Many people think that being a positive mom means you’re always happy. In fact, trying to “stay positive no matter what” is one of the common pitfalls of motherhood.
However, true positivity comes from validation. As positive moms, we validate our own emotions and model this for our children. One parenting strategy that can help us do that is a 5-step method called “Emotion Coaching.”
Today, we will chat about what Emotion Coaching is, how it contributes to good parenting, its effects on early childhood and beyond, and how it shapes the parent-child relationship.
What is Emotion Coaching?
Emotion coaching is a parenting approach based on research by researchers and therapists Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
He explains Emotion Coaching as:
“Helping children and young people to understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur and how to handle them.” (Gottman 1997)
Emotion Coaching happens when children’s feelings are verbally acknowledged and validated.
Therefore, Emotion Coaching helps parents, teachers, and caregivers support children emotionally, as they guide and teach children toward self-regulation in moments of heightened emotion and the behaviors that follow.
We have been conditioned to embrace the so-called positive emotions and to avoid and suppress the negative emotions. The truth is that all emotions are important and they need to be felt.
Emotion Coaching helps us support our children navigate the wide range of emotions that they will inevitably feel and help our children’s emotional development.
Dr. John Gottman
While Dr. Gottman is most known for his research on marriage, he has also contributed to the study of young children’s emotional health and early learning. He has helped parents, caregivers, and educators in providing emotional support for children’s emotion socialization and emotional expression.
Dr. John Gottman has expressed that it was indeed his daughter who taught him how to be a loving parent because he learned how to listen to her. In the same way, we don’t have to be researchers or psychologists in order to help our children navigate their negative experiences and guide every emotional response.
Benefits of Emotion Coaching
How we manage and regulate our emotions is a strong determinant of our happiness and success in every area of our lives. These emotional skills can start in childhood when we emotion coach our children.
Here are some benefits that children can reap when being part of emotionally sensitive schools and emotionally sensitive families:
- Builds emotional intelligence
- Promotes self-awareness
- Builds confidence to move in a positive direction
- It promotes social, emotional, cognitive, and intellectual development
- Helps them identify and understand their emotions
- Improves focus of attention
- Promotes healthier relationships with other peers in school
- Creates a deeper connection and stronger family relationships
- Causes children to naturally want to cooperate
- Teaches children to regulate their emotions
- Children learn to process their emotions
- Teaches empathy, compassion, and other soft skills
- Improves their academic performance
- As the child expresses their emotions, they show fewer behavioral problems
- The child learns to listen to themselves and notice what they feel
- Helps a child feel loved and valued, because they are heard
- A child trust the parent and feels more comfortable opening up to them
So in summary, consistent and genuine Emotion Coaching by a sensitive, attentive, and affectionate adult can greatly benefit a child.
Dr. Gottman’s research teaches us that relationships and emotional connection are the foundation for learning.
In contrast, emotion dismissing can be detrimental to brain development. A child whose emotions are not acknowledged or validated has greater risks of mental health issues and emotional problems.
Why use Emotion Coaching in motherhood?
Emotion Coaching is a powerful way to nurture our children. When we talk to the child in a way that honors the child’s emotional state, the child feels respected and loved.
And a great bonus is that the use of Emotion Coaching is easy to learn and makes parenting easier – and more rewarding.
Learning to be an Emotion Coaching parent helps us know how to respond when our child is angry, sad, or scared. In addition, we can transform an emotional storm into an opportunity to bond with them.
When we use Emotion Coaching, we can highlight appropriate emotional expression, as well as inappropriate behavior.
And, last but not least, being an Emotion Coaching mom helps build long-term trust. It gives us hope that as our children grow they can still turn to us for guidance, counsel, and support.
The 5 Steps of Emotion Coaching
So how do we practice Emotion Coaching? It’s not about being a perfect parent, it’s about being consistent in following 5 intentional steps:
1.- Notice your child’s emotions.
In order to be an effective emotion coach, we must pay attention to our children. We’re always listening and reading between the lines.
We tend to dismiss emotions as “little emotions” and move on from them. However, when we notice any emotion, it’s important to acknowledge these emotions and dig deeper.
2.- Help the child feel understood.
This step is all about being compassionate with our child. It’s about validating our child’s right to have the feelings that are coming up.
3.- Help them verbally label the emotion.
The third step in Emotion Coaching is to put the feeling or emotion that is coming up into words. Encouraging our child to feel this feeling and not fight it or shut it down.
4.- Help understand where the feeling comes from.
Assist your child in figuring out where the feeling or emotion is coming from. What is triggering it?
5.- Set limits if there’s misbehavior.
We treat the child with dignity. We communicate that all feelings and wishes are acceptable, but not all behaviors are. This step allows us to address bad behavior and to help brainstorm appropriate ways to express those emotions.
As we problem solve with the child, they can arrive at possible ways of behaving that are effective and do not cross a boundary line.
These five steps can help children feel seen, safe, and supported, and subsequently, they will thrive.
Emotion Coaching Examples for Moms
So now that we know that our job as moms is to accept the emotion and teach them how to handle them, you might be asking: What does this look like in real life?
These are some phrases I believe will be helpful in getting us started helping them work through them:
It’s important to increase and improve our own emotional vocabulary. When we are emotionally literate, we can help our children make sense of what they are feeling.
I see that you are feeling ___
I can tell that you are ____. Why do you feel this way?
I understand why that would make you feel ____
Children are often encouraged to suppress, fear, and avoid their emotions – even in Christmas songs!
“You better not cry, you better not pout…” Right? I couldn’t believe this song when I moved to the United States!
It is a powerful gift when we give our children permission to cry, pout, and express anger, and fear.
Some of these phrases can help them embrace their emotions as normal and natural:
- It’s okay to feel what you are feeling
- It’s good to let it out
- I hear you
It can be scary to sit quietly with our emotions. As we accompany our children in that emotional space, they can feel more secure.
By holding and honoring the emotion with them, we send the message that they can survive it. We also remind them that they are not alone in what they’re going through.
I’m here to listen – tell me what happened
I will stay with you and won’t leave you
I’ll be over here. Let me know when you need me (works for children who need space)
Questions as emotional tools
One of the ways in which we can help our children is by asking questions.
I always say, when it comes to painful emotions, “Hold them – and hold your tongue.”
Rather than assuming what would help, ask them!
Some questions I can think of right now are:
- “Would a hug help you feel a bit better?”
- “Would you like to talk about it?”
- “Is there anything else you are feeling?”
In an article on Psychology Today, Markham (2017) recommends using questions to “double-check.” This means that we ask clarifying questions to make sure our child feels understood.
Here are some questions offered by the author:
- “Is that right?”
- “Is that what you’re telling me?”
- “Am I getting that?”
I heard someone say once that “content is secondary and feeling is primary.” With that being said, as we show up authentically for our children, it doesn’t matter whether we get the statements or the questions right. As you get to know your child, you can discover what works best for them.
Remember to Breathe!
Combining our phrases and questions with mindfulness techniques like “box breathing” can be comforting.
Box breathing works like this:
Breathe while you slowly count to four for a total of four times:
- First, four counts of breathing in
- Then, four counts of holding your breath
- Followed by four counts of exhaling
- And lastly, four more counts of holding after your exhale
Breathing is a powerful tool to calm the nervous system and as we do it with them, it can help us access solutions to better guide our child, too!
Riding the waves of emotion
Even though I’m not a surfer and I’m still learning to swim, I have taught my children that emotions are like waves. Emotions come and go – they don’t last forever.
We must ride the wave in order to not drown, and actually let it go.
Remember the movie Inside Out? One of my faves! Bing Bong was an Emotion Coach all along!
Mister Rogers said it this way:
There is one thought that I feel can be helpful to grown-ups and children alike: Sadness isn’t forever. I’m not suggesting
that we remind ourselves of this in order to lessen our grief. On the contrary. The knowledge that time does bring relief
from sadness and that sooner or later there will be days when we are happy again may allow us to grieve more fully and
deeply when we need to.
As we become Emotion-Coaching parents, we can help our children sort out any emotional reactions that come up and help them find possible solutions. We make it easier for children to express themselves and cope in healthy ways.
Doing our own emotional healing
So chances are that you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this. We weren’t raised with Emotion Coaching parents. And then we likely became emotion-dismissing parents, because we didn’t know better!
We still don’t know how to name, name, express and validate our difficult emotions. We often bury our feelings and don’t even realize we’re feeling them until we act out. Our feelings were minimized so much that we don’t even think they’re valid.
Some of us still struggle with understanding and managing our big emotions, so that’s why we might avoid Emotion Coaching. We fear if we “go there,” we might not come back from it. I’ve felt this way a lot over the years.
How can we possibly assure our kids and emotion coach them?
You will struggle, yes.
It is challenging, yes.
You will question yourself, yes.
And it’s even harder if you’re a single mom or don’t have the support you need.
And I know that your love for your child will give you the strength you need for the journey.
As we do our own emotional healing, we can help with our children’s emotions. We can become more comfortable with our own emotions and theirs, too.
We don’t have to be perfect or perfectly healed to raise an emotionally intelligent child.
And we can become more resilient and emotionally intelligent ourselves. We can learn to be more attuned to our own emotions and the emotions of others, including other family members. This creates a more positive environment for the child!
A long-lasting bond
Emotion coaching is such h an effective tool for parenting because emotion regulation is necessary in every area of our lives. This approach is not effective only for little kids, but also for teens.
It is about becoming someone our children will trust. It is about becoming a safe person for them. Although take it from me, it’s hard to do and easy to fail at.
That doesn’t mean we won’t keep striving for it!
When we practice Emotion Coaching with our little ones, we create a strong foundation for the teen years. Adolescence can be a confusing time.
It’s true that adolescence is a time to assert independence from parents and solidify relationships with the peer group. Our connection with them might change. However, it’s important to be present and available when they need our guidance and support.
A transformational tool
All humans of all ages need to feel understood and appreciate validating encouragement. I always say that “validation is the prerequisite of vulnerability.”
Emotion coaching can improve our parenting, but it can also improve every area of our lives.
Emotion coaching can help us transform all our relationships, including our relationship with ourselves.
I invite you to try Emotion Coaching today!
Are you willing to practice Emotion Coaching with your child? Share how you will exercise Emotion Coaching to nurture, love, and respect your own child.
Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (1997). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. Simon & Schuster.
Markham, L. (2017) Emotion-Coaching When Your Child Is Upset. Here is your 6-step process. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/peaceful-parents-happy-kids/201710/emotion-coaching-when-your-child-is-upset