In case you are just joining us on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we have been discussing the importance of empathizing with your youngster for the last couple of weeks. In particular, we have been applying Dr. John Gottman’s steps of Emotion Coaching within the context of parenting in the Digital Age. Today we move on to Step 3: Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings.  
Just as the common saying goes “you hear me, but you’re not listening,” seeing your child’s emotional reactions is not the same as perceiving them. To young kids, the complexity of their emotions may feel impenetrably confusing. Asking them to explain why or how they feel something is often an exercise in futility. They have natural difficulty understanding how they feel, because they lack experience in comprehending or articulating what they are going through. As you may have noticed, attempting to talk with a kid and pinpoint their feelings may feel like a wild goose chase through the deepest, darkest woods.
Luckily, Dr. Gottman’s research has illuminated a way out of this goose-ridden quandary. To truly connect with your child when in a psychologically difficult moment, it is important to read between the lines. Rather than asking a child how they feel, observe them—their facial expressions, body language, gestures, and the tone of their voice. If your toddler is crying, she probably doesn’t know why. Asking her won’t help. But age is not the whole story here. Asking your twelve-year-old son, as he bounces his knee erratically in the waiting room at the dentist’s, if he feels nervous will likely elicit a negative response (perhaps a hearty rendition of “Duh, Mom!” accompanied by an eye roll). Instead of deploying the methods of the Spanish Inquisition or asking questions to which you already know the answers, Dr. Gottman suggests a combination of attentiveness, offerings of simple observations, and validation of your child’s emotions in difficult moments. We will illustrate this method with the example below:

Frieda’s daughter, Agatha, ten, ambushes her as soon as she walks in the door from a long day at the office. All rage and tears, Agatha follows behind her mother as she walks to the living room, angrily recounting her “awful” piano lesson a few hours earlier. As Frieda gathers from the tirade, punctuated by intermittent stomps and declarations of quitting immediately, she discovers that her daughter’s instructor made some negative comments about Agatha’s practicing. Or lack thereof. Feeling irritated by her daughter’s constant complaining about the lessons she had begged for forever, Frieda remembers the third step of Emotion Coaching and takes a deep breath. “You seem frustrated with your piano teacher right now,” Frieda says, “Is that true?” “Yeah! And she made me feel so guilty,” her daughter answers. Seeing her daughter’s reddened cheeks and teary eyes, her mother sits down beside her on the bed. She strokes Agatha’s hair and talks to her seriously: “I hate it when people make me feel that way. It really stinks. What do you think would make you feel less frustrated with piano?” A few thoughtful moments later, Agatha excitedly asks to play a duet with Frieda for her next recital. As Frieda agrees, her daughter grins. Seeing her Mom as an ally gives Agatha the confidence to work through this temporary impediment, and to continue in pursuit of her love of creating music. Harmony is restored.

Frieda’s approach worked because she paid attention to her daughter’s intense emotional state: angry, frustrated, guilty, upset. Instead of letting herself be overcome with total exasperation at her daughter, Frieda turned a potentially difficult moment around completely. Instead of asking Agatha if she felt riled up (obviously, Mom!), she offered a simple observation of Agatha’s feelings and validated what her daughter was experiencing by sharing a time when she felt the same way in her own childhood. Instead of using the short-term “fix” of quelling her daughter’s anger with an ice cream cone after dinner or a promise of a trip to the movies, by applying Emotion Coaching to this potentially volatile situation, Frieda made positive strides – both in her own relationship with her daughter and in her daughter’s relationship with her piano lessons. Empowered and re-invigorated, both mother and daughter felt more confident in their shared bond. 

Try treating your child’s feelings with empathetic listening and validation and see the difference Dr. Gottman’s research can make in your life! On Wednesday, look forward to our application of the third rule of Emotion Coaching to parenting in the Digital Age. In the meantime, be sure to check out Emotion Coaching: The Heart of Parenting, our new video program for parents. 

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Emotion Coaching Step III
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.