When our children first enter the world we have an innate understanding of how essential it is to respond to their emotions. We tune in to our babies and work hard to understand what is happening when we see them express emotion. Parents of newborns quickly learn the nuanced differences between a cry of physical discomfort (“change my diaper please”), a cry of loneliness (“don’t walk away from me”), and a cry of hunger (“feed me please”).
As children grow, their emotions become vaster, more complex, and sometimes much more intense (the tantrum of a two year-old is a thing of legend). We often start to drift away from attunment and presence with our children and become more concerned with containing or altering their emotional states.
What we do when faced with our children’s emotions is an essential component of parenting. The arena of Emotional Intelligence has demonstrated that the ability to understand our own emotional experience is powerful life-skill in both childhood and adulthood. As parents, we have an essential role to play in fostering Emotional Intelligence in our children by guiding them towards understanding and responding to their own emotional needs.
Emotion Coaching involves parents working hard to understand, empathize with, and sooth their children, before moving on to altering or containing behaviour. From this stance, an emotional outburst is seen as an opportunity for closeness and connection with your child, rather than the start of a negative spiral in which parents become increasingly flustered, frustrated and helpless in the face of their child’s escalating emotional distress.
There are four stages in emotion coaching:
1. Attend / Be Aware of Emotions
This means you pay attention to both your child’s emotions and your own. Watch for changes in facial expression, body language and tone of voice in both yourself and your child. This stage is really about tuning in to what is happening inside you and your child and paying close attention to it. Observe, listen and learn. All emotions have an associated bodily felt sense, for example, fear involves a racing heart rate, sweaty palms. Sadness involved a bodily feeling of slowness and heaviness.
2. Name the Emotion
Once you have an idea of what your child may be feeling, you can take a stab at putting the emotion into words. In this stage you are trying to help your child understand what they are feeling by symbolizing it in language (“You look angry”).
You may also help them to identify and describe the bodily felt-sense that accompanies each named emotion so, “It looks like your body feels all tense and your heart is pounding really fast”. You will often notice the sense of relief that your child experiences when they see that you are genuinely trying to understand them.
3. Validate the Emotion
This is the most important and yet the most challenging of all of the steps of Emotion Coaching. Validating involves putting yourself in your child’s shoes and conveying understanding of their experience as they are experiencing it. This involves imagining what the situation must be like for them. It is important to accept, allow, and validate emotions that are different from what you expected or that are hard for you to understand.
When validating, it is also very important to resist going for the bright side, explaining with logic or trying to help them to see the situation as you see it. If you can do this, you will be showing your child that you understand them (and their unique experience) and this will 1) improve your relationship, 2) encourage them to keep coming to you when things get tough and 3) help them to move forward from the emotional challenge.
4. Meet the Need
Once we have tuned into our childs’ emotional state, helped them label it, and validated the emotion, we can help them meet the need. Each emotion has a corresponding need. For example sadness needs to be soothed with physical comfort and reassurance (“Come here, let me give you a hug”).
A very important distinction here is between fear and anxiety. When children are experiencing fear they are responding to a real danger (i.e. a big dog lunging at them) and the corresponding need is to be protected from that danger. Anxiety does not involve real danger (i.e. they are anxious about going to a birthday party), and the corresponding need is to help the child confront the anxiety-provoking situation with love and support.
This step is often unnecessary since engaging in the prior steps in Emotion Coaching decreases the strength of the emotion and helps the child to engage in their own problem-solving. A child whose fear, anger or sadness has been attended to, symbolized in words and responded to, will often get a hug and then go back to a state of emotional regulation.
When this step is required, problem solving communicates “I will help you sort to this out”, and it can be very helpful, but only if it comes after attending, labelling and validating the emotional experience of the child.
Our tendency is usually to skip the first four steps in this process and go directly to problem solving on behalf of our child. The problem with this is that it will often provoke an escalation in the emotion (more anger, sadness, fear), and it becomes a missed opportunity for closeness and understanding between you and your child.
Working through the steps of Emotion Coaching allows you to deepen your understanding of your child’s inner emotional world, promotes closeness between you and your child, and provides a valuable opportunity for developing Emotional Intelligence related life-skills.