Mental Health Blog

Helping Children with Difficult Emotions

Posted by Nancy Hennings on

Can parents coach their children’s emotions?  Yes, according to John Gottman, Ph.D., marriage, couple and parent-child relationship expert.  In fact, if children are helped to understand and deal with their emotions, Gottman states that this can help children build stronger friendships, have better academic performance, help them manage their negative emotions and moodiness better, and suffer fewer illnesses.  Gottman calls his technique “emotion coaching” and encourages parents to embrace this simple technique.


First, one must identify their parenting style.  Gottman has identified four general parenting styles.  These are usually influenced by how the parents have learned to deal with their own emotions when they were children.  Here they are, try to identify your own.


The Dismissing Style: 

This style is characterized by general statements that give the message, “Your okay—you don’t need to be sad/angry/scared.”  Children whose emotions are dismissed often feel:  that they are being dismissed, that their feelings don’t matter, that emotions cannot be trusted, that they cannot go to the parent with their emotions, and that child becomes dismissing of theirs and others’ emotions. 

The Disapproving Style: 

This style basically tells the child that emotions are “bad”.  Parents of this style may even punish a crying child, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!”  When a child is expressing strong emotions (anger, fear, sadness, etc.), this parent might criticize and/or shame their child.  These children often grow to have the following challenges: difficulty trusting their own intuition, a lower self-esteem, emotional regulation problems, trouble concentrating, trouble forming friendships and difficulty learning new skills. 

The Laissez-Faire Style: 

This style is characterized by parents who encourage their children to express feelings, but give little guidance on how to appropriately deal with them.  Thus, these children often do not learn how to cope with strong emotions, leading them to lack the ability to calm themselves down, the ability to read social cues (making friendships hard to make), and they often have difficulty concentrating and learning new skills.

The Emotion Coaching Style: 

This is the preferred parenting style.  When a child is showing strong emotions, the parent guides him/her through a process that will help him/her navigate emotional terrain throughout their lifetime.  The parent asks or helps the child to express what they are feeling, listens to the child, lets the child know that their feeling makes sense in the current situation; then, the parent guides the child to an appropriate way to soothe himself or devise a way to solve the problem.  


Here are the 5 steps of emotion coaching:

1.  Be aware of the child’s emotions.
2.  Recognize emotions are an opportunity to connect.
3.  Listen with empathy.
4.  Help the child name emotions.
5.  Set limits and find good solutions.


Simply illustrated, John Gottman, Ph.D. gives this example:

  A parent says to an upset child “Tell me how you feel.  I’ve felt that way, too.  And you can’t hit somebody when you’re angry.  Let’s think together about other things you can do when you feel this way.”**

Use this model as consistently as possible to help your child “feel and deal” with his or her strongly felt emotions.  Emotion coaching builds a closer parent-child relationship and helps children become more resilient to the emotional ups and downs of life.



**What Am I Feeling?  John M. Gottman. Seattle, Washington:  Parenting Press, 2004.


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