Emotion coaching: Helping kids cope with negative feelings

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Emotion coaching is the practice of talking with children about their feelings, and offering kids strategies for coping with emotionally difficult situations. The goal is to empathize, reassure, and teach.

Does it make a difference? 

Yes. Here's is review of the evidence, and some tips for becoming a more effective emotion coach.

Tuning in: Why kids need emotional support

Their bodies might be small, but the same can't be said for their emotional reactions. Young children encounter lots of frustrations and reasons for negativity. They are frequently beset by emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety, and fear.

What can we do about it?

Obviously, kids are works in progress. Parts of the brain that specialize in self-regulation are still developing, so we shouldn't expect a 3-year-old child to handle disappointment in the same way that a 30-year-old does. 

Moreover, young children lack our life experiences. They are just beginning to learn how emotions work. They aren't as competent at reading other people's feelings and intentions. They need opportunities to learn and practice.

And some children have a tougher time than others. Certain personality traits are quite stable over time, and some personality traits put you at greater risk for emotional problems – like moodiness, aggression, anxiety, or depression.

But that doesn’t mean that kids can't improve. Children, even young children, can learn how to better manage their moods. They just need our help. The trick is to make sure we provide it.

Dismissing, disapproving, and ignoring

How do you react when your child is upset? John Gottman and his colleagues have identified several common patterns.

In some cases, parents dismiss their children's negative emotions. They send the message that the feelings are silly or unimportant.

In other cases, parents are disapproving. They take notice of their children's feelings, but regard displays of negative emotion offensive.

And sometimes parents acknowledge and accept their children’s negative feelings, but make no effort to help their kids cope.

They often see negative emotions, like sadness, "as something to get over, ride out, but look beyond and not dwell on" (Gottman et al 1996). They might wish there was something more they could do, but they don't know what that something is. 

These parents -- who dismiss, disapprove, or ignore -- aren't necessarily insensitive to their children. On the contrary, they may find it painful to witness their children in distress. But they fail to teach children how to handle those emotional storms going on inside.

Instead, they remain on the sidelines, or try to suppress the emotions through teasing, threats, or punishment. For instance, they might respond to a child's anger by imposing a "time out" – even if the child hasn’t done anything wrong (Gottman et al 1996).

Emotion coaching represents a very different approach.

Parents who adopt an emotion coaching philosophy view their children’s bad moods as opportunities to empathize, connect, and teach.

They take time to see things from the child's perspective, and make the child feel understood and respected. They talk with kids about emotions, and help children put their own feelings into words.

They also help kids come up with strategies for dealing with negative emotions, and the situations that that trigger such emotions.

What's the evidence that emotion coaching works?

Observational studies show consistent links between emotion coaching and better child outcomes.

Children who are coached have fewer emotional and behavior problems, including problems with anger, anxiety, and acting out (Hurrell et al 2017; Dumcombe et al 2014; Short et al 2010; Gottman et al 1996).

They also tend to develop better social skills and peer relationships (Denham et al 1997; Gottman et al 1996).

Do such correlations prove causation? Not necessarily. It might be that socially-adept, well-behaved children inspire parents to talk with them about emotional issues.

But there is also experimental evidence. If you take children who have behavior problems, and train their parents to act as better emotion coaches, the kids tend to improve (Duncombe et al 2016; Havighurst et al 2013).

And even a brief reminder can have an effect. In a study involving preschoolers, researchers spent just 15 minutes reinforcing parents’ emotion coaching practices.

Immediately afterwards, they watched while the parents interacted with their children during a challenging task. Post-intervention, parents showed more emotional sensitivity and good humor, and their kids responded to frustrating events with greater persistence and enthusiasm (Loop and Roskam 2016).

Not a magic cure-all

Of course, emotion coaching isn’t a magic cure-all for every problem. Some kids have troubles that require more than emotion coaching to remedy (Dunsmore et al 2016).

But it’s clear that empathy, sensitive talk, and thoughtful problem-solving help children develop emotional competence. Here's some evidence-based advice for doing it well.

Tips for being a better emotion coach

1. Is your child's behavior stressing you out? Look after your own needs so you can approach the situation with calmness, realistic expectations, and empathy.

It's important not to take your child's misbehavior personally. For help, see this article about coping with aggressive or defiant kids, and these tips for handling parenting stress.

2. Seize everyday opportunities to talk about feelings and the situations that trigger them.

Studies suggest that young children who get to talk about the causes and effects of emotions develop better emotional competence. For more information, see these tips for fostering empathy.

3. Don't ignore or trivialize your child's feelings, or punish your child for displaying negative emotions.

If your child is having a temper tantrum, it makes sense to step back and avoid intervening until the fury has passed. But once your child has calmed down enough to listen, be ready talk with your child about what he or she is feeling. Some behavior isn't acceptable, and we need to make that clear. But we should also make it clear that we acknowledge and accept our children's emotions (Gottman et al 1996).

4. When your child is feeling frustrated or sad, talk together about possible solutions.

For example, if your child has trouble fitting in at school, talk about these practical strategies for making friends.

5. Instill a hopeful, constructive mindset.

If kids think they are "bad," they may feel helpless about their ability to change. So it's important for kids to understand that they can improve with practice. One way to communicate this lesson by taking a constructive approach to correcting your child's mistakes.

6. Enrich your coaching tactics with research-based insights about emotion.

These evidence-based tips can help you teach your child to overcome negative impulses and emotions.

7. Be aware of the pitfalls of authoritarian parenting.

Stern, dictatorial approaches to parenting have often been linked with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem in children. By contrast, authoritative parenting – which emphasizes emotional warmth, and reasoning with children – is linked with the best otucomes. For more information, check out these articles:

The authoritative parenting style: Warmth, rationality, and high standards

Authoritarian parenting: How does it affect the kids?

References

Denham SA, Mitchell-Copeland J, Strandberg K, and Auerbach S. 1997. Parental Contributions to Preschoolers' Emotional Competence: Direct and Indirect Effects. Motivation and Emotion 21(1): 65-86.

Duncombe ME, Havighurst SS, Kehoe CE, Holland KA, Frankling EJ, and Stargatt R5. 2016. Comparing an Emotion- and a Behavior-Focused Parenting Program as Part of a Multsystemic Intervention for Child Conduct Problems. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 45(3):320-34.

Dunsmore JC, Booker JA, Ollendick TH, Greene RW. 2016. Emotion Socialization in the Context of Risk and Psychopathology: Maternal Emotion Coaching Predicts Better Treatment Outcomes for Emotionally Labile Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Soc Dev. 25(1):8-26.

Gottman JM, Katz LF, Hooven C. 1996. Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology. 10:243–268.

Havighurst SS, Wilson KR, Harley AE, Kehoe C, Efron D, Prior MR. 2013. "Tuning into Kids": reducing young children's behavior problems using an emotion coaching parenting program. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. 44(2):247-64.

Hurrell KE, Houwing FL, Hudson JL. 2017. Parental Meta-Emotion Philosophy and Emotion Coaching in Families of Children and Adolescents with an Anxiety Disorder. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 45(3):569-582.

Katz LF, Maliken AC, and Stettler NM. 2012. Parental meta‐emotion philosophy: A review of research and theoretical framework. Child Development Perspectives, 6(4), 417-422.

Loop L and Riskam I. 2016. Do children behave better when parents’ emotion coaching practices are stimulated? A micro-trial study. Journal of Child and Family Studies 25(7): 2223–2235.

Shortt JW, Stoolmiller M, Smith-Shine JN, Mark Eddy J, Sheeber L. 2010. Maternal emotion coaching, adolescent anger regulation, and siblings' externalizing symptoms. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 51(7):799-808.

Image of emotion coaching by Jesus Dieguez Fernandez / flickr