Emotion Coaching: helping children to understand and manage powerful feelings

Children’s behaviour is often problematic because they are trying to solve a problem of their own. Learning to understand your emotions and identify your needs takes time and often a child’s solution is both impulsive and centered on their own needs.

A child is not trying to create a problem for others but often this is just what happens. To learn understand themselves and others better, children need sensitive guidance which helps them to look at every aspect of their behaviour to find a better solution. I call this Emotion Coaching, because it is designed to work from the outside in, teaching a child to recognize the thoughts and feelings which contribute to their behaviour. This is based on the groundbreaking work of John Gottman in his book The heart of Parenting.

Emotion Coaching may take longer than offering a quick solution of your own, but it is more effective in calming the situation. It also gradually teaches the child how to find their own solutions. Empathy is at the heart of this approach. When you acknowledge, and try to understand your child’s feelings, you will help them to make sense of their own emotions. It will then be easier to find solutions which work for them.

There are 5 stages to take you from acknowledging the problem to finding a solution. The Emotion Coaching process is the key to helping a child learn how to integrate the emotional brain with rational thought. Emotion Coaching is designed to identify and acknowledge the child’s feelings and how they impact on behaviour. Only when this has been successful will you be able to identify what new behaviours and skills need to be learnt and practiced.

Your empathy provides a close connection with the child, and improves communication so that you can explore together what has happened to them and why they are feeling this way. It helps the child to feel less stressed, and more supported, so that they can consider what has happened and plan what to do next. It is a vital principle of all coaching that the coach does not advise or direct. You may see a solution, but what you are aiming for is to help the child understand themselves better. Then they can make informed choices and plan genuine change.

When you talk to a child about their feelings you need to keep your views private, to avoid inhibiting the child from finding what works for them. While being given a solution may be a quick fix, it doesn’t teach the child how to think through and solve problems for themselves.

Monitor your own feelings: it is also important to be aware of how you feel about powerful emotions. Your empathy and connection with your child will be affected by your own values and beliefs about strong feelings. Do you avoid sadness or perhaps you fear anger? It is not unusual to “catch an emotion” when someone is upset so that you also feel something of the same strong emotions that the child is feeling. If you are uncomfortable with any of these feelings, you are more likely to try to resolve things quickly to restore your own peace of mind.

Equally, barriers to communication can be created when you are inclined to pile on the guilt or create shame in the hope this will prevent repeats of the behaviour. When over used, these strategies can create secondary emotions which make it hard for a child to be open and honest with you about what they are feeling.

For many people, their own upbringing may have been tough-minded, demanding that emotions were managed quickly and effectively as a sign of self discipline. While self discipline is the ultimate long term aim of behaviour coaching, the route to this goal has to be taken slowly. First the emotional brain needs to be calmed, not suppressed, to allow rational problem solving to take place.

If a child gets the message that strong feelings are unwelcome, they may try to hide them. This is rarely a successful strategy. It will lead the child to swing between the extremes of trying to keep feelings hidden and then swinging back into melt down when they can no longer manage the swirl of emotions. Often, it can be small things which cause the final melt down, which leaves the adult both surprised and vaguely irritated. “What a lot of fuss over nothing” Emotions are powerful and do not go away satisfactorily unless addressed.

The best way to help a child learn self discipline is this gradual process of sharing and guiding. Emotion Coaching works with the child’s level of understanding to help them resolve any strong feelings which are causing them distress. The process adapts as the child matures and strengthens their ability to make good choices.

Step 1 Tune into the child’s feelings. This is straight forward if the child’s feelings are acted out, as younger children often do, but can be harder when the signs are less direct like withdrawing or not joining in. You may need to observe what themes come out in a child’s imaginary play or their comments about stories or DVD’s

Step 2 Make it clear you can resolve this together. Creating closeness and a willingness to share the child’s feelings will establish the right environment to teach new skills. Unresolved emotions rarely dissipate and the child’s body chemistry is likely to remain in “flight or fight” mode so getting in early will also avoid the situation escalating.

Step 3 Listen and validate the child’s feelings.  Aim to enter the child’s world so you can reflect back their feelings and help the child accept and understand what they feel. This also allows the child a safe space to step back and see what you see. It breaks the powerful hold that emotion has over the child when it absorbs all their attention to focus on the object of distress. Encouraging the child to talk helps them to understand themselves, as well as be understood. “You are feeling angry” is a statement of fact necessary to begin unraveling what is going on.

Step 4 Label the feelings for young children especially, emotions are experienced as unpleasant but indefinable. Children gradually learn to identify what they are feeling through experience and through being given support and the vocabulary to describe what they feel. Children often use words like hate to cover aspects of anger shading from frustration, annoyance and irritability through to dislike and anger. I hate you can mean a variety of things. This can be uncomfortable to hear but by talking together gradually shades of meaning are identified.

Let’s listen in on an emotion coaching session between Tom and his father. Tom is 8 years old, and has a younger sister, Lara aged 4. She hero-worships her big brother but her following him around is unwelcome. Lara has just come into his room and has started playing with a Lego model he is very proud of. He shouts at her to leave it alone, which she ignores, leading to a scuffle as he tries to push her out of the room.

Here are the stages Tom’s father followed to help him decide how to get along better with his sister. Let’s assume dad has gone through steps 1 to 4 above to let Tom know he understands he is angry and that he wants to help him. They have got to the Step 5 where they are ready to problem solve.

Step 5 Problem solving this is a guided approach which begins by dealing with the immediate situation caused by Tom kicking his sister. The inappropriate behaviour has to be acknowledged before focusing on the future. It is important that Tom understands that his feelings are not the problem, it is his behaviour towards his sister which is unacceptable.

  •  Set limits for behaviour: Dad has to make it clear to Tom that although he understands why he felt frustrated with his sister it was not, and never would be, OK to push her or hurt her in any way.  Dad says: I know you are angry but it was not OK to push your sister” “it is never acceptable to hurt people when we are angry with them” We need to find a way for you to work things out with Lara when you disagree.
  • Identify goals: Now Dad and Tom will be looking for ways of expressing anger and managing disputes between the siblings. “How can you get along better with your sister”
  • Explore options: If Dad were to give Tom a set of rules it might work but it is likely to crack under pressure. It is better to help Tom come up with a range of options. Dad is aiming for win/win for both children but initially Tom only sees the solution only from his own perspective. “I think she should be banned from coming in my room or playing with my toys.” Dad knows this isn’t ideal but decides not to reject this option out of hand. Instead he asks further questions to explore how well it might work in practice. “When will Lara get to play with you? Is it fair for only you to decide? What else might help you to get on better?” This questioning helps Tom to think of things from his sister’s perspective and develop some empathy with her.
  • Weigh up their merits: they end up with 2 options: either asking Lara to knock to see if Tom is busy or agreeing that bedrooms are private spaces but offering to play together downstairs or in the garden instead.
  • Making the choice: Tom decides that he could make it work best if he asked Lara to knock to ask if he was available and if he was busy he could agree a time to come and play a game later. They decide that the next step is to say sorry to Lara and to ask her what she thinks of the plan. Fortunately she is happy with this and can see the advantage of not having her big brother come into her own room either unless she agrees.

It can work to use this approach with both children particularly when it is not clear what happened.

It may not always be possible to use emotion coaching close to an event. If the child is very unsettled, they might need to be offered some quiet time doing something distracting. “I realize you are feeling very angry and I do want to help you, but first I think you need some quiet time to help you settle”

Find something calming and repetitive to help them take their mind off what has happened. Young children are often willing to do a helping task but with an older child who remains volatile may need a planned strategy of activities which will engage them successfully until they are in a calmer and more receptive state to begin emotion coaching.

Once the child’s rate of breathing and heart rate has settled, you can begin the behaviour coaching cycle acknowledging how they are feeling and working towards a possible solution. You should also look for other signs that the stress response is diminishing like skin being less flushed.

There is a more in depth look at emotional wellbeing on pages 65 to 97 of my book What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful.

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About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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