Be an Emotion Coach: 6 Simple Steps

Emotion coaching helps kids learn how to manage powerful emotions and turns would-be power struggles into learning opportunities. Whether or not you know it, your children already sees you as their emotion coach. So here are six steps to start honing your coaching skills.

Child crying who needs an emotion coach to help handle his feelings

  1. Listen. Pay attention to your child or teen. What are they doing? What are they saying? What are they trying to communicate to you by their words and/or behaviors? What else might be going on? Be curious.
  2. Validate and empathize. “Maria the way that you are stomping shows me that you are very frustrated. Is that right?…It makes sense that you are frustrated. You want to go to your friend’s house now but there isn’t time before dinner. Are you feeling angry with me for not letting you go now?”
  3. Regulate and settle. Encourage your child or teen to their toolkit for settling their body enough to access their thinking brain. This might be taking space, humming, moving, breathing, a hand massage, petting the family pet, etc…  Identify and practice these outside of heated conflict.
  4. Address the behavior. Emotion coaching doesn’t mean letting kids get away with inappropriate behavior. In fact, setting and enforcing clear limits and consequences is an important strategy to help kids regulate learn how to manage their behaviors and emotions. “It is okay to feel angry and I know you were looking forward to hanging out with Veronica. It is not okay to throw all your books on the floor. You can take some time to calm down. Then please pick your books up off the floor and put them back on the shelf before dinner. If you choose not to pick your books up then you are choosing to not go over to Veronica’s tomorrow.”
  5. Problem solve. Now you can process what happened. “Next time you feel that frustrated with me what could you do differently? What could you have said? What could I have done differently?” With very young children it is helpful to give them the words: “You can say ‘Mama I am frustrated. Please help me!’”
  6. Zoom out and pay attention to patterns, systems, and context. Children’s big feelings and behaviors aren’t just a result of individual development or temperament, they can also communicate unmet needs and call attention to changes or systems that are causing strain. If big things are going on for your family or child, be sure to name them. Be willing to talk about family and social systems that might be causing your child anxiety, anger, rage, fear, or sadness. This might range from discussing family changes like divorce, new relationships, moving, or addiction to larger social systems like racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice that create ongoing stress for your child. Giving kids context for the emotions they are experiencing helps them develop tools to move with them.

Emotion coaching also begs us to think harder and get more curious about the sources of big emotions. Was it really about going to a friend’s house, or was it that someone said something cruel to them on the way home from school and no one intervened? Was it really about your child not wanting to pick up toys or were they exhausted and hungry after a long day at preschool? Stress often comes out “sideways” so it’s not always clear what the source is. Accessing our own observation skills and curiosity can help us identify what might be going on.

Your feelings matter too.

When your child is on an emotional rollercoaster it is really tempting to jump onto the ride. When we do, we risk doing things we will regret like yelling or shaming. Managing our own big feelings is one of the ways that we are able to help our kids handle theirs. Of course, this is easier said than done. Here are some tips for your own emotional regulation:

  • Adjust your expectations. Know your child’s developmental stage and/or their specific abilities. Having unrealistic expectations for what your child is capable of sets everyone up for failure. It is unreasonable to expect eighteen-month- olds to be able to calm themselves, identify their emotions and come up with words on their own to express their feelings.
  • Take a break. With older children, it is okay to take a break and come back to the issue. “I am too angry right now to talk about this. Let’s take a break and talk about this when we are both calm.”
  • Know your triggers. Are you most likely fly off the handle if nothing is ready in the morning and you are late getting out the door? When your child is blatantly disrespectful? Create systems or plans that reduce your stress in those predictably tense situations.
  • Apologize if you need to. “I was really frustrated that you weren’t listening to me earlier when I asked you to turn off the computer and come to dinner, but I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. There was a lot of yelling in my house growing up and I don’t want to do the same with you. I am working on it. I’m sorry I yelled at you today like that.”

Check out these 7 ways that setting limits can come off the rails (and what to do instead) to troubleshoot common ways that interactions can escalate into power struggles and battles.