Evidence Based Parenting: Emotion Coaching
Watching children grapple with their emotions (which many do) can be hard for parents. It can be even more difficult when children display emotions that are socially undesirable such as aggression or jealousy, or when emotions such as fear or anxiety seem unfounded. Parents might be tempted to dismiss some of these emotions, or to express their disapproval. However, research indicates that dismissing or disapproving children’s emotions may do more harm than good. By acknowledging our children’s full range of emotions, we give them an opportunity to learn how to identify and label their feelings. This is an essential skill to learn for children of all ages. Identifying and naming feelings is the first step in helping children effectively manage their emotions, or emotion regulation.
Emotion regulation is good for children, regardless of age. Poor emotion regulation has been linked with behavior problems as well as internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety among children and adolescents. Research published in the Journal of Cognition and Emotion followed 5-year-old children for three years. Results from the study indicated that children who could understand and label their emotions when they were 5 had a stronger sense of control and were more effective in managing their feelings at age 8.
“Emotion coaching” refers to parents’ attempts to teach their children emotion regulation skills, like naming the felt emotion. The Journal of Social Development recently published a study on parent’s emotion coaching and it’s implications for adolescents’ emotional development. The researchers found that parents who used emotion-coaching behaviors had adolescents that showed fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Other researchers have studied children ages 8-11 to see if parental emotion- dismissing behaviors, or those where parents express negative feelings toward their child’s emotions, affected children. Researchers found that children who had parents that dismissed their child’s feelings were at greater risk for developing behavior problems. This and other evidence suggests that helping children learn to regulate their emotions is important for their social and emotional development at all ages.
This idea of emotion coaching may look and sound difficult, but it really is not. Nationally recognized emotion researcher John Gottman has long advocated the importance of helping children effectively regulate their emotions. His research validates the idea that these skills are crucial to a child’s emotional growth and well-being. We want our children to know that it is okay to experience all types of emotions, but that not all behaviors are okay.
Here are a few easy steps to help you be a good emotion coach for your child:
Acknowledge and validate the emotions your child is experiencing. Listen to your child while he/she is talking. Don’t interrupt or draw conclusions. Do not criticize your child’s emotions even if it is something you are uncomfortable with.
Use phrases like “I’m sorry you feel sad” or “Does that make you angry?”. These phrases help your child give a name to what he or she is feeling. This is important for both young children and adolescents. Not only does it give them continued practice in recognizing and labeling their emotions, but as children get older their repertoire of emotions grows: labeling this growing repertoire is important. Once your children can recognize what they are feeling, they can focus on developing appropriate responses and strategies.
Help your children think through acceptable responses to their problems and logical consequences of choosing a particular response. After discussing acceptable solutions, guide your child in choosing a response. This is the time for offering advice but ultimately your children should choose responses. This gives them ownership and a sense of confidence in their ability to deal with their emotions.
* This Evidence-Based Parenting article was supported by funds from the George Kaiser Family Foundation awarded to the Oklahoma State University Center for Family Resilience. Joseph G. Grzywacz is the Kaiser Family Endowed Professor of Family Resilience and Director of the Center for Family Resilience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 918-594-8440.