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Why fathers matter: Building stronger bonds through emotion coaching

"I only want to be with Daddy!” yells 4-year-old Marcus. His mom’s firm reply: “It’s time for all of us to leave the park together.” It looks like a stand-off is shaping up, when suddenly, Marcus’ dad jumps up and shouts, “I’ll race you to the car!” Both dad and son sprint off.

Dad and smiling baby This scene, witnessed the other day in a Seattle-area park, illustrates one of the ways dads make a difference. Dads bring specific qualities to parenting that make children grow up happier, healthier and more attached to their parents.

Fathers today

As you probably know, the days of distant fathering have gone by the wayside. Dads are more involved than ever before in all aspects of parenting. Yet their involvement is different from the way moms are involved — and those differences are very important. In the past, dads were mostly concerned with family safety and financial security. Many dads felt responsible for assembling the crib, putting together toys, building a fence in the yard, making enough money to pay the bills, and getting mom to the hospital in time. While these are important and valuable tasks, there is another skill dads need to add to their repertoire for building emotionally and socially healthy children, a skill that builds a strong relationship between him and his kids. It’s called “emotion coaching.”

What is emotion coaching?

In his book Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, Dr. John Gottman explains that most parents fall into one of two broad categories: those who give their children guidance about the world of emotion and those who don’t. “I call the parents who get involved with their child’s feelings ‘emotion coaches,’” Gottman says. “Much like athletic coaches, they teach their children strategies to deal with life’s ups and downs.”

Becoming an emotion coach is possible for every dad. It starts with making the decision to listen to your child, empathize with him, and then help him choose how to respond to a particular scenario. Emotion coaches accept emotions as a fact of life and use emotional moments as opportunities to teach their kids important lessons and build closer relationships. Simply put, it is not just the mere presence and availability of a father that matters, but exactly how he is present that makes a difference.

“It turns out, one of a dad’s most instinctive joys may also be one of his greatest contributions to parenting: play,” says Bernie Dorsey, founder of Conscious Fathering, a hospital-based program for new dads. Dorsey says that by engaging children in age-appropriate play, dads can help kids learn all kinds of great things about emotions. “Since fathers are often human jungle gyms for their children anyway, it’s nice to know there’s something constructive going on, too,” Dorsey says.

Did you know that when given the choice, more than two-thirds of 2-and-a-half-year-old children pick their dads as their preferred playmate? Why? Because dads are fun! They play rough-and-tumble games, and they create periods of highs and lows.

This dad playtime also teaches children volumes about how to get along with others, how to be a good friend and how to self-regulate. “Playing with fathers helps children learn to identify their own emotions and to acknowledge the emotional experiences of others,” says Dorsey. Sometimes, the most important part of parenting is simply having fun together. Dorsey asks, “Do we always need to be parenting? Maybe sometimes just playing is good enough.”

Dad's role as an emotion coach

Over the last decade, volumes of research have looked at the influence dads have in their children’s lives, and the findings are profound. “Fathers are probably the most important predictors of emotional development for sons and daughters,” says Gottman, whose own research reinforces what most dads already know to be true: Dads have a pivotal role in their children’s lives. Research by the Bringing Baby Home program shows that when dads act as an emotion coach, by valuing and encouraging emotions, children do better in school, handle moods better and recover from emotional events faster. According to Gottman and others, these positive outcomes are a result of a father’s comfort with a child experiencing and expressing emotions, leading to improved father-child interactions.

Emotion-coached children are physically healthier, have fewer colds and illnesses, higher self-esteem and a strong sense of social connection. When dads communicate with their children about the emotions they are experiencing, behavioral problems decrease. Emotional communication offers a technique for discussing behavior and emotions, not simply misbehavior. However, emotion coaching does not provide children with an “excuse” for poor behavior.

Why emotions matter

Sometimes it is easy to forget that biology has predisposed humans to express hundreds of emotions every day. Some are positive, like joy, humor and happiness. Others are negative: sadness, disgust and anger. But every emotion has a purpose. Emotions are what allow us to communicate and manage the world around us. Learning why we experience emotions, what emotions mean and how to respect the feelings of others are lifelong skills that increase physical, mental and social well-being.

For some dads, this emphasis on building an emotional connection with a child is very different than how they were raised. In times past, dads were less involved with kids; less hands-on and emotionally demonstrative, especially in talking about emotions — which was left to moms. “In my generation, kids grew up with mom being at home and dad being the breadwinner,” says Issaquah dad Jay Robertson-Howell. “I don’t think there was the same connection between a dad and a child.

“My partner and I enjoy doing stuff with our kids, whether it’s playing, rough-housing or letting the kids help us outside, all to increase a connection with them on an individual basis,” Robertson-Howell continues. He and his partner, Travis, are fathers of two children, ages 2 and 5. Robertson-Howell says he realizes that connecting with his kids emotionally creates a stronger bond.

Emotion coaching in action

Renton dad, Rodger Marsh, often takes his almost 3-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, to the park. One day, as Rodger approaches the park, Kaitlyn freezes up and won’t go. She sees a play structure in the shape of a dragon. Many other children are playing on it, but Kaitlyn wants to leave and go home. What should Rodger do?

For many dads, this is a “toughen up” moment, a time to say, “What’s your problem? It’s just a dragon. Now go have fun.” That’s called “dismissive parenting.” It seems harmless, but it’s not, because it doesn’t treat the child’s emotions as if they are real.

Consider what an emotion coach would do in this situation. He would not yell or criticize; would not dismiss the child’s fears. Instead, he would get down at eye level. The conversation might go something like this:

Dad: "Kaitlyn, why don’t you want to be in the park?"

Kaitlyn: "I want to go home!"

Dad: "Last week you loved it here. Can you tell me what is different today?"

Kaitlyn: (in tears) "I hate that thing!"

Dad: "You mean the dragon? You seem scared."

Kaitlyn: "It’s scary."

Dad: "I can understand why dragons might be scary. What is scary about that one?"

Kaitlyn: "It’s really big."

Dad: "Why don’t we sit here together and watch the other kids play. Then, you can decide if we should stay and play or go home."

Kaitlyn: (sits quietly for a few minutes) “I want to go swing instead. That’s not scary.”

At first, taking this approach might feel awkward or uncomfortable. With practice, emotion coaching can have powerful results, and it doesn’t have to be overly touchy-feely; it can simply be a discussion. The preceding conversation probably took less than five minutes. At the end of this interchange, most dads would feel proud of their parenting. Most kids would feel validated and secure.

Getting started

Agreeing to be open to the full range of a child’s emotions can put some dads outside their comfort zone. But wait! Think back to the first time you fed your baby a bottle or changed a diaper. That was scary, too. You knew the task was important, but, like your partner, you probably wondered, “Am I doing this right?” At first, emotion coaching can feel the same way.

The first step in getting started is simply to slow down and watch your child. Notice the small things. Does your child like to be independent and jump into an activity, or does he prefer to stand back and watch before participating? There doesn’t need to be any judgment involved here; the goal is simply to learn about your child.

The next step is to develop a pattern of parenting that matches your child’s emotional state, rather than your own personal goals. Following your child’s lead will help your child feel supported, respected and valued. It will also minimize unnecessary power struggles and help you to be successful at setting limits and problem solving. It takes practice, but it’s worth the effort.

Michael, the father of 3-year-old Ben, asks, “I understand the value of connecting with my kids, but is this something I have to do in every interaction? What if I don’t have time?” The answer is no. Emotion coaching is not appropriate for every interaction, such as when safety is of immediate concern, (e.g., a child running toward a street), when you need to address serious misbehavior or when the parent is too upset to be able to be productive in the conversation. “Parents don’t have to be perfect,” says Dr. Dan Yoshimoto, director of the Relationship Research Institute. “The goal is to recognize that emotional moments are opportunities for connection, not only discipline.”

Sharing the secret

Many fathers dream that their child will specialize in a certain activity. Maybe it’s being the best trumpet player in the band, or the best player on a baseball team. Maybe it’s sharing his love of cars. Whatever the dream, most dads recognize that it will take practice and dedication to make that dream become a reality. In fact, most dads try to seize opportunities to build those skills, taking their child to the park to practice throwing or getting out the bike to practice riding. Dads understand that these small steps lead to bigger milestones in the child’s development.

The same can be said for emotion coaching. This is a skill that can be learned. It requires patience and practice and is a hands-on sport — possibly the most important sport your child will ever play.

Carolyn Pirak is the director of the Bringing Baby Home Program and works for both John Gottman’s Relationship Research Institute and Swedish Medical Center in Birth and Family Education. She writes parenting and relationship articles for a variety of publications and is a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of children, couples and families. She is married and is the mother of two children.

The five steps of emotion coaching for dads

  1. Recognize and respect your child’s emotions. Watch for nonverbal cues to note your child’s emotions when they are at a lower intensity.
  2. View emotional moments as an opportunity for connection and teaching.
  3. Try to understand the situation from your child’s perspective. Listen to, validate and empathize with your child’s feelings, even if there is misbehavior.
  4. Use words to help your child label the emotions being experienced. This empowers your child to manage situations when you are not with him.
  5. Set limits when there is misbehavior. Emotion coaching isn’t intended to mean that all behaviors are OK. When there is no misbehavior, guide your child in solving problems.

Adapted from Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Childby Dr. John Gottman



The Children’s Museum of Tacoma has an exhibit on emotion coaching

Conscious Fathering classes

Father’s First Steps, a new program for dads from Wellspring Family Services


Books to read with kids:

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

Feelings: A Baby and Blue Book by Jenny Miglis

Feelings to Share from A to Z by Todd Snow and Peggy Snow

My Daddy by Susan Paradis


Books for dads:

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Dr. John Gottman

Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman

Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell


Originally published in the June, 2008 print edition of ParentMap.

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