Emotion Coaching Vs. Emotion Dismissing Parenting

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.

(First published March 1, 2012 on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.)

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Four New Parenting Styles

Most parenting psychology literature talks about four parenting styles, derived from the combinations of two parenting qualities, warmth (also called “responsiveness”) and demandingness, like this:

Parenting Style Warmth Demandingness
Authoritative High High
Authoritarian Low High
Permissive High Low
Neglectful Low Low

Parents who are both warm and demanding (having high standards) are called “authoritative” and considered in psychology to be the best parents. Parents who are both not warm and have low standards are called “neglectful” and considered to be the worst parents. Authoritarian parents and permissive parents (also called “indulgent”) come out in the middle somewhere, the first lacking warmth, the second lacking standards.

The table of parenting styles below is from Rodriguez, Donovick, and Crowley’s 2009 article, “Parenting Styles in a Cultural Context: Observations of ‘Protective Parenting’ in First-Generation Latinos.” In their work with Latino parents, they decided to add a third category, autonomy granting, giving us four new parenting styles: protective, cold, affiliative, and a new kind of neglectful. I’m still thinking about this, but it seems like it could be a breakthrough in parenting theory.

It will be interesting to see if this idea is meaningful in terms of outcomes for the kids of these different kinds of parents. There is evidence, for example, that the kids of authoritarian parents have a lot more trouble with alcohol abuse than those of authoritative, and kids of permissive parents have even more trouble than that. Will there be a significant difference on this outcome between authoritarian and “cold” parents, who differ only in their giving their kids the chanceto mess up or not? How about between permissive and “affiliative”?

Parenting Style Warmth Demandingness Autonomy Granting
Authoritative High High High
Authoritarian Low High Low
Permissive High Low High
Neglectful Low Low Low
Protective High High Low
Cold Low High High
Affiliative High Low Low
Neglectful II Low Low High

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, July 12, 2010.]

Headlines From Psychology, Part 5

Here’s part 5 of the stuff I learned in my undergrad in psychology that I thought should have been headlines. If you missed them, here are part 1part 2part 3, & part 4. As always, if you are interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll give you my sources.

If You Punish Your Kids, Use the Mildest Effective Punishment: Do the mildest thing you can that stops the behavior you don’t want. The reason is that a punishment that is harsher than necessary takes the child’s initiative for stopping the behavior out of the picture. If you say “Hey, don’t do that,” and the child responds, they come to think that they didn’t really want to do that thing anyway, since such a mild rebuke got them to stop. Psychologists call these principles “insufficient punishment” and “self-persuasion.” These are research findings, not just speculation. If you sit on and beat your child to get them to stop doing something (as suggested by Mike & Debi Pearl), they will believe something more like “That activity was so great that I’ve only stopped because of that horrible punishment.” In other words, the form of the punishment affects the identity of the child–do they behave well because they think of themselves as well-behaved, or do they behave well only because they fear punishment?

You May Want Your Kids To Be Less Blindly Obedient Than Most People: One of themost famous psychological experiments of all time found that most people risked killing someone they barely knew, given an institutional setting and an authority telling them to do it. The Nazis were mostly not evil, just obedient, like most of us.

Humans Can Be Conformist to the Point of Doubting Their Own Senses:

Each Ethical Decision You Make Affects Your Future Ethical Decisions and Your Identity: If you, say, decide to cheat on a test, you will be more likely to cheat on tests in the future, think of yourself as someone who cheats on tests, and form permissive attitudes about cheating. The opposite is true if you decide not to cheat on a test.

Complement Your Kids For the How Hard They Work, Not How Smart They Are:Getting attention for being smart tends to make kids want to appear smart, which makes them choose easier challenges and lighter competition; it’s the success that matters. Getting attention for hard work does the opposite. This means that these kids will end up smarter than the kids who got attention for being smart.

Teach Your Kids to Think About Intelligence as a Fluid Property: That is, teach them that they can become more intelligent by trying. The more they believe it, the more it will be true for them.

If Your Kids Read, Don’t Reward Them For Reading: They will be more likely to stop, if you do, because they will start to think of reading as something they do to be rewarded, not because they like it. If they don’t read, reward them for reading. This goes for other activities, too.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, March 4,2010.]

Alexithymia

Alexithymic describes someone who can’t talk about emotions. They also have trouble knowing when they or others are experiencing an emotion, and trouble distinguishing which emotion it is, if they do notice one. It is not a considered a clinical condition, but it can produce clinical conditions, like somatization, where people develop various body conditions instead of feeling emotions. It becomes a problem when somatizers insist on one medical test or procedure after another for a problem that will never yield to biological intervention. I read one estimate that 20% of money spent on medical services is for these kinds of concerns. (!)

There are social consequences, too, of course. If you can’t recognize that you’re in the grip of an emotion, you can be hard to understand and hard to deal with. It’s also hard for an alexithymic person to relate to others who are having emotions–it’s more difficult to take their perspectives and to have empathy.

It’s not a black-or-white condition, of course. Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum of emotional fluency. It’s not an intractable state, either. You can learn emotional fluency, and most people do, to some extent. It’s part self-awareness, part self-acceptance, and part vocabulary. It’s something you continue learning throughout life, given a supportive environment. Parents can stifle the learning curve in their children by how and when they give them attention. Somatizing children, for example, can come from parents who give them attention for physical pain but not emotional pain. Another problematic parenting technique, called “mystification” by psychologists, works to slow the emotional learning curve; when a child is angry, for example, a parent might say something like, “You’re not angry,” or “You shouldn’t be angry.” That kind of thing goes a long way to confuse people about emotions.

[Fist published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, February 15, 2010.]

Headlines From Psychology, Part 1

Going though my undergraduate degree in psychology, I was often surprised about information that was well known by the field that should have hit the headlines but never made a dent. In the end it was one of my reasons for going into therapy instead of experimental psychology. At one point I asked my social psychology teacher for an example of basic social psych research that had had a real impact on mainstream society. He could not give me one. I know that basic research is done to find stuff out, not to directly help people, and I support that. I also know that psychology is a baby science, and tackling a very complex set of phenomena, and doing a pretty good job. Still, I was disappointed. It is too bad, because a lot of useful and sometimes very important stuff has been discovered by experimental psychologists, and it is mostly just ignored.

Here are a few things I came across in my classes and reading that I thought should have been mainstream headlines. If you are interested in references, leave a comment and I will get them to you.

It Is Important to Talk to Your Baby, Even in the Womb: Your baby can hear and recognize your voice in your womb, is already learning your language, and wants to hear yourvoice.

It Is Important to Sleep With Your Baby: Babies are not born fully self-regulating. One way this shows up is that babies do not breath out enough carbon dioxide–sleeping with parents provides them with a pool of carbon dioxide that keeps the baby breathing deeply enough. Another benefit is that their 90 minute hunger cycle (waking and nursing each 90 minutes) helps establish their 90 minute REM sleep cycle, which they are not born with, and also keeps them from getting into deep, delta wave sleep, which is dangerous for babies because they can stop breathing.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Decisions: Your brain has mechanisms to ensure that you will think you made the right decision, regardless of what you decide. This can be undermined, however, by thinking of reasons for your decision before you make it. In many cases, your coming-up-with-reasons ability can get in the way of your decision-making ability. As long as you get all the relevant information, you may have a better chance making a good decision without deliberation.

It Works to Ask People to Watch Your Stuff: People who you do not specifically ask to watch your stuff will do nothing while your stuff is stolen. People who you do ask, will go to great lengths to keep your stuff from being stolen.

The Normal Are Not Detectably Sane: The methods of this study were not well laid out, so I do not know how strong this evidence is, but it was quite clever. Normal people got admitted into mental hospitals by saying they had heard a voice say the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” Other than that they behaved as usual. None were discovered to be sane by the staff, no matter how long they stayed hospitalized.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, January 16, 2010.]