Becoming your child's emotion coach

Becoming Your Child's Emotion Coach: 4 Steps Towards A More Effective Way To Respond To Your Child's Emotions 

Stacey Kosmerly, MA, Ph.D. Candidate Clinical Psychology

Dr. Maria Rogers, Ph. D. C. Psych

ADHD and Development Lab, University of Ottawa

Based on the work of Drs. Adele Lafrance Robinson and Joanne Dolhanty

Have you ever felt lost when your child is having a strong emotion? Maybe it was a temper tantrum or deep sadness or shame? As parents, addressing your children's emotions can be overwhelming. You may notice that responding with logic and problem solving are not helpful in reducing the intensity of your child's emotion. Emotion coaching is a tool to help you respond to your child's (or anyone's) emotions in a way that allows them to feel their emotion all the way through. This frees up space in their brain so that they can access their own problem solving skills.

Taking on the role of your child's emotion coach can help shape your child's emotional development in such a way that they are better able to identify and manage their own emotions with and without your help. Research has shown that children of parents who take on the role of emotion coach function much better in a number of areas, including academic performance, social skills, and physical and mental health.

We live in an emotionally avoidant culture

The unwritten rule that has been passed on from generation to generation is that emotions (at least negative ones) are not okay. We deny, ignore and stuff away our feelings, and in turn, pass along the message that emotions are not okay to our children. But...

Emotions are important...

They are the body's alarm system and they tell us about ourselves and the world. This information prepares us for action, which helps us to survive.

 Emotions need to be followed through...

...not avoided and stuffed down in the way that we so often do in our culture. A useful way to think about this is to compare emotions to thirst. If we feel thirsty and never follow through on that thirst (i.e., drink something), what happens? The thirst does not go away, it gets worse and can have serious consequences. Emotions are the same: when we do not follow through on an emotion, it does not go away. The chemicals and stress build in our bodies, increasing our risk for mental and physical health problems. Furthermore, when we do not follow through with our emotions, they begin to seem scary and overwhelming. This makes us more likely to continue to avoid them, and therefore creating a cycle of emotional avoidance. With emotion coaching, we want to help our children follow through with their emotions. In order to do this, we first need to understand the basics of emotion.

Emotion Basics

Every emotion has:

1)      A unique bodily felt sense (the sensations in our body)

2)      A label (the word we use to describe it)

3)      A need

4)      An action tendency

For example,

Fear

If a bear jumps out in front of you, what is the first thing that happens in your body? Your heart races, you become sweaty, your blood pressure rises - this is the unique bodily felt sense. What do we label this experience?  Fear. What do we need in that moment? Safety. What do we do (action tendency)? We find a way to get safety - we run, we hide, we fight.

Sadness

When we are sad, we feel heavy, tired and slow. We need to be comforted. What do we do? Well, in our emotionally avoidant culture, more often than not we withdraw or use avoidant coping strategies to numb the sadness in some way, or we try to look at the bright side, but if we listened to what our sadness is telling us that we need, we would reach out for comfort (i.e., reach for a hug, call a friend).

Anger

When we feel angry, our heart races and we feel tension in our bodies. What do we need? Common answers are: chocolate, a workout, shopping...but these are all emotionally avoidant responses (ways to numb the anger). Anger tells us that someone has done something that is not okay (crossed a boundary), therefore what we need to do is defend our boundary. This means we need to assert ourselves and have our voices be heard. For example, if someone steals something from you, they have crossed a boundary and defending that boundary means expressing "that is mine, not yours".

With these emotion basics, we can help our children to identify and listen to their emotions using emotion coaching strategies.

The 4 Steps of Emotion Coaching

  1. Attend to the emotion
  2. Name the emotion
  3. Validate the emotion
  4. Meet the emotional need

Step 1: Attend to the emotion

Attending means not ignoring emotion. Whether it is a tiny tear pressing up against the back of your child's eyes or they are stomping off to their room in a huff, it is important to approach your child calmly and acknowledge that an emotion is present.  

"I can see that something is up"

Step 2: Name the emotion

This means putting the emotion into words. This may include helping your child identify and describe the bodily felt sense they are experiencing and matching that to the emotion word.

"You look sad."

Step 3: Validate the emotion

This means imagining what the upsetting situation must be like for your child and expressing your understanding (even if your child's emotions are different from what you expected/ hard for you to understand). Resist going for the bright side (i.e., it's OK, Honey), using logic (i.e., it doesn't make sense to be sad about that, because...); or trying to convince your child to see the situation from your perspective.  

"I can understand why you might feel sad. You really loved that toy and it's really sad that it is now broken and you won't get to play with it anymore"

4. Meet the need 

Meeting the need means referring back to the basics of emotions we talked about earlier.

Sadness:  sooth, comfort, give a hug

Anger: help the child to set and defend boundaries

Fear: protect the child from danger (but do NOT protect anxiety! A real danger must be involved)

Anxiety: helping to confront the anxiety-provoking situation with love and support 

Shame: provide reassurance

"Come here. Let me give you a hug."

Trying It Out

It is important that you do these steps in order without skipping any (especially #3). Sometimes new emotions emerge throughout the process and you have to start back at step 1 and that is okay.

It will likely feel awkward at first as you begin to try to incorporate these steps into your life.  Talking about emotions is new and likely uncomfortable. The key is practice, patience and accepting that you will not get it right all (or even most) of the time. No matter how many times you make mistakes, your efforts are teaching your child that you care about them and you are trying to understand them. Do not give up - your child will thank you when they develop their own sense of competence around emotions (and therefore not need to rely on avoidance as a means of coping with emotions), thanks to you.

For more information about emotion coaching

You can visit the Emotion-Focused Family Therapy website.

For workshops in Ottawa you can visit the the Anchor Physchological Services website.

The ADHD and Development Lab is currently conducting a study on emotions and school readiness in preschool children. If your child (with OR without attention problems) will be starting school next fall and you are interested in receiving more information about the study, contact Stacey at skosm028@uottawa.ca 

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