EMOTION COACHING – A brief outline

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.








Effective Communication and Value Alignment in Effective Relationships

Effective communication is essential for a relationship to grow & function successfully. Being a good communicator requires effective listening & understanding. Clear communication requires our words, tone of voice & body language to be congruent & reflect the true meaning of our message. Communication is comprised of three key components:
- Words make up only 15% of a message
- Tone of voice makes up 35% of a message
- Body language makes up 50 % of a message

Communication is the conveying of thoughts, feelings, opinions, ideas and information. It is the means of sending messages to one another. Effective communication depends on the clarity and delivery success, as well as how it’s received and understood.

Categories of communication:

1. Information Exchange
 Imparting & gathering information
 Matter of fact & straightforward talking
2. Persuasive Communication
 Trying to convince someone to change their mind or move their position
 Marked by passion, emotion & persistence
3. Motivational Communication
 Motivating someone to get involved, work harder or care more
 Marked by emotion & animation (but not trying to change their mind)
4. Problem-Solving Communication
 Facing a problem or crisis & approaching it as a team
5. Connection Communication
 Connecting or relating to someone in a meaningful & emotional way.

Key points in effective communication:
‘The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said’
– Peter Drucker

• Be AWARE of the other person’s feelings
• RESPECT the other person’s point of view
• Be CONFIDENT about what you are saying
• COMMIT to your point of view
• IDENTIFY the main issues at hand
• FOCUS on one point at a time
• Be HONEST in your approach
• Conclude the communication session with HARMONY
• Never compromise your INTEGRITY just to win an argument
• Trust & follow your INTUITION
• Don’t be judgemental, but rather UNDERSTANDING
• Seek first to UNDERSTAND then to be understood
• It is not only WHAT you say but HOW you say it
• Learn to LISTEN and listen to LEARN
• Say what you mean and MEAN what you say
• Agree to disagree
• Do not constantly remind the other person of past mistakes
• Only argue over things that matter
• Use HUMOUR in your communication
• Speak only 2 sentences at a time & KEEP IT SHORT

Effective relationship habits:

• Be Proactive
 Become an agent of positive change in your relationship
 Make more deposits into the ‘emotional bank account’ than withdrawals
• Prioritise
 Put first things first and make your relationship a priority
 Ensure that the infrastructure of your relationship is solid
• Establish meaningful rituals & traditions
 Create a sense of security & peace in your relationship
 Establish set boundaries
 Promote rhythm in your relationship
• Think ‘Win-Win’
 Move from ‘me’ to ‘we’
 Come up with solutions which are mutually beneficial
 Solve problems through empathic communication
 Get on the same page
• Synergise
 Build unity through valuing & celebrating differences
 Creative team work & cooperation

Effective listening skills:
‘When people talk, listen completely’
– Ernest Hemingway

• Listening unblocks hearing
• Attend when listening
• Be aware of body language
• Recognise how emotions effect listening & responding
• Use open body position
• Maintain eye contact during the entire conversation
• Do not interrupt
• Remember the purpose of listening
• Encourage them to tell you how they feel
• Use door openers & acknowledgements
• Reflect back facts & feelings

Characteristics of effective relationships:                                                               ‘The relationship is the communication bridge between people’
– Alfred Kadushin

• Being perceived by the other person as trustworthy, dependable & consistent
• Being expressive enough as a person to communicate unambiguously
• Experience positive attitudes (e.g. warmth, caring, liking, interest, respect) towards the other person
• Being strong enough as a person when separated from the other person
• Being secure enough within oneself to permit the other person’s separateness
• See & feel the world as the other person does
• Accept each facet of the other person as presented by them
• Act with sufficient sensitivity in the relationship
• Keep the relationship free of judgements and evaluation
• Meet the other person as an individual who is in the process of becoming
• Do not be bound by the past.

Values:                                                                                                                           ‘It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are’
– Roy Disney

• Values are aspects that really matter to each of us
• Values are subjective ideas and beliefs we hold as special
• Personal Values provide an internal reference for what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, constructive, etc.
• Our values are learnt at home, at school, in the community, at Church, from family, friends & peers
• We all have different set of values
• Values are formed during three significant periods:
1. Imprint period from birth to 7 years
2. Modelling period from 8 –13 years
3. Socialization period from 13 –21 years
• Types of Values include:
 – Ethical/moral
 – Doctrinal/ideological
 – Social
 – Cultural
 – Aesthetic

Value alignment for effective relationships:     

  • Define personal & relationship/family values
  • Recognising values provide answers to questions of why we do what we do and in what order we choose to do them
  • Recognise value collisions
  • Most conflicts in relationships is due to clashes of personal values.
  • We resist & resent attempts by others to impose their values on us
  • Resolve value collisions
  • Some values get changed as a result of new information & knowledge, new experiences & the influence of people we admire & respect
  • Agree to differ while you respect and celebrate each other’s values


The Separation Story

What is your child’s separation story?

Many children have no idea why their parents separated. Perhaps they were too young at the time to understand what was happening, maybe it was never discussed or possibly it was assumed that they knew what was going on in the family, and why. It could be that parents did not discuss it because they wished to protect their child from some harsh realities. Possibly it felt to too awkward, or embarrassing, for the parents to talk about it with their child.

The fact is, children need an age-appropriate separation story to make sense of their world.

When I ask parents about their separation story, two stories are never the same. Each partner in the couple has their own experience of the separation and their own version of reality. Hearing each parent’s account, it can sometimes seem as if the parents were in different marriages or relationships from each other!

Human beings are meaning-making creatures. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, every day of our lives we revise our own story, adding information from new experiences and reviewing old experiences to make sense of our world. Everyone who has experienced a separation makes sense of it in their own way.  It may be as simple as, ‘We were just unsuited to one another’, to a very complicated story of betrayal and loss.

Parents need to tell their child an account of the separation, so that the child can make sense of his or her life as a child of separation or divorce. The explanation needs to be appropriate for the age of your child. Your child needs to hear the story at different stages of her life, so that it is continually updated in a way that makes sense, and also has an emotional truth to it.

Using the word ‘story’ does not imply that it is fiction or untrue.  Your child needs to be told a simplified version of the truth that will be helpful for him or her. For example, telling her that the other parent had an affair is not helpful for a child, and can be downright confusing, undermining the child’s relationship with that parent. Telling a child that Mummy and Daddy were not getting along, and so they thought they would be happier living in two different homes, is a version of your divorce story that does not blame either parent and helps your child understand what has happened in a way that they can relate to.

When do you tell your child the separation story?

The answer is ‘as early as possible’. Children need an explanation of what is happening in the family at the time of their parents’ separation. This can be difficult for parents, as it is usually a time of crisis, when parents may feel least able to reach outside themselves and meet their child’s needs.  However, children need to be told an age-appropriate version of what is going on. At the very same time they need reassurance that they are loved by both parents and that things will be OK. Keep it simple and free of blame. ‘Mummy and Daddy aren’t getting along right now, and we need to move to Nana’s for a little while’. If it’s a volatile situation you could add ‘where we will be safe.’  The reassurance part is, ‘But Mummy and Daddy still love you and we’re making sure that everything will be ok.’

What if your child is too young at the time of separation to be told a separations story?

Tell them anyway. Telling your child what is going on in a calm way will help both you and the child. Your child will be reassured by the reassuring tone of your voice.

Who can tell the separation story?

Ideally both parents will tell the separation story together, at the time of separation. In a planned and mutually agreed separation this is possible, but in the messiness of real life, when separation is usually a time of crisis, this rarely happens.  In an ideal world, where both parents put the child’s needs first, both parents will tell the child together. Both parents will offer the child reassurances.

In my experience as a family consultant and counsellor, the child is often told the separation story by the parent with whom she or he is living. This is for the obvious reason that the child is spending more time with this parent.

How often do you tell the separation story?

You can tell the separation story as often as you feel the child needs to hear it. Take the cue from your child. Tell the story during a quiet time.

The story will need to be updated at different times of the child’s development, according to your child’s growing awareness, her expanding knowledge of the world and increasing capacity to understand. Even though your child may be very bright or seem mature beyond his or her years, it must a child-focussed version of events. It should not burden a child.

I saw Rania, when I interviewed her for a Family Report, when she was eight years old. Her parents separated when Rania was eighteen months old, so she had no memory of living with her father. After the separation, Rania’s mother moved back to a loving, supportive and (says the husband) a controlling family.  Rania felt very loved and supported by three generations of the maternal family. She was a ‘girly’ girl and very close to her Mum. Mum and Rania loved to talk to one another, about all kinds of things, and from time to time the conversation would drift to why her parents separated. 

At first the mother, Tamara, protected Rania from knowledge about the negative aspects of her marriage, but as Rania became a little older, Tamara disclosed to Rania that Rania’s father had hit her when Tamara was pregnant, in a single incident, and had also had a fight with Rania’s grandfather and hit him at the time of separation. This made Rania sad. She loved her father and had trouble reconciling the loving father she knew and spent time with every second weekend, with the hitting husband who hurt her mother. Worse still, Tamara told Rania that Rania’s father had hit her ‘while Rania was in her tummy’. When Rania told me this, her eyes filled with tears.  I asked her which hurt most, that her father had hit her mother or hit Rania. Rania replied that she was sadder for her mother who had been the one who had been hurt. 

Do you think that this separation story is appropriate for eight-year old Rania?  The best test is to ask yourself, ‘Is it helpful for the child?’  Most parents will agree that it is definitely not a helpful story. No one should ever be hit, however the story burdens Rania with all kinds of information that she is too young to process. It has the potential to undermine her relationship with her father.  It is the kind of information that the mother should be telling another adult, like a counsellor or family friend, not a child. 

Rania’s father had his own separation story.  He said that during the marriage he felt continually undermined by his father-in-law and backed into a powerless corner. At first his wife took his side but as time went on, she become increasingly under the influence of the maternal family.  This caused an unbearable loyalty conflict and there was a rift in the marriage. He claimed that the instances of family violence were greatly exaggerated and were two isolated events only, one occurring at the time of separation when things were extremely volatile. He said he was not a violent man.  He said that, in fact, he abhorred violence. 

Rania’s father had not had occasion to discuss the separation with Rania, nor had she asked him about it. 

What could Rania’s parents have told her about the separation, that was true, but that also supported Rania’s psychological and emotional adjustment?

Julieanne Greenfield is a Clinical Social Worker and Consultant at the Family Clinic at The Resilience Centre in Sydney. Find out more about Julieanne by clicking here.