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Gottman: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

Posted Jun 13 2009 12:39am


One school of thought in parenting is that there are often times where we need to be wary of engaging a child's emotions. If we do, this approach says we'll end up making the situation worse, much like trying to put out a fire with spray bottle full of gasoline. Another camp focuses on the fact that children genuinely need help navigating their emotional experiences. These two camps often point fingers at one another saying that the other side doesn't "get it" about what is most important about working with or parenting children.

Of course with a very young child, things start off with no real setting of limits of any sort. The second camp I think is certainly on the right track in this regard. The relationship at that point is primarily about connection and the meeting of needs. But as a child grows older, becomes mobile, starts hitting, pinching and insisting on having things their way, the first way of looking a things begins to look a bit more appealing to many of us. I think both of these ways of looking at parent-child relationships have some wisdom to offer.

That's why I try to stay in the habit of thinking about relationships in terms of continuums. Thinking in terms of either/or gets us in trouble. Just placing the issue on a continuum and pretending you have a slider (like a volume adjustment) can help us to see lots of alternatives that would have been invisible when viewed through an either/or lens. The discussion of this book takes both camps into account, and tries to use the "slider" or continuum approach.

The last book I featured was Daniel Siegel's Parenting From the Inside Out, which also delves into the emotions involved in being a parent. Siegel's book homes in on discovering what the parent brings to the relationship from his/her own past and their inner experience. John Gottman's Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child gets a bit more practical as it looks at the "how to" of ways parents can interact with their children to support their emotional development during difficult interactions. In doing this, Gottman builds on Daniel Goleman's work on Emotional Intelligence which shows that ability in knowing and handling one's emotions has much more to do with how far we get in life and with how happy we are than IQ does.

John Gottman is today's premiere researcher on couple interactions. He's the researcher/therapist that can identify with just a brief, minutes long sample of behavior whether a couple will still be married in 15 years. His accuracy in doing this is impressive. InRaising an Emotionally Intelligent Child he applies some of the concepts of his research to how parents can support their youngsters emotionally and help them become emotionally intelligent. Here is the general approach which he calls Emotion Coaching in a nutshell:

1. become aware of the child's emotions.
2. recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
3. listen empathetically, validating the child's feelings.
4. help the child find words to label the emotion he is having; and
5. set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand.

Love and Logic, which I draw on in my parent coaching work, is very practical in its focus. It is strong on the "how to" of step five above of Gottman's Emotion Coaching approach, "setting limits and exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand," whereas it relatively glosses over the first four of these steps, calling what they are getting at simply "offering empathy". Cline and Fay's identifying empathy as being important and as something that is very helpful even when setting reasonable limits with children is an original and important contribution. Where their expertise lies is in how to carry out the limit setting and maintaining of boundaries.

One place Gottman's book can be nicely integrated with some of the boundaries and limits of Love and Logic's focus is in the details of just how that empathy might look in different circumstances. It goes further than that, of course, and helps children to become more emotionally literate, teaching them something about how both they and others respond to different events in life.

All approaches to therapy and to raising children have implicit assumptions. These assumptions both give them their strength and determine where the limits of their effectiveness lie. If you are aware of what those assumptions are, it becomes easier to know when to draw on which approach, and that awareness will help you decide what might fit best with each specific situation. Gottman's Emotion Coaching approach definitely deserves to be in the range of skills that you can draw on as a parent. It probably also describes things that you are already doing. Isn't it nice to hear a bit about why certain things that you are doing are working once in a while?
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