Behaviour & Emotions Core Concepts

Emotion coaching 101: What it is and why kids need it

Emotion coaching

Children misbehave for a myriad of different reasons. Sometimes they are testing the boundaries to see what they can get away with, and for these times, consistently reminding them of the limits is a helpful thing to do. But often parents try to use the same behavioural techniques on behaviours that are really not misbehaviours – rather, they're the result of big feelings.

When a child is experiencing a strong emotion, they often feel overwhelmed and out of control. This is not a time to try to enforce compliance – this needs a different approach. It needs Emotion Coaching.

Emotion coaching is a way of responding to the strong emotions that lie beneath the child’s challenging behaviour. When parents respond to the child’s emotions, instead of their behaviours, the child feels connected, understood and safe. Their emotions dissipate, and they become more able to find solutions to the things that were upsetting them. This does not mean parents should ignore the misbehaviour, it means they address the misbehaviour only after they have helped the child manage their challenging emotions.

When a child is experiencing a strong emotion, they often feel overwhelmed and out of control. This is not a time to try to enforce compliance – this needs a different approach. It needs Emotion Coaching.

When children are coached in how to be aware of, understand and work through their emotions, they learn the skills of emotional intelligence. These skills include self-regulation, learning how people work and learning how to do life better. Children develop emotional intelligence in three ways:

1. By watching how their parents model emotionally intelligent behaviour

How do the parents behave when they are angry? Or anxious? How about when they’re sad? How do the children experience their parents' emotions – do they feel fearful when the parent is angry? Do they feel helpless when the parent is sad?

One way parents can help model emotional intelligence is by talking through the things they are thinking – giving words to some of their internal experiences, and sharing those words with their kids. For example, “This is really frustrating me… I’m going to take a walk and come back to it with a clear head.” Or, “I’m feeling a bit upset right now. I’m going to take some deep breaths to calm down.”

2. By hearing how emotions are talked about in the home

How often do we talk about our emotions? What messages do we give about emotions? Is it okay to feel how we feel? Can we only show pleasant emotions?

Instead of telling our kids that emotions are ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we can teach them that emotions can be ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’. And we can teach them that emotions are useful – they give us important information about ourselves and our environment. For example, anxiety tells us that there may be danger, anger tells us about things that are important to us. As humans, we tend to want to get rid of our unpleasant emotions, but that’s not actually helpful. What’s much more beneficial all round is to simply accept and sit with our emotions.

Instead of telling our kids that emotions are ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we can teach them that emotions can be ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’.

3. By seeing how their emotions are responded to by their parents.

If anxious children are told “You’re such a wimp” or if children are told to “Toughen up” or “Get over it” when they’re upset, they may learn that it’s not okay to feel or express this emotion. They may push it down and try to ignore it. When this happens, it gets difficult to identify how they are feeling. This lack of self-awareness can lead to kids reacting to things. And you probably don't need us to tell you that some of those reactions can be pretty explosive.

Let's talk more about responding to emotions

John Gottman identified four styles for responding to emotions. Gottman noted that we ALL do ALL four styles, although we tend to have a ‘preferred’ style we use most often.

  1. The Emotion Dismissive style is characterised by avoiding or dismissing emotion. These parents tell the child there is no reason to be sad, angry, or anxious, and often miss opportunities to connect. “Get over it” is the catchcry of this style.

  2. In the Emotion Permissive style, anything goes. This style is underpinned by a belief that you need to ‘ride out’ emotions, and that little can be done to regulate them. These parents may show lots of empathy, but fail to set limits by providing guidance, and fail to help the child understand emotions and learn how to regulate them.

  3. The Emotion Disapproving style is more critical and judgmental of the child’s emotions. Parents operating in this style may believe that expressing emotions is a sign of weakness. They tend to disregard and push away their own emotions. “You shouldn’t feel this way” is the go-to response.

  4. The Emotion Coaching style is characterised by valuing all emotions, but not all behaviours. These parents teach their child to understand their emotions and provide guidance and support to develop solutions to problems. “That sounds really tough, I’m here to listen and we will figure it out.” “Everybody needs to cry sometimes. It's good to feel those tears and let them go. I'm right here. You're safe."

The Emotion Coaching style is characterised by valuing all emotions, but not all behaviours.

This emotion coaching approach develops emotional intelligence in children, which is the ability to identify and understand their emotions, understand other’s emotions and respond with empathy, use emotions information to guide their thinking and behaviour, and manage how and when they express their emotions.

Gottman found that parents with a preference for emotion coaching raised children with higher emotional intelligence. In addition, other researchers agree that this gentler, positive parenting technique also results in benefits like better persistence through frustrating tasks, better ability to manage peer pressure and more empathy.

Sounds good, right? So how do we practice emotion coaching?

Gottman offers five steps:

Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotions

When you see your child beginning to tantrum, don’t react to their behaviour, rather think about what emotion they might be feeling. Ask yourself “What’s going on under their behaviour?”

Notice low intensity and high intensity emotions – addressing low intensity feelings is better than letting high intensity emotions overwhelm. In addition, recognise when you are feeling an emotion. Often our child’s strong emotion triggers a strong emotion in ourselves. So, take a minute to soothe your own strong emotions before you deal with your child’s. Take a deep breath before you engage with your child. Remind yourself that your goal is to calm the storm for your child, not escalate it. Calm yourself with a mantra: “It’s not an emergency” or “This is a chance to be there for my child when he’s upset.”

Calm yourself with a mantra: “It’s not an emergency” or “This is a chance to be there for my child when he’s upset.”

Step 2: Recognise emotion as an opportunity to connect

We can choose how we respond to our child in their distress. If parents turn away from a child’s emotional experience (emotion dismissing), or turn against it with anger or frustration (emotion disapproving), chances are that child will feel undermined, ignored, and unworthy.

If parents turn towards a child’s emotional experience (emotion coaching), that child is likely to feel heard and understood. That means that as our child shows their emotion, we choose to connect with our child with understanding, compassion and empathy.

Create safety with your touch, your warmth, your tone, your attitude. Give your child the verbal and/or nonverbal message: “I will help you…You’re safe....”

Your goal is to use this opportunity to build a closer relationship with your child and teach him helpful lessons about accepting and responding to emotions.

Step 3: Help your child label their own emotions

This is the idea of ‘name it to tame it’. Describing the emotion you see in your child normalises the experience and takes away the scariness of it. It can provide understanding and clarity to an internal experience, instead of it being felt as an ‘unknown’ emotional tornado. Putting the child’s feelings into words helps them identify what is happening inside themselves. It lets them know you understand how they’re feeling. It also lets you check-in to see if you got the emotion right.

“You’re feeling really __”.

“Wow, you’re feeling frustrated that your block tower fell over.”

“You seem a little worried about this sleepover.”

“It looks like you’re feeling really disappointed about what just happened, is that right?”

“You must be so upset to talk to me that way. Tell me what's happening.”

This is the idea of ‘name it to tame it’. Describing the emotion you see in your child normalises the experience and takes away the scariness of it.

Step 4: Communicate empathy and understanding

In this step we reflect back what we hear our child say, we show that we understand and we validate their feelings.

It does not help a child if we tell them it will be okay or that it’s not as bad as they think, or even if we try to fix it. It helps our child when we acknowledge that they are feeling some hard feelings right now, and that we understand why. We don’t have to agree with their thoughts or actions, but we do need to show that we understand why our child would feel this way.

“You’re fed up with your brother going into your room and taking your gum."

"Oh, Sarah, no wonder you’re upset.”

“You’re saying that I love your sister more….Emma that must feel so awful, to feel that…”

“I can understand why you might feel sad. It really hurts to be excluded by your friends.”

“I get mad when things don’t work out too.”

Step 5: Set limits and problem solve

When we work through the above steps (and sometimes we will need to repeat step 3 and step 4 multiple times), we may notice a sigh, a release of tension or a shift in body language. Sometimes we can see a definite shift in their emotions and a return to calm. Most of the time, when kids feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. This leaves an opening for problem solving.

Only when they have calmed down can we move to step 5. Sometimes step 5 won’t even be necessary – the act of listening, naming their emotions and showing empathy is all the child needed to get on with their day. But if we do need to offer further support to our child, here’s what we do.

This is where we maintain limits – outline why something isn’t okay, ask what should be done to avoid these kinds of issues in future and move towards solutions.

“Okay… now you’re feeling better, let’s work out what to do next time so we don’t have to deal with this craziness again.”

“Now that everyone’s calm, we need to talk about things. It feels rotten when this stuff happens. How can we get it right next time? What do we need to work on together?”

If appropriate, consider brainstorming possible solutions to the problem that caused their upset in the first place. When this step is required, problem solving communicates “I will help you sort this out” and it can be very helpful, but only if it comes after listening and validating the emotional experience of the child. We can give our child space to come up with their own solutions by asking “What do you think you could do next…?” and if they don’t have any ideas, we can guide them through the problem-solving process by using words such as “I’m wondering if…” or “Hmmm, what would you think if we…”

Coaching for life

Do we need to follow all the steps, all the time? The answer is no. Gottman found that even when parents can use an emotion coaching approach 30-40% of the time, this is enough to get the benefits noted above. And there are some situations where emotion coaching may not be the best approach at all, for example:

  • When emotions are at 10 out of 10 (or in the middle of a tantrum): Talking is sensory overload for a child who is already overwhelmed. So instead, stay calm, offer a hug, offer your presence, offer safety. And even offer space – with the promise that you’ll be right there as soon as they need you.

  • When there is threat of harm to the child, another person, or property: If your child is kicking a wall in anger, you can gently pull them away from the wall instead of emotion coaching. Then calmly but firmly let them know it’s okay to be mad but it’s not okay to kick the wall. Offer a hug, your presence, safety and space.

In general, however, if we can regularly take the coaching approach when our children are experiencing strong feelings, we are well on our way to helping them regulate their emotions. Plus we're supporting positive behaviour. And over time, our children will be more equipped to regulate their own emotions in a healthy way, and respond with positive behaviour themselves.

Emotion coaching also helps us – the grown-ups – stay calm when our kids are upset, so it's a valuable tool for creating and maintaining a more positive atmosphere in our homes. That's the beauty of coaching – it's takes patience and perseverance, but the benefits are plentiful. Life-changing in fact!

Gottman, John and Julie. The Gottman Institute

Katherine Tarr

Katherine Tarr

Katherine is a Child and Family Psychologist with experience working in both the early intervention and education settings. She was part of our Programme Development team where she was responsible for researching and developing training programmes to equip facilitators to deliver our courses to a high standard. Prior to training as a psychologist, Katherine was a high school teacher and an outdoor instructor. She has four primary school aged children and in their spare time the family enjoys having adventures in the outdoors.

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