Be an Emotion Coach: 5 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 five 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?
  2. Name your child’s emotions. “Maria I can see that you are very frustrated. Is that right? Yeah. You are really frustrated.”
  3. Validate the feeling. “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?”
  4. Address the poor 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 their emotions. “It is okay to feel angry and I know you were looking forward to hanging out with Veronica. But 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. Work together to come up with different ways to deal with those feelings. At a later point you can process what happened. “Next time you feel that frustrated with me what could you do differently? What could you have said? Seeing your friends is really important to you and I understand that. Family dinner is really important to me. What could we do different next time to avoid this conflict?” With very young children it is helpful to give them the words: “You can say ‘Mama I am frustrated. Please help me!’”

Emotion coaching also begs us to think harder about the source of powerful emotions. Was it really about going to a friend’s house, or was it that someone said something really mean to her on the way home from school? Was it really about your son not wanting to pick up toys or was he exhausted and hungry after a long day at preschool?

How you express your own feelings either escalates or diffuses the power struggle. Part of being an effective emotion coach means modeling emotional regulation. 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 discuss this in fifteen minutes.”
  • 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? Create systems 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. I am sorry for yelling.”

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