Emotion-Coaching Parents: Part 3


In The Science of Trust (2011), Dr. John Gottman identified two different types of parents: “emotion-coaching” parents and “emotion-dismissing” parents. Read Part 1 for the hallmarks of emotion-coaching versus emotion-dismissing parents.

So, you want your children to have the best shot at emotional intelligence and emotional resilience. You want them to be able to self-soothe and to relate to others in healthy ways. You want them to get sick less often, to perform better in reading and math, to be less negative and to whine less…all of those things we talked about in Part 2.

This sounds like quite the undertaking!

But Gottman explains the 5 steps of emotion-coaching fairly simply:

  1. Notice the negative emotion before it escalates. “Hey, I noticed you’re over here by yourself, and you’re kicking rocks. Looks like you’re upset about something.”
  2. See it as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy. “Come hang with me for a few minutes and let’s talk about what’s going on. Can you tell me what happened and what you’re feeling?”
  3. Help the child give verbal labels to all emotions he/she feels. “So, you felt left out and sad when your friend stopped the game you were playing and went to play soccer with some different friends?”
  4. Validate or empathize with the emotion. “Oh, yeah. I’m sorry your friend left and didn’t include you. I’d feel hurt by that, too.”
  5. Set limits on misbehavior, or problem-solve if there is no misbehavior. “What do you want to do now? …” (Help the child explore options: continuing to kick rocks, go and see if he/she can be included in the soccer game, address it with the friend who left – or not, go find someone else to play with, etc.)
You may have heard people talk about the importance of “feeling and dealing” with emotions. This “emotion-coaching” tactic is just that. It’s essentially coaching your kids on acknowledging and naming the emotion – so that they can choose what they want to do with it, how to deal with it. The secondary benefit is that it’s also connecting with your child, modeling empathy for them, and teaching them that you can handle their “ugly” and their vulnerable emotions and thoughts.

Here’s something to consider: When our kids struggle with sadness, hurt, fear, failure, disappointment, rejection, or loneliness – where do we want them to turn? They have to turn somewhere.

If they don’t have a safe, trustworthy loved one whom they believe can handle their negative thoughts and feelings, they will turn to the following:

  • Friends – who may or may not have shared values or wisdom – but at least they offer acceptance; could be someone who is not safe or trustworthy
  • Some type of coping or numbing behavior for relief from the inner pain/distress
  • They may turn inward with self-loathing or depression.
Not only does emotion-coaching set our kids up for success in many ways. It also sets them up for knowing we care about and can handle the heavier stuff that we definitely want them coming to us with, later down the road.

Part 4 will address how emotion-coaching impacts not only our parent-child relationships but also spouse/partner relationships!

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:
  • Havighurst, S., Wilson, K.R., Harley, A.E., & Prior, M. R. (2009). Tuning into kids
    : An emotion-focused parenting program – initial findings from a community trial. Journal of Community Psychology, 37, 1008-1023.
  • Christina Choi’s Boystown-orphanages experiments on emotion coaching in Seoul and Busan, with approximately 2,000 children.
  • Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (1999). Raising an emotionally intelligent child New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Gottman, J., & Talaris Research Institute (2004). What am I feeling? Seattle, WA: Parenting Press

Written By: Mindy Pierce, MA, LPC