions to “get over it” or “roll with the punches” to “help” the child.

Here are the hallmarks of emotion-dismissing parents:

  1. They don’t notice lower-intensity or subtle emotions in themselves, others or in their children.
  2. Viewed negative emotions as if they were toxins and wanted to protect their kids from having them. They preferred a cheerful child.
  3. Believed that the longer a child stayed in negative emotion, the more toxic the effect was.
  4. They were impatient with the child’s negativity and might punish a child for being angry – even if there was no misbehavior.
  5. Believed in accentuating the positive in life and believed that emotions are a choice. I.e “Choose a positive emotion and you will live a much happier life.”
  6. View introspection and examining feelings as a waste of time, or even dangerous.
  7. Some lacked an adequate vocabulary for emotions.

Emotion-coaching parents are those who see their child’s emotional reaction as an opportunity to engage with them, honor the emotion, and coach them through the accurate and appropriate expression of the emotion – especially the negative ones.

Here are a few hallmarks of emotion-coaching parents:

  1. Noticed even small increments of negative emotions in their children, rather than noticing after escalation.
  2. Saw these moments of negative emotion as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching.
  3. Saw negative emotions (sadness, anger, or fear) as a healthy part of normal development.
  4. They were patient with their child’s negative emotions.
  5. Helped the child label all the emotions he or she felt. “It seems like you feel frustrated?” “So, you’re disappointed because you studied so hard and didn’t make the grade you hoped for?”
  6. Communicated understanding and empathy of the emotions and didn’t get defensive. I.e., “I understand you felt angry with your brother. I’ve felt mad at him before, too…”
  7. They also communicated their family’s values and consistently set limits if there was misbehavior. “I understand that you were frustrated, but hitting your friend isn’t how we express frustration or resolve our problems…”

In all honesty, when I first read this study, I was a little alarmed. Frustrated by the several areas where I identified as an emotion-dismisser, I heard myself thinking, “Well, I’m trying to raise emotionally strong kids! I don’t want them to be ruled by their feelings their whole lives.”

But it is important to remember that by helping kids identify and express negative emotions, it actually increases their resilience and their capacity for managing negative emotions.

Written By: Mindy Pierce, LPC

Adapted from Gottman, J.M. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Adapted from Gottman, J.M. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Additional works that support and elaborate on these findings:

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