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Steering Through the Storm of Emotions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wild emotions of childhood are like the Chinese word for “crisis"--one of its ideograms means danger, the other opportunity.

Some parents can’t help but feel that a child’s or a teenager’s out-sized anger, fear or sadness are a threat, a challenge to authority, evidence of the parent’s own incompetence, or just another problem that must be fixed.

But others see their children’s negative emotions as a fact of life, a chance to become closer and an opportunity to guide children to their own decision-making.

In studies of 119 families, John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington at Seattle, found parents naturally divided into two groups: those who gave their children guidance about the world of emotions and those who didn’t. The children of parents with more positive attitudes about emotions were more successful both in and out of school.

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“What we found is the very same kids who in preschool are saying, ‘I don’t like it when you do that,’ in middle school are able to be cool and withstand teasing without getting emotionally hijacked,” Gottman said.

“It’s not that they’re learning a specific set of skills,” he said. “But they’re learning a kind of moxie about how to psych out a social situation. They’re having better friendships, they’re not developing behavior problems and they’re able to focus their attention and calm down.”

Gottman contended that social and emotional intelligence can provide a buffer against the effects of marital conflict and divorce on children, and can counter the increasing levels of depression and malaise among young people. (A recent UCLA sample of 250,000 college freshmen found them to be more stressed and depressed than ever before, mirroring other national surveys showing declines in children’s emotional and social skills over the past 20 years.)

In his book, “The Heart of Parenting--Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Gottman outlines a five-step plan to help parents become “emotion coaches,” starting with identifying their own negative attitudes about feelings. Parents who can accept emotions and empathize with them still need to help children label their emotions and set limits on behavior while exploring solutions together.

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It all boils down, Gottman said, to “taking a look at your own emotions, being honest about feelings and having a real relationship in which emotions are respected.”

That can be a struggle for those who grew up in homes where emotions were routinely dismissed or criticized.

One Los Angeles mother said she wasn’t allowed to have feelings as a child. When she was afraid of heights, her father forced her to walk across rafters in the garage--and laughed at her fear. She can’t recall anyone in her family comforting or hugging anyone else when they were sad.

When her son was born eight years ago, she knew she never wanted him to grow up like she did--terrified of almost everything, including having any feelings.

She was dismayed when her son’s emotions triggered a knee-jerk reaction in her, opening a floodgate of the anger she had been denied.

Four years ago, she overcame her fear of feelings through a course and counseling at the Los Angeles-based Rocamora School, a small nonprofit organization.

Now, although her hair-trigger reaction returns occasionally, it’s slower that it was. Mostly, she tries to let her son know it’s OK to be angry or sad or afraid of the dark. She knows now that she doesn’t have to fix it, and that she can guide him to his own solutions.

* Lynn Smith’s column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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Parents who can accept emotions and empathize with them still need to help children label their emotions and set limits on behavior.


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