1. Be aware of your child’s emotions.
This is the vital first step of emotion coaching. Many parents and educators want to find solutions and problem-solve children’s negative emotions too soon. Notice how your child is feeling by the expression on their face. Take the time required to notice and learn about your child’s emotional expressions. With practice you will be able to see emotions in your child before they escalate. “Looks like you are feeling frustrated with that” “Are you angry with mummy because I didn’t get you that ice-cream?”. “I can see you’re so excited right now”
2. Recognise emotion as an opportunity for connection and teaching.
This is more of an attitude on the part of parent. There is no need to be afraid of your child’s emotions. Helping a child correctly identify and label what they are feeling DOES NOT encourage a child to wallow in self-pity or dwell in an emotion. No matter what the emotion, it is an opportunity to open up a connection between you and your child so that they feel heard and understood. A child can only learn to manage an emotion if they first learn to understand that emotion. It is your job as a parent to teach them.
3. Help your child verbally label emotions.
Enquire about how your child feels about something. Help them identify and say out loud the emotion they are in touch with. Ask them if they feel the emotion anywhere in their bodies. Research has demonstrated that the simple (yet skilful) act of accurately identifying and labelling emotions helps to ‘tame’ the amygdala (the amygdala is a tiny brain structure deep in the brain and its job is to quickly process and express emotions, especially anger and fear). The idea of accurately labelling emotions, helps children develop vital emotion regulation skills necessary for effective living.
4. Communicate empathy and understanding.
This step means that you communicate that you understand how your child is feeling – that you get it!! Empathy does not mean agreeing with or condoning something, it simply means that you try and understand their perspective and how they might be feeling. In other words – that you see how they are feeling and that you understand why they would be feeling that way. Showing empathy and understanding helps your child feel less alone with their feelings. Being alone with unpleasant feelings, with no idea how to work through them or what to do with them, is one of the scariest things for a child. Children who do not feel understood and heard, will grow up feeling panicked about their strong or negative emotions and will be at greater risk of unhealthy coping strategies when they are older (e.g., things like using food, alcohol, drugs, gaming, shopping or sex to find comfort and soothe themselves).
5. Set limits (if required) and help solve the problem if there is one.
All feelings are acceptable, but not all behaviours are acceptable. If your child’s actions are unacceptable (not their feelings!), then of course it is important to set limits on those behaviours which are not OK. When it comes to problem solving a major part of the process is understanding. Just being present for your child and helping them through a challenge (so they know they can count on you to understand them) is the most helpful part of problem solving. It’s important to remember this last part (point 5) of emotion coaching. Children who only get coached from 1 through to 4, are at risk of becoming more self-centred and impulsive and will have a hard time when things don’t go their way. They may even act out aggressively or develop other problematic behaviours. Setting limits means being able to say “no” to your child when necessary and not giving in to displays of angry emotional outbursts (or “upstairs brain tantrums” (see ‘The Whole Brain Child’ (Siegel & Bryson, 2011) for a good explanation of age appropriate parenting and understanding the function of children’s emotional outbursts).
We need to be caring, compassionate and wise parents, acting in our children’s best interests and providing them with the best possible care and guidance. Sometimes this means not giving them what they want but rather giving them what is best for their well-being (e.g., vegetables as part of dinner rather than junky processed food). If we always ‘give-in’ because we cannot tolerate our child’s emotional outbursts (for whatever reason), they will quickly learn that they can use their emotions to get what they want. The sad news for them is that this will not serve them well as they get older. Trying to ‘manipulate’ people with our emotions is not a good tactic and will only isolate us from others and affect how well we can make and maintain positive friendships. Don’t forget that ‘having limits set for us’ is actually a core childhood need. It needs to happen otherwise we will grow up with unrealistic expectations of what the world can offer us!
Good luck with your attempts at emotion coaching!
The good news is that you don’t have to do it all the time. Being a good emotion coach at least 50 % of the time is all it takes to have a positive effect upon your child’s development.
The above points constitute a general summary of the 5 steps: for more details see: “Emotion Coaching: The Heart of Parenting” – Parent handbook by John and Julie Gottman href=”https://emotioncoaching.gottman.com