Emotion Coaching and Youth

Emotion Coaching and Youth

Rebecca Maguire RSW BEd OCT

Parent Counsellor

Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services

Many of us can recall the days of being a new parent or caregiver.  We learn as parents to meet the needs of our children's different emotional states as they grow and develop.   This is called attunement.  Attunement involves being a consistent, predictable, and attentive caregiver.  When a baby cries, the parent's response is to figure out what the child's unmet needs are.  Parents may ask themselves if baby is afraid, in pain, uncomfortable or sad.  Once the parent has met the baby's need as their caregiver, an important exchange occurs.  A moment of bonding is experienced as baby feels safe and secure and the parent feels relieved and validated in their role. Attunement is soothing and regulating for babies. (Perry, 2010).

Parenting a youth as they journey into adulthood can be both joyful and tumultuous as those transitional years. The need for attunement and emotional regulation is important.  Youth need relationships with attuned teachers and caregivers.   Attunement is a protective factor in the development of healthy coping strategies and emotional regulation in teens. (Vancouver Island Health Authority, 2012).

Stigma in our society has made it difficult for some to embrace emotional expression and often encourages emotional avoidance.  Emotional avoidance results in maladaptive coping strategies and emotional dysregulation. This becomes a challenge for parents and caregivers and the youth they care for.  What happens when a child doesn't have people that are consistent, predictable and attentive in the lives?  They are more likely to use negative coping skills and turn to their peers to help them deal with their feelings.   Substances and an over-dependence on technology are common negative coping skills seen in teens today. (Dr. Bruce Perry, 2015).

As a  Parent Counselor with Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services; I support parents and caregivers in building the skills of "Emotion Coaching". Emotion coaching can help youth develop healthier coping strategies.

Emotion coaching includes 5 steps:

1. Attend (be in touch with) to the emotion: seen in your youth "I see you, I hear you, I'm here for you..."

2. Label the emotion (you are angry, sad, afraid, ashamed)

3. Validate the emotion (allow them to feel their unique feelings as their own): "I can see how you would feel [emotion/feeling] that way because of [their own unique experience]."

4. Meet their need (by meeting them where they are at):(soothe sadness, reassure shame, validate and set limits for anger and protect the fear).

 5. Problem solve by collaborating with your youth.

I would like to illustrate this by sharing a personal story of mine:

The challenge for many parents and caregivers of youth is the belief that it is ourrole to teach them.  I found myself believing this one day. My son came home from school, slammed the door and stomped around upstairs.  I knew something was up.  I said "You're angry!" He responds with, "Yes I am angry; my teacher only gave me until tomorrow to get this done, I had band at 7 this morning and I have 2 other assignments due!"   

In the past, I believed it was my job as a parent to point out all the reasons why my son may find himself stressed or angry when facing a situation like this. Poor time management or too much video gaming seemed like the most likely reasons. 

Understanding emotion coaching has helped me realize that this was not helpful to him or to me. My son could not problem solve or see the consequences of his actions if he was not emotionally regulated.  Emotions can take over the parts of our brain that help us problem solve, think critically, and understand consequences. As a teenager, brain development is ongoing as children become adolescents they see, sense, feel, and experience things differently.

My job as a parent is to help him regulate, this way he can relate and then reason. The 3 R's, Regulate, Relate, and Reason.   Emotion Coaching in this instance may sound like: "You're angry and overwhelmed because you have all these projects and no time to complete them.  It makes sense you would feel stressed.  If I were in your shoes I would feel the same way."

I often tell parents and caregivers to think of "Emotion Coaching" as an investment in their child or teen's emotional development and wellbeing.  You may not see the benefits immediately but overtime, like most investments, you will see benefits with your teen.  The more often youth feel safe to be emotionally open and vulnerable with their parent,   the less likely they are to seek unhealthy ways of coping when difficult emotions arise.

My last recommendation to parents and caregivers is to remember that the steps to "Emotion Coaching" are simple.  What makes it hard to put these into practice is that we don't like to see our children living through difficult emotions.   As parents and caregivers we want to solve, fix, look at the bright side.  However, this doesn't validate their individual experience or feelings. As parents attending and attuning will help your child or youth learn healthier ways to cope and will enhance your relationship as they learn to count on you and be heard. For more information on Emotion Coaching, visit the Emotion-Focused Family Therapy website.

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