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Emotion Coaching: Help Kids Develop Self-Regulation

What Is Emotion Coaching

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

In emotion coaching, parents teach children how to mindfully recognize their own emotions and the emotions of others, 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.

father comforts son

Emotion coaching vs emotion dismissing

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 emotions offensive.

We mistakenly think that, if we downplay it, the child will stop paying attention to it. With the passage of time, everything will be fine.

Some parents dismiss children’s feelings when they think it is just a phase or that the situation will be better without the child’s emotions.

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

Sweeping a child’s 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 on 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 behavioral issues and emotional problems​1​.

Parents adopting a coaching belief, or accepting the concept of emotional coaching for children, can lead to an indirect effect in regulating their children’s feelings. Such emotion coach tends to have more positive reactions to children’s emotions. They are more accepting and keen on problem-solving. Studies have found consistent links between emotion coaching and a decrease in negativity, behavioral issues, depressive symptoms, and emotional regulating problems​2​.

The Importance Of Emotion Coaching

To lead successful lives, our children need the ability to overcome the challenges life throws at them. 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​4​ and better social competence ​5​. Self-regulated adolescents have less bad behavior, substance abuse​6​ , and delinquencies​7​. In adulthood, emotional regulation is linked to more job satisfaction​8​ and life satisfaction​9​.

The lack of emotional regulation is a risk factor in developing mental disorders such as depressive disorder and anxiety disorder​10​. Severe cases of emotion dysregulation are also linked to conduct disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder​11​ and disruptive behavior disorder​12​.

In psychologist Morris’ three-part model, parents influence their child’s feelings and regulation through three primary mechanisms – modeling, emotion coaching, and creating an emotional climate​13​.

Proper emotional coaching from parents helps regulate a child’s negative emotions. Children of emotion coaching parents are more likely to have fewer behavioral problems​14​, better emotional self-control, and higher emotional intelligence.

Emotion-coaching meta-emotion philosophy

Emotional development expert Dr. John Gottman and principles researchers from the Gottman Institute proposed an emotion-coaching meta-emotion philosophy. They found that an emotion-coaching parent has these five characteristics:

  1. They are aware of emotions in themselves and their children, even when they are at low intensity.
  2. They use emotional moments as a terrific opportunity to connect and teach effective regulation​3​ instead of shaming a child for making emotional outbursts.
  3. They can see things form a child’s perspective and validate how their child feels.
  4. When their child expresses emotions, they verbally label them.
  5. They problem-solve with the child, set limits, discuss goals, and find strategies to deal with the situation that caused the negative emotion.

These characteristics can also serve as five steps of emotion coaching.

Emotion Coaching Dos and Don’ts

The following tips and common pitfalls can help parents start emotion coaching and raise an emotionally intelligent child.

DO notice emotions, including low intensity ones

Noticing and allowing your child and yourself to feel emotions is the first step in emotion coaching.

For a parent to be able to help their child regulate their emotions, they must first be aware of their own emotions. Emotional awareness is the ability to recognize emotions, even at low intensity and identify them. It also includes paying close attention to others’ emotional presence.

DO listen with empathy and attunement

Encourage your child’s emotional expression using words and listen empathically with attunement.

Your response should be congruent with or attuned to your child’s emotional state. The parent’s attuned response includes words, facial expressions and tone of voice that reflect your child’s current state of emotions. However, you don’t have to match their emotions completely.

For example, if your child is angry, you can make a frowny face and look displeased. If your child is crying, you can show a sadness expression.

DO acknowledge, validate and label emotions

With words, acknowledge what you are seeing and hearing. Validate, accept and show respect to your child’s feelings, even if you don’t agree with them.

For instance, you can say “I hear you are sad because Molly got the toy you wanted.”co

Show your understanding of their position through empathy statements such as, “I can see why you…” or “It makes sense that…”.

Let them know that you understand where they are coming from.

Label emotions to help your child identify the different emotions. Emotion labeling gives children words to help them turn upsetting feelings into definable and normalized experiences.

Here is a good emotional coaching example. When your child is very upset, you can name their emotion and action without judgment, ‘I could tell you were mad because you walked away.’

Stating the fact without judgment is a powerful way to teach your child to accept their own emotions.

Providing emotional support allows you and your child to develop better emotion communication skills and enhances family relationships.

DO help children understand emotions and learn problem solving

When your child is upset, try to understand the child’s point of view. Ask questions from a nonjudgmental tone to understand what they are thinking. When you understand the source of your child’s strong emotions, help them find possible solutions to handle big emotions 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. Emotions 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 a slow, deep breath. Practice doing that with your child while they are not upset, so that they are more likely to use 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 instance, 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 provide a healthy environment for your child. Learn to regulate your own emotions so that you can become a good role model.

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 appropriate behaviors (or expression of emotions) are in a certain situation.

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.

“Don’t feel sad,” “Don’t be silly,” or “You have no reason to be mad” are all examples of invalidation.

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 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 a certain way.

Saying ‘He’s a brat when he’s angry” is not only critical and shaming, but it also belittles 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 emotion coaching parents. When children internalize feelings of rejection, they learn unhealthy and ineffective ways to manage intense emotions.

Dismissing or disrespecting a child’s feelings sends a message that they don’t matter. It can hinder their 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​15​.

Don’t be impatient and expect instant changes

The emotion-regulating part of a child’s nervous system is undeveloped at birth. It takes time for kids to learn self-control. Emotion regulation does not develop overnight. Be patient in teaching and guiding kids through their emotional development journey.

Allowing emotion doesn’t mean we should let our kids or angry teenagers have angry outbursts. Setting limits is still necessary to 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 escalation of emotion.

When you allow kids enough time and space to develop their 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 is a strong association between emotion coaching and child outcomes. It will pay off to teach your child about feeling. But if things turn out to be too difficult, it may be time to look for the help of a family therapist.


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