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5 healthy responses to a child's natural emotions

By Dr. Liz Hale, KSL.com Contributor  |  Posted Sep 27th, 2011 @ 6:25pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — If you want to be a good and effective parent, know this: Love is not enough! A longitudinal study emerged from examining the strength of the emotional bonds between parents and children in a very detailed laboratory setting out of the University of Washington, under the direction of Dr. John Gottman.

Emerging from this research was a group of successful children whose parents did five very simple and natural things when their children were emotional.

  1. Recognize the emotion
  2. Increase intimacy with emotion
  3. Listen for and validate emotion
  4. Label emotion
  5. Set limits with emotion

The outcome of children who had experienced this type of "emotional coaching" from their parents were on an entirely different development trajectory than the children of other parents.

The emotion-coaching parents had children who later became what Daniel Goldman calls "emotionally intelligent" people. Emotionally-coached children are able to regulate their own emotional states and are better at soothing themselves and calming a racing heart when upset.


The emotion-coaching parents had children who later became what Daniel Goldman calls "emotionally intelligent" people. Emotionally-coached children are able to regulate their own emotional states and are better at soothing themselves and calming a racing heart when upset.

Because of the superior performance in calming their physiology, children who received emotional coaching from their parents also reported fewer infectious illnesses. They were better at focusing attention. They related better to other people, even in the tough social situations like teasing. They were better at understanding people. They had better friendships with other children. They also performed better academically.

When parents offer children honest empathy and help them cope with negative feelings like anger, sadness, and fear, parents build bridges of loyalty and affection.

Compliance, obedience and responsibility come from a sense of love and connectedness children feel in their home. Emotional interactions among family members become the foundation for instilling values and raising moral people. Children behave according to family standards because they understand with their hearts that good behavior is expected; that living right is all part of belonging to our family.

There is a key cornerstone to emotion coaching: Empathy. Imagine growing up in a home (and some of us did) where your parents expected you to always be cheerful, happy and calm. In this home, sadness and anger are wrong and seen as signs of failure.

Mom and Dad get anxious anytime you're in one of your "dark moods." They tell you that they prefer you to be optimistic: "look on the bright side," never complain, forget yourself, never speak ill of anyone or anything.

Since you want to please your parents, you do your best to live up to their expectations. So at dinner your dad asks, "How was school today?" Your response? "Fine." Relieved, he says, "Good, good. Pass the butter."

What are the dangers of growing up in make-believe home? First, you learn that you are not like your parents — they don't seem to have any of the bad and dangerous feelings that you do. You learn that because you have the feelings, you're the problem. You learn that it doesn't make sense to talk to your parents about your true inner life. And that makes you lonely. You also learn that as long as you feign cheerfulness, everyone gets along just fine.

This gets complicated, especially as you age and you discover that life is not easy. Still, you're not supposed to feel all those bad feelings, so you become a master at covering up. Better yet, you do your best not to feel. You avoid situations that lead to conflict, anger and pain. You avoid intimate human bonds.


Dr. Liz Hale is a licensed clinical psychologist and a regular Studio 5 contributor. Your comments and questions are welcomed! Please visit www.drlizhale.com to add your thoughts to this discussion or learn more about her private practice.

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