Well, my name is Kim Allen. I am a professor at North Carolina State University in the Youth Family and Community Sciences Program, which is part of the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences as well. It’s kind of a mouthful, but in my everyday practice, I do have two roles. One is I teach in our graduate program to students who are going to go out and improve the lives of youth and families, and then the other is I get to work with Cooperative Extension creating programs for community-based activities for families. So my main area is parenting. So what I’m hoping to happen today is to be able to talk with parents about best practices and some of the research that helps us be the best we can be and helps our kids become the best they can be.
So one of the foundational things that I think parents need to know is while there is a myriad of literature that says these are the best practices the really number one thing has to do with the number of positive interactions that we have with our kids. I think we’re pretty good about telling our kids, no, stop, don’t, and we’re probably also pretty decent, but maybe less intentional about that yes, congratulations, good job. And so one of my favorite pieces of research, I know some of us roll our eyes with parenting research, but I think this is a good one. So there are some researchers in Washington State that look at couple interactions and parent interactions and so they do a lot of workaround what causes healthy relationships. And they do this thing where they they put couples in a in an apartment a fake apartment that’s a love lab and they watch their interactions and then through years and years of watching these interactions they’ve gotten pretty good at predicting what makes for healthy relationships.
In fact, they’ve gotten so good that they’ve created this magic ratio. The Gottman’s are known for the ratio of five to one. What does that mean? Well, according to their research when there’s conflict, and this could be parenting, this could be couples, this could be even in a work situation. Relationship skills are relationship skills. But when there’s conflict, it’s the number of positive interactions, the ratio of five to one that makes the difference of whether the couples are going to be happy in the long run. So what does that look like? I’m mad at my partner, and I’m you know, listening, super ready to state my point of view. Which I do. And then maybe I take a turn to listen to his point of view. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that’s a positive in a confrontational interaction. I’m listening. Another example, is you know, maybe we throw in a joke to kind of lighten. Okay, this is a heavy topic. Remember that time when X&Y happened and to lighten the mood. It could be as simple as a little gesture. I love you and we’ll get through this. So it’s all of those little interactions. Those everyday interactions during conflict. But then what what that Gottman’s found out is it’s not even just during conflict, it’s all the rest of the time. So anytime we’re around our children if we’re building that positive relationship, we’re finding what they’re doing well, we’re focusing on what’s what’s good in our children’s behavior and in their disposition. And we’re noting that, then our children are able to celebrate those successes in themselves and that builds a bond. So that five to one. For every one time they get in trouble, I’m giving them five compliments, or five hugs, or five positive interactions.
So what the Gottman’s also found is that to have a healthy relationship is five positives to one negative. If you have a ratio of one to one you might make it you might not in a couple relationship. The kids might bond with you they might not so one-to-one is kind of sustainable but you’re certainly not in the healthy realm. However, they find that the inverse is true if you have more negatives than positives, then the likelihood of sustainability of a healthy relationship goes down. Like couples will split. Parents won’t be bonded as tightly with their children. So there’s really strong research that five-to-one is or more is optimal. But if you’re doing more negatives than positives then that can really harm the relationship you have with the people you’re engaging. So, John Gottman and his team in Washington definitely look at what makes for healthy relationships. They talk about the sound house and there’s all these components of a sound house. But he also talks about these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And he says if you’re seeing these traits in your relationships, then there are certain things that you need to do to combat those.
So the four horsemen are criticism. Well, that’s pretty easy, we all criticize don’t we. But criticism is a way of sort of noticing that we’re not following those positives to negatives.
The next one is contempt. So criticism is more common. But in a contempt what we’re doing is we’re really not complaining about a behavior but we’re labeling the person that we’re complaining about. So it isn’t, I don’t like that you didn’t pick up your dirty socks. It’s you’re lazy because you didn’t pick up your socks. So we’re moving beyond a complaint or criticism into really sort of an assassination, if you will, as sort of a character assassination.
So there’s criticism, contempt, and then there’s defensiveness. And again this is a pretty common. Again, this is a pretty common way that we deal with conflict. But when we get defensive, it shuts down lines of communication.
And then the fourth one, if we’re getting so defensive and then we’re starting to, our relationship is really starting to tear down, then it’s called stonewalling. Stonewalling is where we just start to disengage and when couples begin to stonewall, then we know that that’s really a time that they’re going to have to work on repairing the relationship.
So the bad news is the four horsemen the good news is there’s some great steps that we can take to repair if we’re seeing these. So if there’s a criticism, if we’d like to file a complaint with our partner or with our child, what we can do is offer a soft start-up. What on earth does that mean? A soft start-up is when you sort of have heard of like the sandwich. You start with a compliment, you go in with the criticism, and you end with a compliment. A soft start is sort of like that in that you let them know, hey I want to talk to you about something that’s really important to me. So you’re setting the stage with a soft introduction to the criticism. It kind of helps us engage and listen to what our partner has to say.
If you’re seeing contempt, the really important part is building a culture of appreciation. So if I am sort of calling my partner lazy, and I’m not feeling good about my partner, I’m gonna have to start looking and identifying the places where I can be more positive. It’s not easy to do if someone’s being mean to you, you kind of want to be mean back. But the crazy exciting thing is, is if you start being nice, chances are they will start being nice back. One person just has to kind of start and in the parenting relationship, they put that on us on the adult. I think adults need to start that relationship and you’ll see when you start noticing those positives and noticing the building that affection, building that sort of all those, you know, wonderful interactions, then the contempt is going to go down. You’re gonna feel much happier you’re gonna feel really excited to be in a relationship with this person.
When someone is starting to feel defensive we need to take ownership, we need to take responsibility of what’s going on. So we can own, okay you’re right I did call you lazy, and I apologize for that. I’m not, you know, I was really feeling mad and I’m gonna try to work on that. So that’s when we’re kind of accepting what we’ve done wrong and we try to repair that and do better.
And then finally for its stonewalling we do this thing called self-soothing. And I think for many of us this idea of self soothing feels like maybe we’re not entitled. Like there’s too much to do, I need to just focus on getting what needs to be done, done. But if we’re not taking time to take care of ourselves, then our cortisol levels are high, and we’re possibly going to get sick, and we’re not going to be able to calm ourselves and to have these positive interactions. So you know, taking time take a bath, read a book, give yourself five minutes to yourself. Those are the kinds of things that we can do to offset those four horsemen.
And then the final thing that got Gottman talks about that I want to address, he talks about so many things, but the final thing I want to address today is this idea of emotion coaching. What does this mean? Well, emotion coaching is kind of a fancy way of saying de-escalation. Gottman tells a story of a time when he used it and I have a similar story.
So I had a neighbor ask me if I could take her daughter to school one day with my daughters. So we were all getting ready to walk to school and she had ridden her scooter to my house but her mom had said don’t ride the scooter to school. Keep it at the house, so that way we wouldn’t have to worry about storage. So we were getting ready to go, and we were getting ready to walk, and she wanted to take her scooter. And I said, you know, we’re not gonna ride the scooter today, we’re gonna just walk to school. And she started to get sad. I was like sweetheart, you know, we’re running behind. Let’s just go ahead and go, it’s gonna be okay, and she started to get more sad. And so, I’m like, all right, I know parenting, let me think, what can I do? So I tried to redirect her. That’s a positive discipline strategy. So I redirect her, and I said, well, we can’t take the scooter today, but instead, you can carry this ball. And she didn’t want the ball. That made her more upset. I don’t want the ball, I want the scooter, and I want my mom. So she’s like wanting her mom, she wants the scooter, we’re running late, it’s time to go. The other girls started walking, so I’m trying to juggle, as all parents try to juggle. And so, I’m like okay, well, I’m gonna need to get firm. I need to be kind, but I also need to be firm. So I did that. Eliza, I’m sorry, but we need to just start walking. It’s time to go. And then she went into total meltdown. Super sad. And at that point, I thought emotion coaching. So I got down to her level and I said Eliza Grace, you’re feeling really sad today aren’t you? I’m so sad, I miss my mom, I wish my mom was here. Oh, If your mom was here, you would feel so much better. I would feel so much better if my mom was here. And I wish I could give you your mom. I wish she was here. I am so sorry that you’re feeling sad. It’s okay, I think I’m gonna be late, let’s go to school. So it was that de-escalation through validation of feelings.
So that’s what got Gottman talks about, that we need to be present, be calm, be kind. Not easy to do when you’re running late for school and you have to sometimes be intentional. Because it wasn’t my child I probably worked a little harder. I think we’re all guilty of like, come on let’s go, let’s go. But that calming down, validating the feelings, really gave her the peace that she needed to move forward. We walked to school. And that’s an example of how to utilize emotion coaching.
So when we, when we’re thinking about how do we help our kids do the best with the stressors they have, now we know school is stressful. There’s a lot of anxiety on the rise, depressions on the rise, our kids are really having to deal with a lot of things. and so that sometimes leads to unhealthy coping. We know that sometimes kids engage in risky behaviors, including opioid use. Now I’m not saying the positive 5 to 1 ratio is going to keep our children off of opioids. But I am a hundred percent certain that the more we can be doing as parents to build those relationships, to open those doors of communication, and to really make sure our children know we are behind them, we love them, we’re going to be there for them. That’s one place where they can shed that anxiety, they can shed that depression, they can move forward in life knowing there’s that one adult in their lives that has their back, that’s going to take care of them. And one of the best ways to build that relationship is to focus on those positive interactions. I mean, think back to your very favorite teacher in school. What did that teacher bring to the table? My guess is a lot of positivity. They weren’t reprimanding you, or yelling at you, or belittling you, or tearing you down. They were building you up and it’s our job as parents even when they make us mad to do our best to try to stay calm and focus on the positive and do our very best to be the safe place for our children. Kind and firm. So we don’t want to not let them have boundaries. Boundaries are super important. So kind and firm in a way that we’re building them up with the structure and the boundaries they need to be successful.