Son has his arm around father's neck, both in cowboy hats looking out at horses
Son has his arm around father's neck, both in cowboy hats looking out at horses

Emotion coaching: a building block for self-regulation

Need to know Why didn’t anyone ever tell us that parenting was going to be the hardest role we would ever take on? Not only […]

Need to know

Why didn’t anyone ever tell us that parenting was going to be the hardest role we would ever take on? Not only is it a 24/7 gig, it is also one where we need to learn to wear many hats. The “coach” hat is really important in helping your child identify, accept and manage their feelings. This is called emotion coaching. It’s based on the idea that emotions are a normal and an important part of life, and that children need guidance and support to learn how to identify and express their feelings appropriately.

One of the key pioneers of emotion coaching, Dr. John Gottman, conducted a longitudinal study that showed that children who were raised in emotion coaching households had better outcomes in terms of mental health, relationships, and life satisfaction as adults compared to those who did not receive this type of support.

Since then, there is mounting research indicating that children who receive emotion coaching from their parents are better able to regulate their emotions, have better social skills, and experience fewer behaviour problems than children who do not receive this type of support. 

Why it’s important

Neurodivergent children feel emotions strongly, and as parents we need to normalise and accept feelings like fear, sadness, frustration and anger so that we can teach our children effective ways to deal with them. We are often quick to dismiss feelings and say things like “don’t be sad”, “stop crying”, “it’s nothing to worry about”, “why are you so angry over nothing”, “just do it again”, “you’ll be fine”, etc, but this encourages suppressing feelings rather than processing them in a healthy way. 

Emotion coaching is not about allowing kids to wallow in their emotions, it is about acknowledging their experience for what it is. We have to remember that although something can appear to be quite small for an adult, for a child it can be all consuming. Minising your child’s experience can easily turn into inadvertently shaming them for simply experiencing strong emotions.

Over time, using emotion coaching can increase your child’s emotional awareness and help with emotion self-regulation, improving their ability to navigate complex social situations and relationships.

Note: If you notice your child has significant difficulty identifying or describing their feelings compared to their peers, you might want to look into alexithymia.

Tips and strategies

What to do everyday:

Build a strong relationship with your child: Emotion coaching works best when you have a strong relationship with your child. Spend quality time together, show interest in their interests, and be attentive and responsive to their needs. Have a look at the 7 day challenge for ideas on how to strengthen your relationship.

Model healthy emotional expression: Children learn a lot from watching their parents. Model healthy emotional expression by talking openly about your own feelings and demonstrating healthy coping strategies.

Teach coping strategies: Help your child develop healthy coping strategies for dealing with difficult emotions. 

  • “Hot chocolate breathing is a really good way to help you stay calm. Let me show you how it works.”
  • “When you think things are getting out of control, it’s ok to walk away and take a break from the situation.”
  • “When you are starting to feel upset, you can squeeze this stress-ball until you feel better.”

What do do in the moment:

Gottman identified five steps as part of emotion coaching of children to build empathy into relationships.

1. Being aware of the child’s emotion: Being in tune with your child can help you pick up on negative feelings before they become overwhelming. Ideally, you want to intervene early to help your child regulate.

  • “Do you want to tell me more about how you’re feeling?”
  • “What do you think might happen?”
  • “When did you start feeling like this?”

2. Take this as an opportunity to connect: Empathy is a key component of emotion coaching. Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes and understand their perspective. This is a perfect time to connect. Show them that you understand and care about their feelings. 

  • “I understand how you’re feeling. I would feel upset too if that happened to me.” 
  • “That was a big fall and your knee looks really sore.” 
  • “It’s really disappointing when we are expecting something and it doesn’t happen.” 
  • “That does sound quite scary.”
  • “I know it’s hard when you don’t get a turn.”

3. Recognise and validate your child’s emotions: When your child is upset or emotional, avoid minimising their experience, instead listen attentively and validate their feelings by acknowledging them and normalising them.  

  • “I can see that you’re feeling really angry right now. It’s ok to be angry. I feel that way sometimes.
  • “You look very upset. It’s ok to cry. When I’m really upset, I cry too.
  • “Starting in a new class can be very scary. When I was your age I remember feeling really scared to walk into my kindergarten class full of faces I didn’t know.
  • “I can see you are sad you didn’t get picked to be in their team. I would be sad too if I wasn’t picked.

4. Name emotions: Help your child identify and label their emotions by using age-appropriate language. 

  • “You seem really frustrated right now. I wonder if you’re feeling annoyed that things didn’t turn out as you expected.” 
  • “Your face looks very red and your hands are making fists. It seems like you’re feeling really angry at not getting a turn at choosing the movie.”
  • “You seem sad. I wonder if it’s because you didn’t get an invitation.”

5. Help your child problem-solve: Once your child has calmed down, and only when they are calm, focus on problem-solving. Help them identify the problem and come up with solutions together within acceptable limits. Encourage them to come up with their own ideas and brainstorm together. 

  • “It’s ok to get angry but it’s not ok to hit your sister. What can you do instead?”
  • “What would you like to see happen?”
  • “How do you think we can make it better?” 
  • “Let’s think of some ways we can solve this problem together.” 
  • “What are some things you can do when you are feeling frustrated?”

Emotion coaching starts with acknowledging and accepting your child’s emotions, so that you can help them develop the skills and strategies they need to manage their emotions effectively.

References

  1. Levels of Emotional Awareness: Theory and Measurement of a Socio-Emotional Skill
  2. Parental Emotion Coaching and Child Emotion Regulation as Protective Factors for Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder
  3. Longitudinal Links between Maternal and Peer Emotion Socialization and Adolescent Girls’ Socio-emotional Adjustment
  4. Maternal emotion coaching, adolescent anger regulation, and siblings’ externalizing symptoms
  5. We Know Even More Things: A Decade Review of Parenting Research
  6. Longitudinal Associations of Parental Emotion Socialization and Children’s Emotion Regulation: The Moderating Role of ADHD Symptomatology
  7. Introduction to the Special Issue: Transdiagnostic Implications of Parental Socialization of Child and Adolescent Emotions
  8. An Introduction to Emotion Coaching
  9. Incorporating emotion coaching into behavioral parent training program: evaluation of its effectiveness
  10. Emotion Coaching: A universal strategy for supporting and promoting sustainable emotional and behavioural well-being
  11. Parental Emotion Coaching: Associations With Self-Regulation in Aggressive/Rejected and Low Aggressive/Popular Children

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