How parenting approaches impact emotional health

John GottmanI watched an interesting webcast with Dr. John Gottman, sponsored by the Talaris Institute  discussing how parenting approaches impact the emotional health of children. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be available to view online any more.)

He basically divided parents into two group. Those who are “emotionally dismissive,” and those who are “emotional coaches.” 

He chalks up “emotionally dismissive” parents (those who try to minimize the display of negative emotions) as largely a product of our culture — the “Power of Positive Thinking” and “Just do it” mindset. One result is that children have to escalate their emotions to have them truly noticed. Unfortunately, escalating-emotions are not usually received by these parents in a positive way.

Parents who are good at “emotional coaching” recognize that emotions provide important information about what the child is thinking. The emotions can help a parent to understand what the child’s goal was, why the child is frustrated, and what can be done to make him/her more secure. Emotions are seen by coaches as an opportunity for connection and intimacy.

emotional healthParents often criticize and give advice because they fear that the flaws their children display will result in a less-successful life for their child.

Children will often internalize the negative labels they receive. “Labels disable.”

Children’s behavior often reflects the input they receive. Negativity yields negativity. Kindness yields kindness. Parents should model what they want to see in their children

Children learn that they can make mistakes when we confess our own. Parents can admit to their children that they, as parents, are not perfect. This can be a way to reset a damaged relationship with a child. And, because children are not perfect, parents should allow children to make some bad choices with an emotional safety net and natural consequences.

Children can learn to trust that it is okay to share emotions if the parent can follow the four steps outlined below.

  1. Acknowledge the emotion – “I can see that you’re angry with your brother.” 
  2. Show empathy – “He makes me mad, sometimes, too.
  3. Communicate values – “But in our family we use our words when we are angry.
  4. Set limits – “We do not hit.”

Disapproval of the behavior, not the emotion or the person, helps the child to build trust and maintain self-esteem.

Acknowledge the emotion, show empathy, communicate values, set limits.