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Emotion Coaching for Children

Kennedy Markulec

Jan 2, 2023

What Does Emotion Coaching Mean?

The term ’emotion coaching’ comes from the research of Dr. John Gottman, acclaimed relationship researcher and co-founder of The Gottman Institute. Gottman et al. introduced the parenting concept of parental meta-emotion philosophy, which refers to a parent’s thoughts and feelings about their own emotions and their children’s emotions (Gottman, 1996). Patterns emerged in their meta-emotion research and they found two overarching categories for parent meta-emotion philosophy: dismissing parents and emotion coaching parents.

An emotion coaching parent helps their child understand the different emotions the child is experiencing, why those emotions occur, and how to handle them (Gottman, 1996). These parents guide and support their children through their emotional moments in a healthy and connective way.

On the other side of the spectrum, dismissive parents perceive negative or uncomfortable emotions as potentially harmful to the child. Though dismissive parents can still be sensitive to their child’s feelings, their approach is to ignore or deny their child’s emotions as much as possible to make the situation better (Gottman, 1996).

What is Emotion Coaching for Kids?

Emotion coaching allows children to feel heard and understood in their most vulnerable moments. As an emotional coach, parents and caregivers model empathy and engage in co-constructed problem solving with their child. This is an essential piece of children’s emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development.

For children, having an trusted adult as their emotion coach encourages them to develop a deeper connection to themselves and others. Emotion coaching supports the emotional and behavioral wellbeing of a child by enhancing the quality of the relationship between adult and child through close attention to the emotions that underlie the child’s behaviors (Gus, 2015). This process builds intimacy and connection between you and your child, and highlights the child’s perspective through child-led problem solving.

Essential Steps of Emotion Coaching

Follow these five steps to become a successful emotion coach for your child. Note: before engaging in step 1, take a deep breath.

Step 1: Notice emotions in yourself and others

Start by practicing with low-intensity emotions to develop an awareness of your child’s feelings. Begin to notice the physical signs and/or common situations that result in an emotional moment for your child.

Additionally, it’s essential to develop your own emotional awareness so you can identify when you’re feeling an emotion, label it, and recognize the presence of emotions in others.

Step 2: Lean into connection

Recognize that your child’s expression of emotion is the perfect moment for connection, not distance. Lean into emotional situations to build intimacy between you and your child. This allows the child to feel seen, heard, and understood.

Step 3: Empathize

Listen to your child with empathy and curiosity. Use your imagination to put yourself in their shoes and validate their feelings without judgment or criticism. Remember: empathy is a skill that can be developed and consistent practice is key. Let your child know it’s ok to feel the way they’re feeling.

Step 4: Label emotions

Help your child label their emotions with words. They might not yet have the vocabulary to tell you how they’re feeling. Providing children with emotion words can help transform a big, uncomfortable feeling into something more tangible. This will help your child increase their emotional awareness and vocabulary, and normalizes their emotional experiences.

Note: It’s important to do this with pleasant emotions as well.

Step 5: Problem-solve

Once your child is more calm, work with them to find solutions to their problems. Set appropriate limits when necessary if their behavior is unsafe or unkind to others. First, ask your child how they would solve the problem, and if they’re stumped, offer your help. Assist your child with identifying their goals, brainstorming possible solutions, and choosing the best course of action.

Importance of Emotion Coaching

Research has shown that emotion coaching is related to improved emotional regulation for children (Gottman, 1996). This includes the child’s ability to self-soothe and regulate uncomfortable emotions. Additionally, children at the age of five whose parents are emotion coaches demonstrate positive social-emotional outcomes and peer relations at age eight (Gottman, 1996).

Studies have also found that children of emotion coaching parents experience less anxiety-disorders (Hurrell et al., 2017) and emotion coaching may serve as a protective factor for children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) (Dunsmore, 2014). Parental emotion coaching has also been shown to reduce adolescent depressive symptoms when family stress is high (Lobo et al., 2022), demonstrating that this strategy may be a source of resilience for youth in stressful home environments.

Though there have been many studies about emotion coaching, there is still a need for research for emotion coaching with diverse family structures and ethnicities. It’s important to note that every family system exists within social and cultural contexts, and for some families, these specific steps for emotion coaching may not be the best fit.

Common Mistakes Parents Make When Handling Child Emotions

Here are some common pitfalls parents and caregivers may fall into when tending to a child’s feelings. If you notice yourself in any of these examples, don’t panic! There’s no time like the present to enhance connection and communication in your family’s relationships.

  • Escalating your child’s emotions with your own. As much as you want your children to have great emotional coping skills and self-regulation, part of the development of those skills is what they learn from you. Practice modeling for your child what you’d like them to be able to do.
  • Minimizing or dismissing a child’s feelings sends the message that their feelings don’t matter or that what they’re feeling is wrong. It can be helpful to think of emotions on a comfortable/uncomfortable spectrum vs. a good/bad spectrum. This normalizes emotions and encourages emotional expression. The mood meter can be a useful tool for children to have a visual representation of where their feelings fall on the spectrum.
  • Swooping in to fix the problem. It’s so tempting to want to make a child’s emotional discomfort and pain go away by distracting them or fixing the problem for them. However, doing so misses the beneficial opportunity the emotional experience presents for connection and teaching.

How to Identify Your Child’s Emotions

Does your child ball their fists when they get angry? Do they start to fidget when they’re nervous? All behavior is meaningful and serves as communication to let you know how your child is feeling and what they’re experiencing in that moment.

Start to look for patterns in your child’s behavior. While you’re labeling your child’s feelings (step 4), start with what you notice about them in terms of changes in behavior or mood. For example, “Alex, I notice there are tears in your eyes and I can see that you’re sad.” Following with, “Is there anything else you’re feeling?” Oftentimes, children will tell you if you’ve labeled their emotion correctly or not, which is an important part of developing their emotional awareness and vocabulary.

Tips for Effectively Responding to Child Emotions

Remain engaged even if child isn’t responding to your coaching. Picture your child feeling big, intense emotions; there are tears and screaming and the first steps of emotion coaching just aren’t working. Stay connected to your child by saying something like, “I can see that you’re very upset right now. I want you to know that you’re safe and I’m here for you. We’ll get through this together. Do you need some space right now? Ok, you know what you need to do. I’ll be right here when you need me.” Remain close but give your child space to feel their feelings.

Model for them what a calm mind and body look and sound like by taking deep breaths yourself, maybe holding your hand to your chest, and even repeating phrases like “I’m here. You’re safe.” It’s important to highlight the child’s strengths and skills to be able to cope with what they’re feeling; this helps the child feels a sense of agency and control.

One of the key elements of responding to a child’s feelings is to remain a calm and stable presence for them. Our bodies are hardwired to recognize and respond to emotions in others. If your child is upset, and in turn you become upset, the situation can quickly spiral out of control and lead the child to feel unsafe, unseen, and unheard. By responding to your child’s emotional expression with calm, empathetic curiosity, you are demonstrating that you can be their safe harbor in the tumultuous sea of their heightened emotions.

It’s simple, but not easy. Practice remaining calm and centered with your child’s lower intensity emotions, recognizing your own emotions that come up. Change won’t happen overnight but consistently practicing your self-regulation and emotion coaching process can be transformational for your connection with your child.

Dismissing Your Child’s Feelings

Gottman et al. (1996) further categorized common parent behaviors and attitudes towards children’s emotions into four identified “types”: Dismissing, Disapproving, Laissez-Faire, and Emotion Coaching.

Dismissing parents disengage and shift focus from negative emotions mostly through distraction techniques. Often dismissing parents feel that emotions (particularly big emotions) are unhealthy, toxic, or manipulative, and believe that children will get over these feelings with time rather than problem-solving (Gottman,1996). Dismissing parents may even find it painful to see their child express great amounts of sadness, anger, or fear and so do not help their child process their emotional experience. Children of dismissing parents may feel that something is wrong with them or that what they feel is not appropriate. They may also struggle to regulate their emotions.

Disapproving parents are similar to dismissing parents, but utilize more negative, critical, judgmental and authoritative strategies for handling their child’s emotions and behaviors. Disapproving parents see emotions as something to get rid of, typically through punishment. They see their child’s feelings as having little to no meaning. The effects on the child are similar to dismissing parents.

Laissez-Faire parents are permissive without limits on behavior and offer little guidance for problem-solving or helping their child understand their emotions. These parents often accept but ignore their child’s big or negative emotions (such as anger or sadness), making it difficult for children to regulate their emotions in a healthy way. Children of laissez-faire parents often struggle with self-control and social skills (Gottman, 1996).

Emotion coaching parents meet their children’s emotions with attention, empathy, and respect. They view emotional times as a space to build intimacy and children are guided through their emotions through structure, limit setting, and problem-solving. All emotions are recognized and accepted, though not all behaviors are. Children become comfortable expressing their feelings, display self-regulation skills, and develop empathy for others.

Invalidating Your Child’s Emotion

Invalidation is the act of denying, rejecting, or dismissing someone’s feelings. Invalidating behaviors include minimizing or dismissing children’s unpleasant emotions, expressing disbelief or doubt about an emotional experience, or criticizing or blaming children for their feelings (Yule, 2020). Regular invalidation of feelings can have lasting effects for children; With studies finding that adolescents of parental invalidation have higher levels of emotional dysregulation as well as increased internalizing and externalizing symptoms (Buckholdt, 2014).

Validation for a child doesn’t mean that you agree with their behavior (boundaries and limits to protect safety and respect for others and the environment are extremely important). However, validating a child’s feelings means that you can empathetically understand why they’re feeling that way. Behaviors that show validation, for example, can be emotion focused listening such as repeating or rephrasing the child’s words.

Saying phrases like “That would make me feel angry too” or ” I can see why you’re angry” show that you’re empathetic to what they’re experiencing. Validation provides non-judgmental acknowledgement of a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Horan, 2021).

Common Dismissive Phrases Used by Parents

Again, if you’ve found yourself saying any of these phrases, it’s ok. There’s always an opportunity to respond differently the next time an emotional connection presents itself! Phrases to stay away from include:

  • “It’s not a big deal”
  • “Don’t feel sad/angry/upset etc.”
  • “Just forget about it and move on”
  • “Don’t be so dramatic”
  • “Well, life’s not fair…”
  • “It’s not worth getting upset over” or “It’s not important”
  • “Calm down!”

Building Emotional Intelligence in Kids

It’s essential for children to experience the feelings of their emotions and practice tolerating them to develop their self-control and emotional intelligence (Gottman). Emotional intelligence is the awareness, understanding, and ability to express and manage one’s emotions (Gottman).

Emotion coaching goes hand in hand with children developing emotional intelligence and is often cited as an effective strategy.

Listen with Empathy and Attention

Empathetic listening provides your child with a safe space to feel complex emotions, whether those feelings are comfortable or uncomfortable, pleasant or unpleasant. Empathetic listening has two parts: reflecting content of what was said and reflecting inferred feelings. Empathetic listening is strongest when these two pieces are combined. This is something therapists practice as well!

For example, your child comes home from school and says, “I don’t like school. No one wanted to play with me at recess today.” An empathetic response might be: “Sounds like you were upset today (inferring feeling) that no one played with you at recess (reflecting content). Do you want to talk about it?”

Listening with your whole body is important too. This might mean putting down what you’re doing when you notice an opportunity for connection, getting on the child’s level or looking in their direction, and demonstrating that you’re paying attention to what they’re saying.

Why an Effective Parent is an Emotion Coach

Emotion coaching is a parenting approach that allows children to feel seen, understood, and unconditionally accepted for who they are. Most importantly, it allows parents to reframe their child’s emotional moments as points of connection and intimacy. Years of research have shown the effectiveness of emotion coaching for improving children’s mental and physical outcomes (Gottman, 1996). The beauty of emotion coaching is the focus on creating family relationships that allows for growth, empathy, and deepening the emotional connection between you and your child.

 

Works Cited:

Buckholdt, K. E., Parra, G. R., & Jobe-Shields, L. (2014). Intergenerational transmission of emotional dysregulation through parents invalidation of emotions: Implications for adolescent internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23, 324-332. DOI 10.1007/s10826-013-9768-4

Dunsmore, J. C., Booker, J. A., & Ollendick, T. H. (2013). Parental emotion coaching and child emotion regulation as protective factors for children with oppositional defiant disorder. Social Development, 22(3). doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2011.00652.x.

Gottman, J. M., Katz, L. F., & Hooven, C. (1996). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: Theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology, 10(3), 243-268.

Gus, L., Gilbert, L. G., & Rose, J. (2015) Emotion coaching, a universal strategy for supporting and promoting sustainable emotional and behavioral well-being. Education and Child Psychology, 32(1).

Hurrell, K. E., Houwing, F. L., & Hudson, J. L. (2017). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and emotion coaching in families of children and adolescents with an anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 45, 569-582. DOI 10.1007/s10802-016-0180-6

Lobo, F. M., Lunkenheimer, E., Lucas-Thompson, R. G., & Seiter, N. S. (2021). Parental emotion coaching moderates the effects of family stress on internalizing symptoms in middle childhood an adolescence. Social Development, 30(4), 1023-1039. doi:10.1111/sode.12519.

Paley, B. & Hajal, N. J. (2022). Conceptualizing emotion regulation and coregulation as family-level phenomena. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 25, 19-43. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-022-00378-4.

Shortt, J. W., Stoolmiller, M., Smith-Shine, J. N., Eddy, J. M., & Sheeber, L. (2010). Maternal emotion coaching, adolescent anger regulation, and siblings’ externalizing symptoms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(7). 799-808. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02207.x.

Yule, K., Murphy, C., & Grych, J. (2020). Adaptive functioning in high-risk preschoolers: Caregiver practices beyond parental warmth. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 29, 115-127. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-019-01660-w

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