Recently I presented a Hot Topic on Emotion Coaching. This is a model that aims to help children regulate their emotions. Research links emotional competence with improved relationships, communication and behaviour so it’s a very useful tool to have as a parent. Below I have outlined the 5 main steps of Emotion Coaching with a short explanation under each one. It’s definitely not a comprehensive outline; rather a taster for anybody wanting to know more. My main source is John Gottman, Ph.D., who is the author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.
Gottman’s 5 Key Steps to Emotion-Coaching
Being Aware of the Child’s Emotions
Often we’re only tuning in to the high intensity emotions. This can be stressful if both your child and yourself are getting worked up or feel overwhelmed. Remember that there are also moderate intensity emotions and this is what Emotion Coaching is best suited to. Start by trying to increase your awareness of what/how your child is feeling at different points in the day. You will also do well to ask yourself about your own feelings in a range of circumstances. Take the time to talk about and share feelings with your child in an age appropriate way. The more you do this the more natural it will become for you both. If the child is very young, use tangible expressions of feelings e.g. with characters in their play or with feeling faces, drawings etc..
Recognising the Emotion as an Opportunity for Intimacy and Teaching
When it becomes obvious that a child is feeling a particular emotion we are likely to have some kind of reaction. Perhaps we don’t want them to feel that way because it will be uncomfortable for them. Perhaps we want to distract them from it or suppress it because either we don’t have time to sit with them or we can feel that it’s affecting us. Often we fear emotions escalating or think that what we say or do could make it worse. If this is the case, we’re seeing our child’s emotion as something to manage, deal with or discipline. How would that make you feel if someone felt they had to be the boss of your feelings? The key point here is that ignoring emotions or trying to fix them doesn’t make them go away. They just come back bigger the next time.
Acknowledging how they feel is to say “it’s OK to have feelings” and “you matter to me, lets work it out together”. No need to see high emotions as a danger or crisis; it’s an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
Listening Empathetically & Validating the Child’s Feelings
To listen empathetically is to use both non-verbal and verbal behavior. We have to look like we’re listening with our body and facial expressions and we have to show that we’re listening by what we say. To empathise is to step into the other person’s shoes and imagine what it might feel like at their age to experience that. We might reflect back what we are observing and hearing e.g. “You seem a bit sad”. We then need to validate that it’s OK to feel sad e.g. “I would feel sad if that happened to me” or “I think anybody who lost their favourite toy would feel sad…”
In other words, we don’t want to be dismissive of their emotions. We want to connect with them at that moment and help them to feel understood and that it’s OK.
Helping the Child to Verbally Label the Emotions being experienced
When children are young, sometimes they don’t know what they’re feeling or that there’s even a word for it. This might be the first time they’ve ever felt that way. Your helping them to name that emotion is teaching them about feelings. This can be a worthwhile practice even prior to your child talking as language development starts much earlier than when they say their first words. Feelings are categorized into 5 main groups (as you may have noticed in the movie Inside Out): Joy, Sadness, Worry, Anger and Disgust. We can also coach our children through role modeling: if you are having a feeling in a certain situation then take the opportunity to put words to it out loud. e.g.“I’m feeling very frustrated because the traffic is just not moving”.
Helping Children to Problem Solve (& setting limits where appropriate)
Often children get emotional over an incident that happened or a problem they feel stuck in. This is when we can explore options regarding what to do about it. Problem solving has a step by step method that I won’t go into here but is useful to know. You may find that you already do it quite naturally. It’s important to acknowledge at this 5th step that not all feelings can be ‘solved’. Some just have to be accepted and sometimes they’ll feel uncomfortable. The good thing about feelings is that mostly they are transitory and temporary. This can be a comfort to anybody and a way to even soothe ourselves. As the wise saying goes: “This too will pass”.
Coming soon for more on this subject: go to Online Hot Topics on The Resilience Centre webpage.