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There’s a good possibility that many of you have never heard of a practice called, “Emotion Coaching.” If that’s you, you need to listen. And likely, some of you have heard of Emotion Coaching, and you’re going to need to stick around as well.
As Christian parents, before we can accept or reject a parenting system, we need to understand what it is, it’s pros, it’s cons, and whether or not it adheres to God’s Truth.
So, what is Emotion Coaching?
Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute, has a long list of accolades in the field of psychology, specifically for his work with families. By the way, all the information I’m about to cite comes from The Gottman Institute’s website.
Over his decades of work, Dr. Gotten came to the conclusion that good parenting lies in understanding the emotional source of problematic behavior. And he identified four types of parents and categorized them by how they respond to their children’s emotions: Let me read for you his thoughts on these parents.
“The Dismissing Parent disengages, ridicules or curbs all negative emotions, feels uncertainty and fears feeling out of control, uses distraction techniques, feels that emotions are toxic or unhealthy, uses the passage of time as a cure-all replacement for problem solving. Effects: Children learn that there is something wrong with them, cannot regulate their emotions, feel that what they are feeling is not appropriate, not right, and abnormal.
“The Disapproving Parent is similar to the dismissing parent but more negative, judgmental and critical, controlling, manipulative, authoritative, overly concerned with discipline and strangely unconcerned with the meaning of a child’s emotional expression. Effects: Similar to the dismissing parenting techniques.
“The Laissez- Faire Parent (is endlessly permissive, offers little to no guidance about problem solving or understanding emotions, does not set any limits on behavior, encourages “riding out” of emotions until they are out of the way and out of sight). Effects: Kids can’t concentrate, can’t get along with other others or form friendships, can’t regulate their emotions in a healthy way.
“The Emotion Coach. These are Dr. Gottman’s 5 essential steps of Emotion Coaching
- Be aware of your child’s emotion.
- Recognize your child’s expression of emotion as a perfect moment for intimacy and teaching.
- Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings.
- Help your child learn to label their emotions with words.
- Set limits when you are helping your child to solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriately.”
Okay, that was a lot to digest, but I want to go back and break it down into more manageable chunks. However, before we can continue in our critique of Emotion Coaching and whether or not Christian parents should embrace it, we need to really grasp my two very important realities. Now, please listen carefully to what I say next so that there’s no misunderstanding.
I love psychology. I have a Masters of Science in Psychology and Biblical Counseling. Secular psychology has great merit as an observational science. But that leads me to number two –
Psychology does not live up to it’s name.
Let’s work through these two statements first, and then we’ll be able to address Dr. Gottman’s theory.
The word psychology actually means “study of the soul.” Biblically speaking, the human soul is an organic and spiritual unity between the human body and the human spirit. This is explained for us in Genesis 2:7, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Here we see two parts of man’s being – his body, formed from the dust of the ground and his spirit (“the breath of life”), breathed into him by God. And the final clause says that when these two parts joined, man became a “living soul.” For those of you who know what a dichotomist and a trichotomist are, I would simply say I believe the Bible teaches we have two parts, the body and spirit, and the word soul simply refers to the entity that is created when those two combine. We don’t refer to a body without a spirit as a soul, and we don’t refer to a spirit without a body as a soul.
All of this to say, since modern psychology denies the existence of the biblical spirit, it cannot fully comprehend the magnificent unity that is the soul and is therefore incapable of providing genuine answers to soul-care. In regard to the study of the soul, it’s only half a science because it disregards the spiritual realities of life.
So, with that, we need to understand that to the degree that Dr. Gottman (or any other psychologist or psychiatrist) ignores the teachings of Scripture, his system becomes more and more untrustworthy. And, unfortunately, there is nothing about Dr. Gottman or his studies that leads me to believe he knows the Lord.
My blanket response to the question “should Christians utilize secular psychology” is “in part.” As I mentioned before, psychology provides fantastic observations. People respond to various incentives, stimuli, pressures, and pleasures in observable ways and modern psychology is a wealth of information in that vein.
But the moment I break from psychology is when they try to provide answers for the soul’s problems. This is due to the fact they only see half the problem. The secular psychiatrist rightly sees that their patient wants to commit suicide. They’re able to hear their patient blame his parents, his boss, his wife, and the world for being against him. They hear his woes about depression and anxiety. They observe all of this, but then they start coming to conclusions. And those conclusions are informed by a worldview that denies God. They believe their patient shouldn’t commit suicide, and they agree with the patient that it definitely seems like he has a lot of stressors in his life, but since neither the doctor nor the patient are in a place to drastically affect all the stressors in his life, the average doctor is left with a couple options. 1. Try to convince his patient to respond to life’s stresses differently. This tract involves emotional exercises and world-view discussions. 2. Medicate the patient against the emotional turmoil in the world so they can focus on surviving. But neither of these can guarantee any lasting success because they both deny God’s Truth on the subject.
However, the biblical counselor observes all the same issues and hears all the same explanations. But the biblical counselor also has God’s perfect insight into the heart issue that’s inherent in the spirit of every man and woman. This adds a supernaturally dynamic level of power, hope, and answers the secular psychologist lacks.
And this is exactly the same tension I see in Dr. Gottman’s work. I find it to be very beneficial in some regards, but hazard in others.
So, let’s start our critique of Emotion Coaching by working through the steps to being what Dr. Gotten calls a “good parent,” the Emotion Coach.
1. Be aware of your child’s emotion.
This is fantastic advice. We have to live with our family members according to knowledge. There’s absolutely no room for ignoring our children’s spiritual needs. And – like we observed in our last two episodes – emotions are a reaction to stimulus and they grow out of our world-view/our philosophy of life/our belief-system. So, every time our children’s emotions break forth, they’re telling us something about how our children interpret life and their place in it. We need to be very aware of this.
2. Recognize your child’s expression of emotion as a perfect moment for intimacy and teaching.
Again, this is great advice! As intentional, premeditated parents, we understand that every moment in life is a teachable moment. This is clearly even more important at times that our children may be betraying a misunderstanding concerning God, themselves, and the world. Dr. Gottman – who doesn’t believe that an almighty God tasked us with the privilege and responsibility to parent, believes we should never shy away from parenting opportunities. How much more seriously should Christians view these moments?
3. Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings.
Okay, here’s where I need to split a sentence. The first part of this thought is great – “Listen with empathy.” I believe that though the English word “empathy” doesn’t appear in our Bibles, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another is clearly taught in verses such as Galatians 6:2 where we are instructed to “bear one another’s burdens,” and in examples where Christ wept as others wept.
However, the call to “validate” our children’s feelings may be misleading. You see, it’s one thing for a child to say, “I’m angry!” and for us to respond, “I see you’re angry.” But it’s something completely different for parents to give the child the impression that the feeling they’re experiencing is an appropriate response to the situation without first discerning whether or not that is true.
Let me elaborate. Dr. Gottman made the observation that “All feelings are acceptable. All wishes are acceptable.” Unfortunately, this is a falsehood for two reasons.
A man’s desires can be very wicked. Genesis 6:5 says “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Man’s desires, his wishes were wicked and evil.
There are acceptable times for acceptable emotions, but there are also unacceptable emotions. Joy and peace are always acceptable. Psalm 16:11 says “You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” Anger can be appropriate at times and in the right ways. But it’s not always acceptable. Ephesians 4:26 says “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Here we see both appropriate and inappropriate times for anger. However, anxiety is never acceptable. Philippians 4:6 tells us “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And I Peter 5:7 commands you to cast “all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” So, when God says we should not feel an emotion, that settles it for the Christian parent. However, it is helpful to acknowledge that the emotion isn’t the root issue. It’s a fruit problem. Remember, the root issue is the child’s worldview. If God isn’t trustworthy, and mom and dad aren’t trustworthy, and the world’s a scary, out of control place, then anxiety makes sense. But when you serve a God of sovereign ability and infinite love and you trust the family He’s wisely placed you into, then those realities dispel the anxiety. The root issue wasn’t the fear, it was my own faithlessness. So that emotion at that time wasn’t acceptable.
So, to recap, 1. yes we should definitely be aware of our children’s emotions and 2. be prepared to parent our children through their emotional struggles, and 3. we should have empathy . . . but we mustn’t allow our children to believe that their feelings are okay simply because they feel them.
The fourth observation Gotten makes is also a good one. But he doesn’t quite go far enough with it.
4. Help your child learn to label their emotions with words.
Our kids ride an emotional rollercoaster most days, and we need to help them decipher, interpret, name, and understand the reality behind their feelings. Just like we teach them their left and right and colors and the names of their body parts, they need us to explain to them what they’re feeling. But we mustn’t stop there.
If my daughter is angry because her brother was unkind, I should help her to realize that what she’s feeling is called anger, but then I need to help her understand the spiritual reality at play in the situation. I need her to understand why she got angry. James 4 tells us “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.” When she’s able to see that not only is she experiencing anger, but she’s experiencing it because she was being just as selfish and unloving as her brother was, and they both were doing that because – at that moment – neither of them really cared about God’s Word and the commands He gives us about being kind and loving – instead they were arguing because their selfish lusts were being denied . . . they will not only understand themselves better, but they’ll also have eternally valuable insight into Who God is what He expects from them. And, if they’re born again and filled with the Holy Spirit, trying to parent my daughter out of her inappropriate anger response will be much easier because I’m appealing to God and His Truth to do it.
And that not only leads us to Dr. Gottman’s fifth step in being an Emotion Coach, but it addresses the significant spiritual issues in his thinking. Gottman says:
5. Set limits when you are helping your child to solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriately.
This sounds fantastic, but his explanation is scary.
His idea of “setting limits” is best explained by a blog he wrote.
“The key element of limit setting in this case, contrary to much popular parenting literature, is to avoid harsh criticism of your child’s actions and instead focus on the emotions underlying their behavior. Here, we take Ginott’s (Jinott’s) advice in making it clear to a child that, although their behavior might not always be acceptable, their feelings and wishes always are.”
Again, we see the failure philosophy inherent in the system. However, it’s nice that at least he recognizes that there is such a thing as unacceptable behavior. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand that both the unacceptable behavior and the unacceptable emotions are rooted in unacceptable beliefs about God. And instead of criticizing the child’s actions, he wants us to get lost in the emotions.
Unfortunately, this contradicts Scripture as well. We, as parents, are commanded to teach our children, love them, nurture, and admonish them, but we’re also called to rebuke and correct. The most loving thing we can do is tell them they are sinning against God, but that there’s hope for forgiveness and change.
So, should Christian parents advocate Emotion Coaching? I suppose the answer isn’t an easy one. Some of you may say, there are a lot of good ideas. With just the right tweaks, the system almost sounds biblical. And I would give you that. Unfortunately, if you tell everyone: “I really like Emotion Coaching my child.” They’re left to assume you accept and advocate the system. So, unless you’re going to explain the faults in the system every time, I believe you’re doing more harm than good. You may inadvertently encourage a young parent to research Emotion Coaching and take it at face value simply because you said you do it. And then they’d be reinforcing very unbiblical ideas in their home.
So, here’s my official answer. I’ve never been one with a deep-desire to be hip and trendy. God’s Word is enough for me; it provides everything I need to parent for life and godliness. Therefore, in discussions like these, I wouldn’t find it valuable to say that I’m an Emotion Coach just because there are a number of similarities. However, being knowledgable about the system makes me a better apologist as I encounter people who subscribe to the system.
I’d much rather be an intentional, premeditated, disciple-making parent. It may be a little wordy, but it’s biblical.
Don’t forget to swing by EvermindMinistries.com for today’s Episode Notes.
I’m very excited about our next episode. Beloved Christian author and Parent, Tim Challies will join me to discuss Parental Blindspots. It’ll be a very valuable discussion, and I hope you’ll join us and tell all your friends – especially those who share all Tim’s stuff on Facebook.
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God created us as emotional beings. But He also sets limits on those emotions. Our children really do need us to coach them through those feelings, and I hope today’s discussion has equipped you for the task.
See you next time.