Emotion coaching allows parents to teach children how to mindfully recognize their emotions and use appropriate strategies to cope. A child’s ability to control or influence emotions can influence many aspects of their life, including academic situations, career advancement, and relationships. Find out how parents can teach their children emotional regulation skills by using these science-based insights.
The Role of Emotion Regulation Skill In Life
From brain development to school performance to career opportunities, the ability to regulate emotions has implications at every stage of life. Effective emotion regulatory skill is associated with higher academic performance1, better social skills2, and more life satisfaction3.
In contrast, the lack of emotional regulation is a risk factor in developing mental disorders such as depressive disorder and anxiety disorder4. Severe cases of emotion dysregulation are linked to conduct disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder5 and disruptive behavior disorder6.
Parents can have tremendous impact on children’s emotional regulation skills. Research shows that parents can help their children learn how to manage their negative emotion at home. As a parent, one of the most important things we can do is help our kids learn self-regulation.
According to psychologists Morris’ model, parents influence children’s emotion regulation through three primary mechanisms – modeling, emotion coaching, and emotional climate of the family7.
Parents rarely understand why children cry about the smallest thing. After all, what is so bad about being handed an ice cream instead of picking it up yourself? So, we have a tendency to dismiss, criticize, or trivialize their kids’ feelings.
“It’s no big deal.”
“It’s ok. You can get it next time.”
“Just let it go.”
These are common responses from frustrated parents or parents who find 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 them 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 children.
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 problems8.
Emotional development expert John Gottman and colleagues found that instead of shaming a child for making emotional outbursts, parents who adopt an emotion coaching philosophy view their children’s emotional moments as opportunities for teaching effective regulation9. The parenting technique will help them become an effective emotion coach and reap the benefits of emotion coaching.
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 at the heart of emotion coaching. Being able to recognize, appreciate, and enhance positive emotion contributes to emotional intelligence.
Talk with kids about emotions. Help them identify what they are feeling and name the emotion. 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 aspects 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. It also 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 problem-solve
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.
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. They 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 adolescents10.
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 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.
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