John Gottman is best known for his research on couples (which I’ve written a few things about here) but I think that some of his most important work has been distinguishing two distinct parenting styles: emotion coaching and emotion dismissing. I’m reading his new book, The Science of Trust, right now, and he goes over these findings because it turns out these styles of relating to emotions have big ramifications on building or losing trust in one’s partner. I’ll write more about that as I come to understand it better. (And by the way, if you are a serious couples therapy nerd like me, this book is great. Check it out.)

The basic idea is that parents have different reactions to emotions in their children. We call these reactions “meta-emotions” because they are emotions about emotions. “Emotion coaching” means when an emotion shows up in your child, you treat it as useful information, you engage your child around it in a way that tells them it is OK to have that emotion. “Emotion dismissing” is the opposite. You communicate that they are choosing to have this emotion that you find unpleasant and that making that choice is unacceptable. (This is similar to a problematic parenting technique called “mystification” which I wrote a little about here.)

Clearly this is a potentially complicated phenomenon, because we can have different emotional reactions to each emotion in our kids. We may, for example, have a coaching reaction when a child shows, say, pride, but a dismissing reaction when they show anger. Or vice versa. And our reaction may be different in different contexts, like at home versus out shopping. And other cultural factors are at play, too, like gender or age of the child, which can cause us to react differently. For the following lists, Gottman is using the coaching/dismissing distinction with a broad brush. The list items are direct quotes from pp. 181-188, but the list titles are my paraphrases (note that “affect” is psych-speak for “emotion”):

What Emotion-Dismissing Parents Do:

  • They didn’t notice lower-intensity emotions in themselves or in their children (or in others, either). In one interview we asked two parents about how they reacted to their daughter’s sadness. The mom asked the dad, “Has Jessica ever been sad?” He said he didn’t think so, except maybe one time when she went to visit her grandmother alone and she was 4 years old. “When she boarded the airplane alone,” he said, “she looked a little sad.” But all children actually have a wide range of emotions in just a few short hours. A crayon may break, and the child becomes immediately sad and angry. These parents didn’t notice much of Jessica’s more subtle emotions.
  • They viewed negative affects as if they were toxins. They wanted to protect their child from ever having these negative emotions. They preferred a cheerful child.
  • They thought that the longer their child stayed in the negative emotional state, the more toxic its effect was.
  • They were impatient with their child’s negativity. They might even punish a child just for being angry, even if there was no misbehavior.
  • They believed in accentuating the positive in life. This is a kind of Norman Vincent Peale, the power-of-positive-thinking philosophy. This is a very American view. The idea is: “You can have any emotion you want, and if you choose the have a negative one, it’s your own fault.” So, they think, pick a positive emotion to have. You will have a much happier life if you do. So they will do things like distract, tickle, or cheer up their child to create that positive emotion.
  • They see introspection or looking inside oneself to examine what one feels as a waste of time, or even dangerous.
  • They usually have no detailed lexicon or vocabulary for emotions.

What Emotion-Coaching Parents Do:

  • They noticed lower-intensity emotions in themselves and in their children. The children didn’t have to escalate to get noticed.
  • They saw these emotional moments as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching.
  • They saw these negative emotions–even sadness, anger, or fear–as a healthy part of normal development.
  • They were not impatient with their child’s negative affect.
  • They communicated understanding of the emotions and didn’t get defensive.
  • They helped the child verbally label all the emotions he or she was feeling. What does having words do? They are important . With the right words, I think the child processess emotions usually associated with withdrawal (fear, sadness, disgust) very differently. I think it becomes a bilateral frontal-lobe processing. Withdrawal emotions still are experienced, but they are tinged with optimism, control, and a sense that it’s possible to cope.
  • They empathized with negative emotions, even with negative emotions behind misbehavior. For example, they might say: “I understand your brother made you angry. He makes me mad too sometimes.” They do this even if the do not approve of the child’s misbehavior. In that way they communicate the value, “All feelings and wishes are acceptable.”
  • They also communicated their family’s values. They set limits if there was misbehavior. In that way they communicated the value, “Although all feelings and wishes are acceptable, not all behavior is acceptable. (We had other parents who did everything else in coaching but this step of setting limits, and their children turned out aggressive.) They were clear and consistent in setting limits to convey their values.
  • They problem-solved when there was negative affect without misbehavior. They were not impatient with this step, either. For example, they may have gotten suggestions from the child first.
  • They believed that emotional communication is a two-way street. That means that when they were emotional about the child’s misbehavior, they let the child know what they were feeling (but not in an insulting manner). They said that was probably the strongest form of discipline, that the child is suddenly disconnected from the parent–less close, more “out.”

Teaching by Emotion-Dismissing Parents

  • They have lots of information in an excited manner at first.
  • They were very involved with the child’s mistakes.
  • They saw themselves as offering “constructive criticism.”
  • The child increased the number of mistakes as the parents pointed out errors. This is a common effect during the early stages of skill acquisition.
  • As the child made more mistakes, the parents escalated their criticism to insults, using trait labels such as “You are being careless” or “You are spacey.” They sometimes talked to each other about the child in the child’s presence, as in: “He is so impulsive. That’s his problem.”
  • As the child made more mistakes, the parents sometimes took over, becoming intrusive.
Teaching by Emotion-Coaching Parents
  • Gave little information to the child, but enough for the child to get started.
  • Were not involved with the child’s mistakes (they ignored them).
  • Waited for the child to do something right, and then offered specific praise and added a little bit more information. (The best teaching offers a new tool, just within reach. Then learning feels like remembering.)
  • The child attributed the learning to his or her own discovery.
  • The child’s performance also went up and up.
Outcomes for Children of Emotion-Coaching Parents
  • They had higher reading and math scores at age 8, even controlling statistically for IQ differences at age 4.
  • This effect was mediated through the attentional system. Coached children had better abilities with focusing attention, sustaining attention, and shifting attention.
  • Coached children had greater self-soothing ability even when upset during a parent-child interaction.
  • Coached children self-soothed better, delayed gratification better, and had better impulse control.
  • Parents didn’t have to down-regulate negativity as much.
  • Coached children don’t whine very much.
  • Coached children had fewer behavior problems of all kinds (aggression and depression).
  • Coached children had better relations with other children.
  • Coached children had fewer infectious illnesses.
  • As coached children got into middle childhood and then adolescence, they kept having appropriate “social moxie.”
  • Emotion-coaching parents also buffered the children in our sample from almost all the negative effects of an ailing marriage, separation, or a divorce (except for their children’s sadness). The negative effects that disappeared were: (1) acting out with aggression, (2) falling grades in school, and (3) poor relations with other children.
  • As Lynn Katz, Carol Hooven, and I reported in our book Meta-Emotion, coached children, as they develop, seem to have more emotional intelligence.
Steps to Learn Emotion Coaching
  1. Noticing the negative emotion before it escalates.
  2. Seeing it as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy.
  3. Validating or empathizing with the emotion.
  4. Helping the child give verbal labels to all emotions the child is feeling.
  5. Setting limits on misbehavior, or problem-solving if there is no misbehavior. If the parent doesn’t do this last step, the kids tend to wind up becoming physically or verbally aggressive toward other children.