Happy. Sad. Jealous. Hangry.
These are just a few of the different emotions we all experience from time to time. And unfortunately, the potential chaos these feelings can cause in our lives won’t magically disappear as we tally more trips around the sun.
This makes the ability to regulate feelings important at every stage of life. Because while emotional challenges are an unavoidable part of being human, you can empower children with the tools they need to cope in a healthy way. (And in turn, they’ll become more resilient, confident, and self-aware.)
Whether you’re a parent or caregiver wanting to help your children adapt to challenging situations and thrive, or a coach providing resources to help clients who have young children master the complexities of emotion regulation—this guide will show you how. Let’s dive in!
What is emotion coaching?
Emotion coaching is a way of helping children understand and manage their emotions in a healthy and appropriate way—while also building their social and problem-solving skills.
Based on research by American Psychologist Dr. John Gottman, this process involves listening to your children as they express their emotions, validating their feelings, and teaching them skills for self-regulation.
The big idea? Use moments of heightened emotion and resulting behavior as a teaching opportunity. Through empathetic engagement, you’ll tune into the child’s feelings and help them learn to cope with challenging emotions like fear, anger, or even excitement.
How does emotion coaching work? (Including a real-life example.)
The goal of emotion coaching is fairly straightforward: Help children develop “emotional intelligence”—a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman—which describes the ability to identify, understand, and express one’s own emotions and the emotions of others.
With ongoing guidance, children can boost their emotional intelligence, resulting in improved relationships, decision-making, and communication—as well as better stress management, conflict resolution, and overall mental health.
Curious what this looks like in action? Consider the example below.
Let’s say a parent is having a conversation with their child about an upcoming test. It’s clear the child is feeling anxious and overwhelmed. To practice emotion coaching, the parent will:
- Listen and validate their child’s feelings.
- Help their child to explore how they are feeling by encouraging them to talk through their emotions, and ask them questions to help the child better understand their emotions and how to cope with them.
- Provide reassurance and guidance on how to best manage their emotions, such as taking deep breaths or engaging in calming activities like yoga or meditation (to name just a few examples).
- And finally: Create a plan with the child to help them navigate their feelings and be successful during the test.
Is emotion coaching important?
In a word: Yes.
Research shows that greater emotional intelligence leads to higher academic performance, better social competence—and less misbehavior and substance abuse.
Need more proof?
In the book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Dr. John Gottman says, “Researchers have found that even more than your IQ, your emotional awareness and your ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships.”
The opportunity to help our kids be happier, more successful, and capable of cultivating stronger relationships?
We think you’ll agree that’s pretty darn important. Which is why we believe emotion coaching deserves a spot right up there with the most important types of coaching you can do.
How to practice emotion coaching: A step-by-step guide
Ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work? Great!
When you recognize a child in your care is struggling with negative feelings, use these five steps to help them cope:
- Identify emotions. When a child is struggling with an intense emotion, tune in to their feelings and your own. Focus on being present in the moment, actively observing their body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice to pick up on the subtle cues that can help you understand how they’re feeling.
- Encourage your child to express and label their feelings. Many young children have had experiences with adults who were disapproving of their emotions. Aim to create a safe space for them to share what they’re feeling without fear of judgment. Encourage them to identify and label emotions as they come up. This means listening, and offering support and guidance when needed.
- Be aware of how to fix the problem. Emotion Coaching requires you, as an adult parent or caregiver, to recognize the underlying reasons why someone may be feeling a certain way. This requires taking the initiative as a leader to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers so you can gain a better understanding of the situation, and as a result, begin to think about possible solutions you can guide the child toward.
- Problem Solve. Work together to come up with solutions to the problem. Brainstorm ideas and talk about practical ways they can work through their emotions in a constructive way. Once you’ve agreed on a plan, make sure to provide the support they need to follow through.
- Set limits. While we want to give children space to express what they’re feeling without judgment or fear, it’s important to reinforce that certain behavior is unacceptable. For example, if—during an angry tantrum—a child throws a toy at their sibling, this would be the time to discuss why there are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” ways to express emotion. This helps build their understanding of what is—and what isn’t—an appropriate and healthy expression of similar feelings in the future.
Don'ts of emotion coaching
When it comes to navigating the uncertain seas of children’s feelings—what you don’t do (or say) is just as important as following the 5 steps of emotion coaching outlined above.
Here are 3 things to avoid when helping children process their emotions:
- Don’t reject other’s feelings. It’s important to remember that your child’s feelings are valid, even if you don’t agree with them. Yes, even the low intensity ones. Downplaying what they’re experiencing can make them feel misunderstood, frustrated, or even angry. According to The Gottman Institute, the harmful effects of this perceived rejection can lead to the misguided belief that “emotions are bad,” creating challenges that follow them into adulthood.
- Don’t judge or criticize. Discouraging a child from expressing their genuine emotions by telling them they are “wrong” for their reaction, or suggesting how they should or shouldn’t feel can make it seem like you’re not taking their feelings seriously. Intentional or not, this can cause children to feel embarrassed and ashamed.
- Don’t push your children’s emotions. Creating a safe, non-judgmental environment where sharing emotion feels natural to your children is a great thing—but it’s important not to try and force them to talk about what they’re feeling. Make yourself available to your child’s emotions, but give them space (we’ll share some tips for doing this next). Yes, it’s a balance that takes some practice. But with time, you can master the yin and yang of emotional expression.
Emotion coaching phrases for parents
Successful emotion coaching requires great communication. This can be challenging when a child you care about is upset—because in those situations even the best of us can lose our cool. Let these positive phrases serve as a safety net when you’re caught off guard by a barrage of intense emotion.
- “I understand how you feel. Let’s take a few deep breaths and talk about what’s going on.”
- “It’s okay to feel upset, but it’s important to find healthy ways to express those feelings.”
- “I can tell this is really frustrating you. I’m here for you if you need to talk.”
- “Would it help if we brainstormed some solutions together?”
- “It’s okay to make mistakes. I’m proud of you for trying even when it’s hard.”
Of course, you’ll still want to incorporate what we covered above in this guide for effective emotion coaching, but using these phrases to catch your breath in the heat of the moment can be a great first step.
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