Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

John Gottman should feel sad for two reasons: (1) he buries astute analysis and fabulously practical advice (of which he is rightfully proud) inside a tomb of, frankly, boring writing and poor organization, and (2) he writes for a cripplingly heterogeneous audience. For a mother who already embraces her own emotions and honors them in her children, reading “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” feels like a socialite perusing a manual of polite social interaction written for the autistic. I wasted time and effort slogging through dry material justifying parental emotion-coaching when the boon of Gottman’s significant work and expertise can be summarized in a few pages (just watch me); at the same time, I recognize the need to teach others to swim before instructing them in the niceties of a butterfly kick. Color me frustrated.

Gottman’s division of parents into four types helps to clarify my chief complaint: the “dismissing parent” minimizes emotion and employs distraction, the “disapproving parent” negates and belittles emotion, the “laissez-faire parent” acknowledges emotion but doesn’t guide children to resolution, and the “emotion coach” values children’s emotions, “us[ing] emotional moments as a time to listen to the child, empathize with soothing words and affection, help the child label the emotion he or she is feeling, offer guidance on regulating emotions, set limits and teach acceptable expression of emotions, [and] teach problem-solving skills.”  Though we all have our moments in each camp, readers are predisposed to be most like one of the four types.

Since dismissing and disapproving parents need the “why” behind emotion coaching Gottman starts out by explaining that children of emotion coaches unsurprisingly end up with “more general abilities in the area of their own emotions . . . includ[ing] being able to regulate their own emotional states” (i.e., moderating their reactions and soothing themselves when upset, even physically calming down their hearts faster). More interestingly, his research shows that these kids also “had fewer infectious illnesses[,] . . . were better at focusing attention[,] . . . related better to other people[,] . . . were better at understanding people[, and] . . . were also better at situations in school that required academic performance.” In order to explain this link between “parents’ responsiveness and children’s emotional intelligence,” Gottman theorizes that “[w]ith adults constantly invalidating her feelings, [a child begins to accept the adult’s estimation of the event, learns to doubt her own judgment, and] loses confidence in herself.” On an even more visceral level, he explains, “[b]abies whose emotional needs are neglected . . . don’t get the chance to learn th[at it is possible to go from feelings of intense distress, anger, and fear, to feelings of comfort and recovery].  When they cry out of fear, sadness, or anger, they experience only more fear, more sadness, and more anger. . . .  [T]hey experience negative emotion as a black hole of anxiety and fear.” Okay, so “no thanks” to the black hole of anxiety and fear.

Now that he has dismissing and disapproving parents on board (and laissez-faire and emotion coaching parents bored), Gottman sets about explaining how a parent switches styles: analyzing and altering her approach to her own emotions. Don’t worry, he reassures, “[f]or most . . . becoming emotionally aware is not a matter of picking up new skills; it is a matter of granting themselves permission to experience what’s already there,” and fear not, “people can be emotionally aware . . . without being highly expressive.” Finally, we get to “the five key steps for emotion coaching . . . : (1) being aware of the child’s emotion; (2) recognizing the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching; (3) listening empathetically and validating the child’s feelings; (4) helping the child verbally label emotions [in order to “transform an amorphous, scary, uncomfortable feeling into something definable, something that has boundaries and is a normal part of everyday life”]; and (5) setting limits while helping the child problem-solve.”  All the while making sure the child “understand[s] that . . . [a]ll feelings and all wishes are acceptable, but not all behaviors are.”

A chapter packed with helpful strategies follows. For example, I’ve long wondered whether I show too much emotion when dealing with my little ones, especially after reading the “Parenting with Love & Logic” admonition to never let your kids see you sweat. Gottman confirmed my maternal impulse that parents ought to model emotional intelligence, displaying emotions like anger and showing their children that “[s]trong feelings can be expressed and managed” (with the added benefit of showing that you care). Gottman’s other suggestions include: (1) “acknowledge low levels of emotion early on before they escalate”; (2) since “children – like all people – have reasons for their emotions, whether they can articulate them or not,” if you find your child “getting angry or upset over an issue that seems inconsequential, it may help to step back and look at the big picture of what’s going on in their lives”; (3) don’t joke or use discipline playing on children’s fear of abandonment; (4) “sharing simple observations usually works better than probing questions to get a conversation rolling”; (5) “avoid questions to which you already know the answer”; (6) “keep in mind that children also learn from their mistakes [and if] your child seems to be veering toward an idea that you know is unworkable but harmless, you may want to let her try it anyway”; (7) “avoid ‘siding with the enemy’”; and (8) “fantasy play . . . [has] utility in helping kids cope with a multitude of anxieties likely to peak in early childhood” such as fear of powerlessness, abandonment, the dark, bad dreams, parental conflict, and death. Lastly, my favorite new trick comes from one of Gottman’s study participants: ask yourself whether you and your child are “’settl[ing y]our differences like two people [or like] a guy and his dog.’”

Though I didn’t find the chapter on marriage and divorce particularly enlightening, I loved the daddy chapter and recommend that working parents of either gender read it in isolation (and sub in gender-neutral language) if they don’t have time for the whole book. Gottman writes, “[T]he best way for dads to be part of their children’s lives is to participate in . . . ‘family work,’ the day-to-day feeding, bathing, dressing, and nurturing of children.” After all, “[s]uccessful fathering is not about getting things done despite our children. . . .  It’s about . . . taking time to be with our children one on one, relating to them on a level their age requires.” And the effect is cumulative: “[c]onversations come easier if you know about the events and people in your child’s life.” In sum, “family time is full of a million opportunities either to connect with your children or to distance yourself from them.” Of course, the great paternal irony is that men are socialized to work hard to provide for their families, but the harder they work (i.e., the longer hours they’re away and the more distracted they are when they’re home) the less they can emotionally provide for their families. At the end of the day, “men are often required to sacrifice financial gains and career development in order to strike a better balance between their work and family lives.” From Gottman’s lips to God’s ears.

The next edition could certainly benefit from a heavy-handed editor and a “choose your own adventure” approach; in the meantime, parents who take the time to sift through the existing material will be handsomely rewarded with Gottman’s substantial wisdom.

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