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How to Use Emotion Coaching to Teach Children Self-Regulation

What’s inside this article: An overview of emotion coaching, and a step-by-step guide for using emotion coaching to teach your child self-regulation

What is Emotion Coaching?

Emotion coaching is the process of guiding your child through intense emotions by validating, relating, naming the emotion, and holding boundaries. It’s a co-regulation strategy that teaches children how to self-regulate over time.

There is a step-by-step communication process for effective emotion coaching, which is outlined in detail below.

Children need to learn that emotions are normal, they’re important, and they need to be followed through (not suppressed or avoided).

This method was developed by Dr. Adele Lafrance Robinson and Dr Joanne Dolhanty.

Emotion coaching is one piece of a new, innovative treatment model for parents/caregivers of children struggling with various mental health issues and emotional regulation challenges, called EFFT. EFFT stands for Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.

EFFT teaches parents practical skills and techniques for supporting their children regardless of their age. Parents and caregivers are also supported to work through their own fears and emotional reactions that may impact the child’s ability to learn healthy emotional self-regulation.

The Benefits of Emotion Coaching

Research shows that emotion coached children are :

  • More emotionally stable
  • More resilient
  • Have fewer behavioral problems
  • Have fewer academic challenges
  • More self-aware of their emotions
  • Have closer relationships with their parents/caregivers

There are benefits for caregivers, too. Parents and educators who use emotion coaching report feeling able to communicate more effectively and consistently with children in difficult situations, and felt those situations were less stressful.

Steps of Effective Emotion Coaching

It’s important to do these steps in order. It can feel awkward at first but with practice it begins to flow more naturally. Over time, you’ll start doing going through their process without even thinking about it.

Step 1: Attend to the Emotion

Attending to the emotion means acknowledging that something is wrong, or that their emotional state changed.

Use something simple like “I can see something’s up” or ” Whoa, something just happened”

Note: I’ve noticed that sometimes kids who’ve had their feeling dismissed a lot can get defensive when you acknowledge their emotions at first. When this is the case, it’s been helpful to combine attending to the emotion with naming the emotion (step 2) in one quick statement, then validating. For example “Whoa, you’re angry right now and that makes sense“.

Step 2: Name the Emotion

Give your child’s emotion a name. Putting the emotion they’re experiencing (or your best guess) into words helps them develop an emotional vocabulary, and start connecting emotions to body sensations. It also makes them feel understood.

For example: “I can see you’re feeling angry right now” or “You look disappointed”.

Children with an emotive vocabulary has many benefits for children. It helps them:

  • Display fewer behavior problems, because they can express themselves in better ways
  • Be empathetic and supportive of others, because self-awareness helps them better understand others’ feelings too.
  • Develop healthy coping skills
  • Have positive stable relationships with others. For example, it’s easier to make and keep friends when you’re aware of yourself and empathetic towards others.
  • Have good mental health

Step 3: Validate The Emotion

The third step is the most important part of the emotion coaching process. Children need to feel validated and understood. You may not agree with your child’s behavior, but their feelings are just that, THEIR feelings. They are entitled to feel whatever they’re feeling.

You’ve got to put yourself in your child’s shoes and image experiencing the situation they way they are experiencing it.

To successfully validate your child’s emotions, use this sentence structure:

It makes sense that you feel ______________ because ________________________, ____________________ and ___________________

It is important to accept, allow, and validate emotions that are different from what you expected or that are hard for you to understand.

This doesn’t mean you’re accepting or allowing inappropriate behavior – behavior and emotions are two separate things. When your child feels like you understand them, and becomes more aware of their own emotions, you’ll see less challenging behavior. You can address any inappropriate behavior later, when they’re calm and able to talk with you about that – this just can’t happen when they’re in an elevated emotional state.

Try to give at least 2, but preferably 3 reasons why their feelings are valid.

Validating Do’s and Don’ts

  • DO be as specific as possible: “It makes sense that you’re sad because you were left out, it hurts to be excluded, and because you’re the only one who wasn’t invited to the party”
  • DON’T “look on the bright side”: It makes sense that you’re sad, but at least you get to spend the day doing something special with me”
  • DO use emotion and varied tone in your voice: Parents are told to always keep a calm steady voice, be mindful of any inflections that might indicate you’re also struggling emotionally. But when validating, actually the opposite is true. For example, if your child is sad, also use a low sad voice as you validate their feelings. Or, if they’re angry, use a louder more energetic tone (not yelling at them, of course, but showing shared frustration for their situation). This helps them feel more validated because this shows empathy.
  • DON’T use the word “but”: The word “but” often rolls off our tongues naturally and you have to work at avoiding it because in most cases it leads to an invalidating statement. For example “It makes sense that you’re angry, but you can’t throw things”

Validating Phrases:

These are some suggestions for validating phrases, directly from the EFFT website:

  • I get why you would feel _________ because X 3
  • I can see how that might make you feel _________ because X 3
  • It makes sense that you’re feeling _________ because X 3
  • I can only imagine how difficult this must be because… because X 3
  • No wonder you’re _________ because X 3
  • I can understand why you might feel _________ because X 3
  • “This is so ______________” because X 3

Step 4: Meet the Need of The Emotion

Meeting the need of the emotion means helping your child get through the emotion. It doesn’t necessarily mean fixing something for your child or giving them what they want. Sometimes we just need to learn how to sit with an uncomfortable feeling until it passes (This is known as distress tolerance).

The need of the emotion depends on what your child’s emotion is

  • Sadness needs comfort
  • Fear needs safety and security
  • Anger – depending on the cause – you may need to coach them through an appropriate way to set a boundary, or you may have to firmly but kindly hold your own boundaries and help them calm down through validation.

The image below summarizes the steps explained above. Feel free to share this image or save it as a quick reminder when practicing emotion coaching.

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