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Emotion Coaching: How Parents Can Help Kids Develop Self-Regulation

Emotion coaching allows parents to teach children how to mindfully recognize their emotions and use appropriate strategies to cope. When children are taught to deal with their feelings in healthy ways, they develop self-control and the skills necessary to function effectively in a stressful world. Find out how to become an emotion-coaching parent and help your child develop effective emotional regulation.

The Importance Of Emotion Coaching

From brain development to school performance to career opportunities, the ability to regulate emotions has important implications at every stage of life.

In school, effective emotion regulatory skill is associated with higher academic performance​1​ and better social competence​2​. Self-regulated adolescents have less behavior problems, substance abuse​3​ and delinquencies​4​. In adulthood, emotional regulation is linked to more job satisfaction​5​ and life satisfaction​6​.

The lack of emotional regulation is a risk factor in developing mental disorders such as depressive disorder and anxiety disorder​7​. Severe cases of emotion dysregulation are also linked to conduct disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder​8​ and disruptive behavior disorder​9​.

According to psychologists Morris’ model, parents influence their child’s feelings and regulation through three primary mechanisms – modeling, emotion coaching, and creating an emotional climate​10​.

Research shows that proper emotion coaching helps children regulate their negative emotions. Through parents’ emotion coaching, children learns regulating strategies to increase emotional self-control.

Emotion-coached kids have less behavioral problems​11​ and higher emotional intelligence.

mother talks to sad daughter

What Is Emotional Coaching

Emotion coaching from parents is teaching children to recognize their emotions and providing them with coping strategies to regulate in stressful situations. A loving parent can have tremendous impact on self-regulation by becoming their child’s emotion coach.

It is sometimes hard to understand why young children cry about the smallest thing. After all, what is so bad about being handed an ice cream instead of picking it up yourself? As grownups, we have a tendency to dismiss, criticize, or trivialize children’s feelings.

“It’s no big deal.”

“It’s ok. You can get it next time.”

“Just let it go.”

“Stop crying.”

These are common responses from frustrated parents or parents who find a child’s negative emotion offensive.

We mistakenly think that, if we downplay it, the child will stop paying attention to it with the passage of time and everything will be fine. Some parents dismiss a child’s emotional expression when they think it is just a phase or that the situation will be better without those emotions.

If you have tried this tactic, you probably already know that it doesn’t work. It also tends to make kids more upset.

Sweeping emotions under the rug will not make them go away. They will eventually come back to haunt you (actually, your child) and have detrimental effects for the kid.

Invalidating your child’s feelings makes them feel as if their reaction is wrong. These children feel unheard and unseen.

Studies find that children with emotion-dismissing parents have more negative feelings. They are more likely to have more behavioral issues and emotional problems.

Parents adopting an “emotion coaching” belief, or accepting the concept of emotion coaching, can lead to an indirect effect in regulating their children’s emotions. These parents have more positive reactions to kids’ emotions. They are more accepting and keen on problem-solving. Studies have found consistent links between emotion coaching and decrease in negativity, behavioral issues, depressive symptoms and emotional regulating problems​12​.

Emotional development expert Dr. John Gottman and colleagues from the Gottman Institute found that instead of shaming a child for making emotional outbursts, parents who adopt an emotion coaching philosophy can see things from child’s perspective and view emotional moments as learning opportunities for teaching effective regulation​13​.

Emotion Coaching Dos and Don’ts

To raise an emotionally intelligent child, here are the dos and don’ts of parental emotion coaching practices. 

Do notice both positive and negative emotions

Allowing your child and yourself to feel emotions is the first step in emotion coaching. Being able to recognize, appreciate, and enhance their own feelings contributes to raising emotional intelligence.

Talk with kids about emotions. Help them identify the different emotions. Name emotions without judgment. Encourage emotional expressions using words. For example, you can say, ‘I could tell you were mad because you walked away’

Also, pay attention to their body language, facial expressions and tone of voice.

Do validate and label the child’s emotions

Validation is one of the most important steps of emotion coaching. It means accepting, acknowledging and respecting your child’s feelings, even if you don’t agree with them. You can say “I hear you are sad because Molly got the toy you wanted.”

Validating the emotions increases the likelihood of children regulating themselves emotionally. Providing emotional support allows both parents and children to develop better emotion communication skills.

Show your understanding of their position through empathy statements like “I can see why you…” or “It makes sense that…”. This shows that you understand where they are coming from and allows them to feel validated in their feelings.

Do help children understand emotions and learn problem solving

When your child is upset, try to understand the child’s point of view. Affirm their feelings and ask questions from a nonjudgmental tone to understand what they are feeling. When you understand the source of your child’s strong emotions, help them work out how to solve it in a healthy way.

For example, “I wonder what made you feel this way”, ‘How did you feel when that happened?’, or ‘Can you think of anything that would have made it easier?’ Asking these open-ended questions will encourage them to think about what they are feeling and why.

Do teach coping skills

When you feel they are ready, teach them how to deal with challenging emotions, such as anger or sadness, healthily. Emotion coaching of anger can have an immerse impact on their ability to cope with stress. Teach your child at least one coping skill that works well for them, and encourage them to practice daily.

For example, when dealing with anger in a difficult situation, the easiest way to calm a person is by taking slow, deep breath. Practice doing that with your child while they are not upset, so they can more easily start doing it when they get upset.

Another coping skill is re-appraising. Help your child reexamine the upsetting situation. Reappraising is not the same as invalidating emotions. Instead of saying that their anger is not valid, help them look at the situation from a different angle.

For example, teach your child to think, ‘I can feel sad about this, but it doesn’t have to ruin my day.’

Do model emotional control and provide examples

Be aware of your own emotional well-being and take care of yourselves to help provide a healthy environment for your children. You become a role model when you can regulate your own emotions.

When you explain your emotional reactions to your kids, they will know what is going on. Share your own personal stories about your experiences where you felt a certain way. For example, “I remember feeling really embarrassed when I spilled my drink at school.” Your child will then relate to that same experience and learn how you reacted in that situation. It helps them understand themselves better and lets them know what behavior (or expression of emotion) is acceptable in a certain situation.

boy crys on mother shoulder

Don’t invalidate a child’s feelings or tell them how they should feel

Invalidation is a reaction that denies, rejects, or makes light of the child’s feelings.

For example, when your children are sad you can say, “Don’t feel sad,” “Don’t be silly,” or “You have no reason to be mad.” By doing so, you minimize their emotions and send a message that their feelings are not valid, and that it is not right to feel this way. Making light of a child’s feelings tells them that their feelings are wrong.

Don’t criticize or shame a child for having negative emotions

Emotions make us human. Human emotions allow us to feel, create, and experience life. However, we need to manage them so that we can experience a wide range of emotion without getting out of control or impairing our day-to-day lives.

Criticizing or shaming emotions interferes with the child’s emotional development and teaches them that there is something wrong with them when they feel certain emotions.

For example, saying ‘He’s a brat when he’s angry” is not critical and shaming, but it’s also belittling your child’s right to have feelings.

Don’t dismiss or disrespect your child’s feelings

Your child will learn how to regulate emotions by how they are treated and supported by their parents. Children internalize feelings of rejection and learn unhealthy, ineffective ways of managing intense emotions like anger and sadness.

Parents who dismiss or disrespect a child’s feelings send a message that their feelings don’t matter, which can hinder emotional intelligence development. Children of emotion-dismissing parents learn that they should suppress their expression. Research has linked emotion suppressions to mental health issues such as depression in adolescents​14​.

Don’t be impatient and expect instant changes

A child is born with an emotional system that is not fully developed. It takes time for children to learn self-control. Emotion regulation does not develop overnight. Therefore, be patient in teaching and guiding kids through their emotional development journey.

Allowing emotion doesn’t mean we should let our kids or teenagers have angry outbursts. We should still set boundaries and disallow inappropriate behavior. But we can do it positively and in a controlled way, instead of an angry and punitive way, by providing guidance to prevent the escalation of emotion.

When you allow kids enough time, space and guidance to develop their own regulation skills, you will reap glorious rewards eventually.

Final Thoughts On Emotion Coaching

Emotion coaching is one of the three fundamental ways parents can teach kids about feelings and how to regulate their heightened emotion. There are strong associations of emotion coaching style with child outcomes. It will pay off to teach your child about feeling. However, if things turn out to be too difficult, it may be time to look for the help of a family therapist.


References

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    Lopes PN, Salovey P, Côté S, Beers M. Emotion Regulation Abilities and the Quality of Social Interaction. Petty RE, ed. Emotion. Published online 2005:113-118. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.5.1.113
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    Wills TA, Pokhrel P, Morehouse E, Fenster B. Behavioral and emotional regulation and adolescent substance use problems: A test of moderation effects in a dual-process model. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Published online June 2011:279-292. doi:10.1037/a0022870
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    Schäfer JÖ, Naumann E, Holmes EA, Tuschen-Caffier B, Samson AC. Emotion Regulation Strategies in Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Youth: A Meta-Analytic Review. J Youth Adolescence. Published online October 12, 2016:261-276. doi:10.1007/s10964-016-0585-0
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    Dunsmore JC, Booker JA, Ollendick TH. Parental Emotion Coaching and Child Emotion Regulation as Protective Factors for Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Social Development. Published online February 15, 2012:444-466. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2011.00652.x
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    Shortt JW, Stoolmiller M, Smith-Shine JN, Mark Eddy J, Sheeber L. Maternal emotion coaching, adolescent anger regulation, and siblings’ externalizing symptoms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online January 5, 2010:799-808. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02207.x
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    Morris AS, Silk JS, Steinberg L, Myers SS, Robinson LR. The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation. Social Development. Published online May 2007:361-388. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00389.x
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    Lunkenheimer ES, Shields AM, Cortina KS. Parental Emotion Coaching and Dismissing in Family Interaction. Social Development. Published online May 2007:232-248. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00382.x
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    Betts J, Gullone E, Allen JS. An examination of emotion regulation, temperament, and parenting style as potential predictors of adolescent depression risk status: A correlational study. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Published online June 2009:473-485. doi:10.1348/026151008×314900

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