Coaching your kids emotions
Emotion regulation is the ability to manage one’s emotional state.

By: Family - Family - 11/15/2018

When a child is young, parents function as “external regulators” for the child’s emotions.  Eventually children learn enough to internalize what their parents teach them, and they begin to regulate their own feelings.

Consider how your child calms down when upset.  Is your child successful at doing so? What helps him or her feel calmer?  Can he or she do this alone or only with your help?  Children need to be able to manage the intensity, duration, and frequency of their emotional responses.  Without being able to regulate their emotions, children are likely to become over-aroused. What does an over-aroused child look and act like?  One clear example is to picture a child having a temper tantrum.

Emotion Coaching

One strategy parents can use to teach their children emotion regulation skills is called emotion coaching.  Emotion coaching doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but parents can learn to do it.  You engage in emotion coaching when you’re actively and purposefully responsive to your child’s emotions.  It requires that you be aware of your child’s emotional state.  It also challenges you to see emotions as an important part of your child’s experience.  During emotion coaching, you accept those feelings and give instruction on how to manage positive and negative emotions.

When parents learn and actively use emotion-coaching skills with their kids, children can regulate their own emotions better and are likelier to have fewer behavior problems.  Emotion coaching can help children exposed to trauma effectively regulate their feelings.  On the flip side, when parents dismiss or ignore their child’s emotions, this is associated with children’s increased negativity.

How To Practice Emotion Coaching

A good place to start is to take a moment to think about your own comfort with and knowledge of feelings.  Emotion coaching requires you to openly and directly talk about feelings with your child, which can be challenging.  For some parents, this means being vulnerable, and
vulnerability doesn’t align with mission readiness.  If you find it hard to talk about or express emotions, you might need to reorient how you think about feelings.  Your child’s expression of feelings is a way to build intimacy between you.  Emotion coaching is an opportunity for your child to feel understood and for you to impart some skills to your child.  Consider how you express emotions, especially in front of your children.  Kids are apt to model what they see their parents do, so how your children express and manage emotions in part comes from how they see you doing it.  Are there improvements you can make to your own expressions of emotion?

Incorporate These Changes Into Your Interactions With Your Children

Next think about how aware you are of your child’s emotions.  Brush up on your feelings vocabulary by reviewing “Feeling Words".  Can you tell when your child is upset?  Disappointed?  Excited?  Can you read his or her facial expressions and tone of voice?  Get in touch with how your child displays emotions.  It’s okay if you’re not completely sure what emotion is being expressed.  As long as you’re aware your child is expressing some feelings, you’re primed to begin emotion coaching.  Use the “Feelings Words” list to get help you understand and then label what your child’s emotional experience might be.

Then, when your child begins to display an emotion—verbally or physically—talk about it!  This goes for positive and negative emotions.  Help your child recognize how he or she is feeling.  Express that you understand how your child could feel the way she or he does.  Explain the causes and consequences of emotions and reactions.  If needed, talk about how your child can calm down or what to do to help feel better.  Use the “Coping Skills for Kids” list for ideas you can use to encourage your child to calm down.  Problem-solve the emotion, encourage your child to try out a few different things to help feel better or calmer, and see what works.

Sometimes it helps to provide physical comfort.  For younger children, try hugging, holding, or rocking an upset child.  For older kids and teens, pay attention to personal preferences.  Hugs, pats on the back, and holding hands are options.  Such gestures can sometimes help kids calm down.  But it doesn’t work with all kids, and it might depend on how agitated your child is in the moment.  Distracting your child away from whatever is causing the distress is another component of emotion coaching.  Doing so can help your little (or big) one change his or her thinking about the problem or goal.  This can help relieve negative emotions in the short term. Once calm, your child is in a better frame of mind to problem solve the situation that caused the angst.

Some phrases you might use while emotion coaching include:

  • It seems you’re feeling sad about this. Is that the case?

  • You look frustrated. Is that how you feel?

  • I can see that you’re angry right now. Is there anything else you’re feeling?

  • It seems to me you’re unhappy, but I want to hear from you how you feel.

Tell me how you’re feeling and what’s going on for you right now.

Some phrases to avoid saying while emotion coaching include:

  • Quit whining, you’re fine

  • Stop behaving this way

  • Get over it

  • You’re overreacting

  • You’re not upset

  • It’s not a big deal

The opposite of emotion coaching parents who are not intentional and purposeful in how they address their child’s emotions run the
risk of dismissing those feelings.  Parents who do this might be unaware of their children’s emotions or might view negative emotions as overwhelming.  Parents dismiss their children’s emotions by invalidating what their child is expressing or criticizing or belittling their child’s emotional expression.  Dismissive parents might avoid addressing their child’s expression of emotions altogether.  The parent abruptly changes the topic of conversation when the child begins to bring up feelings.  In doing so, parents risk conveying to their child that emotions are wrong and unimportant.  The child then learns it is not okay to express emotions and perhaps is even unsafe.  The child learns that his or her emotions aren’t important and shouldn’t be shared with others.

The Bottom Line

Children learn about expressing emotions by watching and listening to their parents.  Emotion coaching is a way for you to deliberately teach your child healthy emotional expression.  Emotion coaching helps kids feel understood and increases connections between parents and children.  This strategy teaches kids that feelings are acceptable and enables them to learn how to control their expression of emotions.  For more resources on this topic, check out Sesame Street for Military Families’ Self Expression section.  Parenting for Service Members and Veterans also offers a module on Helping Your Child with Difficult Emotions and Behaviors.

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