UW News

October 14, 2004

Emotional coaching can help children overcome impacts of family violence

When women engage in a technique called emotion coaching, even in families where there is domestic violence, their children are less aggressive, depressed and withdrawn, researchers have found.

The new study also suggests that women who are victims of low levels of battering are just as likely as non-battered women to coach their children about their emotions, protecting youngsters from some of the behavior problems associated with being exposed to family violence.

The role of fathers was less clear, although the study indicates that when fathers do emotion coaching their children are less withdrawn, according to Lynn Fansilber Katz, lead author of the study and a UW research associate professor of psychology.

“Fathers are a mystery and we know very little about them as parents in families where there is domestic violence,” said Katz. “We do know that the more violence there is in a home, the more behavior problems children have. However, in our community-based study, when violence was present children seemed to experience their father as less threatening and more supportive if he was aware of the child’s feelings and helped his child manage strong negative feelings.”

The study was unique because it looked at a communitywide sample of families rather than focusing on families living in shelters where women and their children have fled from more severe domestic violence.

The 130 families in the study were drawn from a larger project looking at child conduct problems. In the past year, 48 of the couples reported engaging in low levels of domestic violence such as pushing, grabbing or shoving a partner or blocking a partner from leaving a room. None of these couples or the remaining 82 couples used more severe forms of violence, including punching, kicking, biting and threatening or using a weapon.

“The families in our study only reported low levels and frequencies of domestic violence, the kind of day-to-day violence that occurs under the radar, but is still damaging to children,” said Katz.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and this kind of less violent but still destructive behavior accounts for a substantial number of the estimated 3.3 million to 10 million women who are battered each year

Researchers still need to understand whether women who experience severe levels of battering can help their children through emotion coaching. Katz said there is every reason to think they can.

“We know children experience high levels of stress when exposed to domestic violence. So this sets up a perfect place to intervene and help children. If we can develop an intervention for battered women and give them tools to coach their children it could help youngsters to be less depressed, less anxious and less withdrawn,” she said.

To be successful emotion coaches, parents must be tuned into their own and their children’s emotions, even low-intensity emotions, so they can intervene before a child gets out of control, according to Katz. By being aware and coaching of emotions parents can:

  • Help children recognize their own emotions.
  • Give children words to express their feelings and be able to talk to others about their emotions.
  • Help children learn how to calm themselves when they are upset.
  • Use moments when children are upset as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching. This creates a parent-child relationship in which children feel comfortable coming to parents with their worries and fears.
  • Guide children in problem solving so children develop their own answers.

Parents in the study were interviewed individually to determine the level of emotion coaching they provided their children. In addition, couples filled out questionnaires that measured levels of marital satisfaction and domestic violence. Mothers also completed a checklist of behavior problems their children were experiencing.

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Family Psychology and was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Co-author of the study is Bess Windecker-Nelson, a UW research scientist.