With athletes now competing to win at the Rio Olympics, consider this: The role a dad plays in a child’s life has a profound impact on that child’s ability to overcome some of life’s greatest challenges.
Research led by John Gottman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, has concluded that dads who act as “emotion coaches” give their kids an advantage over kids whose fathers aren’t as involved in their children’s emotional development.
The potential for a high return on investment is strong.
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Like many dads, my reaction to my kids’ emotions — especially crying — is to find something to do in the garage. Many dads don’t know what to do. In their frustration, some dads become harsh, critical, and emotionally distant in response to their kids’ emotional meltdowns.
I’d rather have my wife deal with the drama of tears, tantrums, and fears — but Gottman’s findings caused me to pause and take note. Gottman’s research found that children whose fathers don’t engage with them to help them deal with their feelings are more likely to do poorly in school, fight with peers, and have poor health.
Gottman concluded that most parents fall into one of two broad categories: parents who guide their children through the world of emotion — and those who don’t.
While the impact of moms is important, their nurturing instinct and intuition better equip them for helping kids navigate life’s emotional terrain. Dads tend to struggle in this domain, but when they step up and work with their kids, the potential for a high return on investment is strong.
Dads who act as “emotion coaches” for their kids are more likely to have kids who achieve strong physical health, score high academically, get along with peers, develop self-control, and bounce back from disappointment and distress.
Gottman and other psychologists identify emotional awareness and the ability to handle feelings as key attributes of what they call emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ is also determined by a person’s ability to “control impulses, delay gratification, motivate themselves, read other people’s social cues, and cope with life’s ups and downs.”
The task of emotion coaching is to help kids learn and develop these important life skills.
According to EQ expert Travis Bradberry, author of the book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” people with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs both 70 percent of the time at work and in wages earned. People with a high degree of EQ earn an overage of $29,000 more per year than those with a low EQ. The secret to their success is a higher EQ than the people with the highest IQ.
While a person’s EQ can be raised to higher levels later in life, kids who enter adulthood with a strong EQ have an advantage over their peers who don’t. The difference may be a dad who has helped his child learn healthy coping with life’s ups and downs and the emotions that those changes trigger.
In his book “Raising and Emotionally Intelligent Child,” Gottman identified five steps followed by dads and moms who have learned how to help their kids understand their emotions and learn from the experiences that trigger them. Parents may begin using these steps on children as young as three years old.
1.) Become aware of the child’s emotion,
2.) Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching,
3.) Listen with empathy, validating the child’s feelings,
4.) Help the child label the emotion with words, and
5.) Set limits while helping the child explore strategies to solve the current problem.
Here’s how it works in practical terms: My son Matt was 12 years old and still experiencing fear about being alone in his dark bedroom at night. Some nights he was fine; on others nights he needed help. My wife and I followed these steps in helping him when he needed it. This wasn’t a one-time occurrence, so she and I took turns emotion coaching.
Effective emotion coaching requires patience and commitment. Having patience with Matt required extra effort on my part, because his fear was strange to me — I didn’t fear the dark when I was his age. I had to work at having empathy and validating his feelings, even though they were unfamiliar to me.
I’d sit on Matt’s bed and encourage him to talk about what he was feeling. He found it hard to put into words, so I’d suggest words to help him explain how he felt. To start with, he’d say, “I don’t know.” I felt frustrated when I heard that. I practiced patience. Tired, I’d lose my patience. I’d apologize and try again.
When Matt could talk about how he felt, we discussed how we were going to solve the problem for that night. He wanted to sleep in our bedroom. I set a limit, explaining he needed to learn how to be OK sleeping in his own room. We eventually settled on playing soft music on a sleep timer to help him calm down, or an extra night light — or both.
Today, Matt is 13 and he’s no longer overwhelmed with a fear of the dark at bedtime. He goes to bed without music or a nightlight, and with his door cracked open only a few inches.
It’s not a cure-all, but emotion coaching by moms and dads can help families develop closer relationships and make it easier to resolve conflict when it occurs. It’s a valuable tool in helping children grow into successful adults.
Jon Beaty, life coach and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon, and is the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”