UW News

June 3, 1999

Teaching emotional control could be the best Father’s Day present

With Father’s Day just weeks away, American men might consider the idea of giving their children a gift instead of receiving one. Perhaps the best present they could give in a society concerned with growing teen-age violence is emotional control, a skill scientists believe fathers help foster in powerful ways

Fathers are critical in children’s development of emotional control, according to University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, author of “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.” Gottman and a panel of other prominent psychologists will participate in a Saturday symposium on “Emotional Regulation Across the Life-Span” at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society in Denver. The symposium will begin at 3:10 p.m. at Adam’s Mark Hotel.

Other participants in the symposium include psychologists Robert Levenson and Philip Cowan of the University of California, Berkeley, Carroll Izard of the University of Delaware, Laura Carstensen of Stanford University and Daniel Hart of Rutgers University.

In studying emotional regulation, Gottman said psychologists look at such things as a marriage, a parent-child relationship or a child-to-child relationship to see if emotions are mediated by physiology. A regulated system works like a thermostat that comes back to a set temperature when a room gets too hot or cold. People with good emotional regulation recover from stressful or trying situations faster and are better able to manage their emotional responses.

“How parents feel about basic emotions is the key,” he said. “Do they see emotions as being positive or do they dismiss emotions as something from the devil?”

Gottman’s research has found that some parents who view emotions as a positive force actually coach or teach their children how to become emotionally intelligent. Emotional intelligence is a person’s awareness of their own and other people’s emotions and the ability to control his or her feelings. In the long run, emotional coaching pays off in children who score higher on math and reading achievement tests, have longer attention spans and have fewer behavior problems in school, at home and with friends. His research also showed these children had lower heart rates and levels of stress hormones in urine samples.

“Unfortunately, punishing kids for having an emotion is fairly common,” he said. “Take the example of a 4-year-old girl who is drawing and gets angry because her crayon breaks. A parent shouldn’t punish the child for getting angry in this situation, but many do. Instead, the parent needs to recognize the emotions the child is feeling, the context, give understanding to the child and give the child the words for the emotions she is feeling. Words to describe emotions are power and the emotionally intelligent parent is empowering the child.”

By the time they are 8, emotionally coached children are acting differently. A boy might be reading at a table when another comes up, wants his attention and pulls the book away. According to Gottman, an emotionally coached child probably would say the action made him angry, explain that he’s trying to read and ask the other child to stop and please give the book back. The uncoached child would probably just hit the other youngster.

“The uniqueness of fathers is their ability to engage in high-energy play. Men just seem to do it more than women. Fathers do it naturally, like tossing a baby into the air and catching it. Mothers are uncomfortable or horrified by some of this playing. High-energy play teaches emotional regulation. When dads are crappy or poor emotional coaches they stimulate a child and won’t stop the play until the child gets upset. A good father knows when to stop and helps the child to calm down. This is early emotional coaching,” he said.

Gottman has found that fathers have different teaching styles with their children. When a child is around 4, he’s noted that emotionally intelligent fathers teach by giving information. Then they don’t interfere, wait for the child to do something right and then praise the child. Other fathers who are connected to their child also give information. But they get involved as the child attempts to use the information and criticize the child when he does something wrong or makes a mistake.

A child’s performance “goes in the tube” with criticism, according to Gottman. However, children react differently depending on whether the criticism comes from a usually-positive or usually-negative father.

“We were surprised to find that with a positive parent a child’s heart rate goes up faster, but recovers faster from a zinger from dad or someone else. What these children are doing is calming themselves faster. The heart rates of children with negative dads don’t spike as sharply, but their heart rate stays higher longer before returning to normal. They are not as well-regulated physiologically,” he said.
For more information, contact Gottman at (206) 543-5372 or johng@u.washington.edu. He will be staying at Adam’s Mark Hotel, (303) 893-3333, in Denver June 3-6.