Parenting and Emotional Intelligence


As you look back on your childhood, how did your family of origin approach feelings? How has that shaped you and the way you interact with others? If you are a parent, how does that play itself out in the way you interact with your children?

This is what researchers call “meta-emotions”; your underlying narrative that interprets how you think and feel about feelings. There are significant implications for parenting. In his book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman says this:

They (parents) want to teach their kids to handle problems effectively and to form strong, healthy relationships. But there’s a big difference between wanting to do right by your kids and actually having the wherewithal to carry it off. That’s because good parenting requires more than intellect. It touches a dimension of the personality that’s been ignored in much of the advice dispensed to parents over the past thirty years. Good parenting involves emotion.

Positive and Negative Emotions

There are basic families of emotions. Some have categorized them into positive and negative. Examples of positive emotions are happiness, excitement, empathy, pleasure and interest. Examples of negative emotions are sadness, anger, contempt, embarrassment and fear. Labeling some emotions as positive and others as negative might imply that you should encourage the good ones and suppress the bad ones. But that would be the furthest thing from the truth. The goal is to understand and express positive and negative emotions appropriately.

The Psalms are a good representation of how to express both kinds of emotions. They show us that positive and negative emotions can either be expressed in godly or ungodly ways. So sadness, anger, fear and embarrassment can be expressed in godly ways and positive emotions can potentially be expressed in ungodly ways. For example, I can be sad over the loss of a loved one and express that in a way that is appropriate and godly. On the other hand, I can be happy and excited due to a misuse of an intoxicant and that would be ungodly.

Parenting and Emotions

John Gottman identifies four parenting styles as they relate to emotions. The first three are unhelpful and the fourth is helpful.

Parenting Style #1: The Dismissing Style

This style of parenting is the “just get over it” style. In an effort to avoid negative emotions, the parent will say something like, “You don’t need to be sad. It’s not that bad. Put a smile on your face. There’s no reason to be unhappy.” Gottman says that while the parent may be well-intentioned, the child is taught that certain emotions aren’t to be experienced and should be avoided.

Parenting Style #2: The Disapproving Style

This style actually punishes negative emotions. Disapproving parents view negative emotions as unacceptable and controllable, so instead of trying to understand the child’s emotions, they discipline or punish them for the way they feel. This rarely enables to child to calm down and it places a great deal of guilt on the child. They may grow up thinking that something is wrong with them.

Parenting Style #3: The Laissez-Faire Style

If the first two styles are not helpful, it may be tempting to think that you should just let children feel and express their emotions any way they want to. It sounds like, “That’s it, just let the feelings out. Whatever you feel like doing is okay.” This style makes the child feel safe with their emotions, but it places no limits on their behavior and there is little guidance on how to deal with their emotions.

Parenting Style #4: The Emotion Coaching Style

This style of parenting engages with the child and their emotions and seeks to understand them while also helping the child express their emotions in appropriate ways. “Tell me how you feel. I’ve felt that way, too. And you can’t hit someone when you are angry. Let’s think together about other things you can do when you feel this way.” There are five basic steps for this style of parenting your children:

  1. Be aware of your child’s emotions.
  2. Recognize emotions as an opportunity to connect.
  3. Listen with empathy.
  4. Help the child name emotions.
  5. Set limits and find good solutions.

Ephesians 4:26: Be angry but do not sin

While Paul may not have had the language of emotional intelligence, he does understand that a so called “negative” emotion like anger can be godly and it can be expressed appropriately. Not only that, he makes a case for emotional intelligence in the latter part of the same verse where he says, do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity for the devil.

What is Paul saying here? Does he mean that you need to make sure you go to a person and deal rightly with your anger before the literal sun actually sets over the literal horizon? I think not. Paul is encouraging us to deal with our anger, and the first thing we need to do is slow down and deal with our own hearts before we go to someone else. It is quite likely that Paul has Psalm 4:4 in view:

Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.

Do you see what the Psalmist does? He acknowledges that anger can be expressed without sin, but one must slow down and deal with their own hearts before the Lord before moving forward. This is a call to self-awareness. But the self-awareness that Scripture calls for is one that has the kindness and mercy of God in view. What is an acceptable sacrifice that the Psalmist has in view in verse 4? King David says this in Psalm 51:16-17:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

The next time you experience any emotion or encounter an emotion in your child, you would do well to slow down and ponder God’s mercy for you in Christ. Allow that experience to move you to engage with your child so that you can help them process their emotions and find helpful ways to express them. You might even have the opportunity to disciple them by letting them know just how the mercy and grace of Jesus is helping you to do this.

This blog borrows from two books by John Gottman. I would highly encourage you to read them both:

What Am I Feeling?
By John Gottman PhD
Copyright © 2017 Timothy S. Lane

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.