Curiosity Coaching / Emotion Coaching / Meta-emotion

Let’s Talk About the Meta’s….

If reading in the field of developmental psychology, and particularly work by those who study parent-child relationships, one will often encounter the prefix meta. Derived from Greek, meta means “after” or “beyond,” but in the usages I will be referring to, the latter definition of beyond seems most apt.


Meta-emotion parenting philosophy and meta-parenting cognitions are terms that refer to an individual parent’s tendency to anticipate, have an awareness of, and reflect on a response, either their own or their child’s. Meta, when paired with emotions and parenting cognitions, also refers to solution seeking, or assessing the consequences of a behavior, emotion or cognition. In short, meta-emotions and meta-parenting cognitions are the parent’s inclinations to go beyond, or interpret and respond to their child’s emotional displays or interpret and evaluate their own parenting strategies.


I will return to meta-parenting cognitions in another post. I will also discuss a child’s meta-cognitions in another post as well. For the moment, let’s focus here on understanding meta-emotion philosophies and explore how they might inform the Guiding Curiosity approach.


In a paper describing parental meta-emotion philosophy, Gottman, Katz, & Hooven (1996) argued that investigators and educators had not paid sufficient attention to parents’ ideas about their own or their children’s emotions. We academic types had examined different forms of parenting discipline and socialization strategies, but often without reference to what the parent might have been feeling at the time of the child’s transgression or in response to the child in general. As a parent you are probably thinking “duh,” how could they miss how intensely parents feel. And we are not just talking about love, but also frustration, vulnerability, and even anger.


The failure to account for emotions stems from a history in psychology that we don’t have time to delve fully into here, but basically blame it on the Behaviorists (think B.F. Skinner – if this does not “ring a bell” no worries). Gottman and his team thought it was time we turned this around and take a deep look at parents’ own emotions, as well as their ideas about their children’s emotional expressions.


Building on their suggestions to examine parental ideas about emotions, these authors identified three types of meta-emotion philosophies:


1)   Emotion-Coaching, 2) Emotion Dismissing, and 3) Emotion Disapproving.


Consider the following situation. You promised to play with your child but between getting the laundry done, finishing up a project for work, cooking dinner, and helping another child finish a homework assignment, you have been a little busy. At first, your child is just quiet but obviously growing impatient. When you suggest she wait until after dinner to play when you have more time, she blows up at you, screaming and then stomping off, kicking whatever is in her pathway.


What are you thinking about this description and how does it make you feel? What would your response be? Do you want to scold her for this tantrum, simply ignore it thinking the response was silly, or perhaps you are tempted to seize the opportunity, acknowledge the anger but suggest your child needs to look for an alternative to screaming and kicking?


Your answers to these questions indicate something about your own meta-emotion philosophy.


If you possess an emotion-coaching philosophy you tend to be aware of and comfortable with your child’s expressed emotion, even anger, and sadness or two emotions parents find upsetting in their children and themselves. Coaching parents empathize, are willing to talk about the emotion, helping their child to label it and recognize facial expressions and body language of self and others. These parents initiate joint problem-solving to explore reasons for the emotion and to find helpful ways to express it.


In contrast, parents possessing a dismissive philosophy tend to see negative emotions as potentially harmful and work to speed their expression along or to go away. These parents ignore the emotion, or try and distract the child from the experience. Disapproving parents may belittle the child’s expression or reprimand the child for an emotional expression. These parents often perceive a child’s emotional outburst as a means of manipulating the parent.


Before you dismiss the coaching approach as too solicitous or potentially reinforcing bad behavior as it appears to cater to the child’s emotional explosions, you may want to consider the results of several longitudinal studies suggesting that emotion-coaching parents are more likely to have children who can better self-regulate and cope in changing environments. These parents are not hovering over their children, cooing at every expressed emotion. They monitor and respond when there is a teachable moment. Emotion-coaching does not imply a lack of discipline. Rather, discipline tends to be more effective when parents and children are emotionally close and communicate effectively, or consequences linked to coaching. Remember also that if you are really angry, distracted or exhausted you probably cannot coach effectively, so consider postponing that conversation you should have with your child.


For our purposes, what does an awareness of your and your child’s emotions say about Guiding Curiosity? There are several points of overlap.


A central principle of the Guiding Curiosity approach is that you are aware of your child’s interests. In fact, interest is defined by psychologists and neuroscientists as an emotion, an emotion that focuses attention and motivates one to action. As an emotion-coach or curiosity-coach, your job is to be aware of the interest/emotion and seize the opportunity to engage it, support it, and expand it. Following the example of emotion-coaching parents, upon recognizing an interest, you will find out what it consists of or what your child is finding stimulating through your own observations, questions, and discussion. You will help your child to find the language that labels the interest (do not label it for her prematurely as you may not get it right away) and offer guidance by making suggestions for additional activities to expound on the interest, or nudging the child by asking your own questions modeling your own curiosity by observing, comparing, or experimenting. Remember that you are helping to solve the problems related to the interest. Don’t impose your own solutions.


From a considerable trove of evidence, it appears that emotion-coaching parenting strategies show long-term positive results. The lessons children learned early tended to prove valuable across time and a variety of situations. I am confident that coaching-curiosity will have similar long-term and broad benefits.


For more information on Gottman’s approach to meta-emotions, including surveys and richer descriptions of the various philosophies, you might want to read his book The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman (1997) edited by Simon and Shuster.


Stay tuned for more information on emotional development among young children….


Gottman, J. M., Katz, L. F., & Hooven, C. (1996). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: Theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology, 10(3), 243-268. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.10.3.243

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