18 April 2018
You are trying to get some housework done and your two children are playing together. Everything is going well until you hear screaming and crying and one of your children comes in to tell you that the other one is not playing fair…
It’s almost time to leave for school in the morning and you have an early meeting at work. Your child or teen usually enjoys going to school but on this occasion they are slow to get ready and you have to hurry them out the door. They tell you that they hate school and that they don’t want to go…
Do these situations sound familiar? How would you typically respond?
Parents often tell me that their typical response in similar situations is to offer solutions to the child’s problems, use logical arguments to get the child to see reason and comply with an instruction, or try to get them to see things from the other person’s perspective.
These responses come from a good place. One of the important roles you have as a parent is to teach your children and assist them to develop the skills they need to navigate the world and relationships with others successfully. Often, there is also very limited time to manage these situations, especially if you need to get out the door to get to work, or if dinner is cooking on the stove!
What if these scenarios represented not only an opportunity to teach your child about following the rules but to understand and manage their emotional experiences more effectively?
What if these scenarios represented an opportunity to build a strong and lasting connection with your child?
One of the skills that I most love to teach when working with families is a skill called emotion coaching. This skill assists parents to hear past the content of what a child is saying in order to hear the emotion being communicated at this time.
Emotion coaching skills teach your child to learn to manage their own feelings, solve their own problems, and work within boundaries and limits effectively. It also allows you to connect with your child at a level that will facilitate a strong attachment that will last long after they have grown up and become an adult.
The 5 Steps of Emotion Coaching
Step 1: Work out what your child is feeling
Become an expert detective in noticing the signs that your child or teen might be having a low intensity feeling. Look for signals such as changes in body language, facial expression, tone of voice and behaviour. Once you know the signs, be on the lookout for your child’s feelings.
Step 2: Recognise the opportunity to connect and teach
Shared emotional experiences help us to feel connected with others and understood. Times when your child is experiencing a low intensity or strong emotion also represent opportunities to teach them the skills they will need to identify and regulate their emotional experiences successfully as adults.
Step 3: listen empathetically and acknowledge emotions
Let your child speak about their feeling if they are willing to share with you. Let them know that it is okay to feel this. Ask clarifying questions when needed “What did you feel when that happened” or open questions that encourage more sharing “And then what happened?”
Use your own body language and tone to convey that you are listening; nod your head and lean in. Reflect the feelings that you think your child might be feeling. “That sounds really upsetting/frustrating/disappointing”.
Step 4: Teach the language of feelings
Help you child to label and describe what they are feeling so it doesn’t feel quite as overwhelming. For example, you can say “it sounds like you felt very frustrated in that situation” or “it’s really disappointing to miss out on that event with your friends”. You can also teach them to notice and describe the body sensations that are associated with that feeling e.g., “where do you feel that the most in your body?” or “sometimes we feel sick in our stomach when we feel worried”.
Step 5: Take Action: Limit Setting & Problem Solving
Parents often worry that emotion coaching means that there are no limits on behaviour, or that problems don’t get resolved. This is certainly not the case. Once children feel heard and understood and have been able to manage their feelings successfully, with some support from you, they are often in a much better position to be able to come up with their own solutions and to understand and process any limits or boundaries that might be important to put in place.
This is why the final step of emotion coaching involves taking action to generate solutions or set limits and boundaries where needed, but only after all 4 emotion focused steps have been completed first. The general guide is that all emotions are okay but not all behaviours are acceptable.
Want to learn more about emotion coaching?
If you would like more information about emotion coaching I strongly recommend reading John Gottman’s book “Raising an emotionally intelligent child”. It is full of practical knowledge and is a really easy read; it even ha a quiz to help you work out your parenting style.