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Helping kids cope with negative feelings

© 2021 GWEN DEWAR, PH.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Emotion coaching is the practice of tuning into children’s feelings, and helping kids learn to cope with — and self-regulate — negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness.  As proposed by psychologist John Gottman, the practice includes these key components:

  • becoming aware of emotions, even low-intensity emotions, in yourself and your child;
  • viewing negative emotions as opportunities for “intimacy or teaching”;
  • accepting and validating your children’s feelings;
  • helping your child describe and label emotions with words; and (when a child has calmed down)
  • talking with your child about practical strategies for dealing with the situations that trigger difficult emotions.

Does this approach make a difference? Yes. Here’s an overview of emotion coaching and its effects, with some tips for becoming a more effective emotion coach.

Example of emotion coaching: Mother comforting and talking to young child. Image by Jesus Dieguez Fernandez

Tuning in: Why kids need us to empathize

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.

How does emotion coaching work?

Researchers have a lot to say about this. They have even created special training programs to help parents become effective emotion coaches.  You can learn more by visiting opens in a new windowJohn Gottman’s website. But here’s a rough overview of process.

1. Try to notice signs of emotion before your child’s feelings become intense.

Is your child looking a bit frustrated? Disappointed? Sad? Worried? Your initial reaction might be to ignore it, and push past whatever situation has given rise these feelings. But researchers advise the opposite. This is a golden opportunity to check in with your child.

Tell your child you’ve noticed a change (e.g., “You seem a little quiet…”) and invite your child to talk about the cause. If you suspect a specific trigger, bring it up gently (e.g., “maybe your finding it a little hard, having to take turns with your brother…”)

2. Listen, validate, and show empathy.

You need to be calm for this, and ready to imagine things from your child’s perspective. No, you don’t have to have memories of what it was like to be a toddler or teenager, though of course that could be helpful. What you really need to do is relate to your child’s experiences, and you can do this by drawing parallels in your own life.

For example, if your child feels rejected or humiliated at school, you can imagine being in a similar situation at work. If your child is upset about being asked to share a favorite toy, ask how you would feel if somebody asked you to hand over your phone — with all your personal information on it.

You don’t have to approve of all your child’s behavior. Hitting other people, for example, isn’t acceptable. But your child needs to know that you understand the emotions he or she is struggling with. You can relate to the situation, and empathize. You can see why your child feels that way.

3. Help your child find verbal labels to describe his or her emotions.

Learning how to verbalize emotions is valuable for multiple reasons. It’s useful for talking with other people, obviously. But it can also help us shift into a more detached, analytical mode, and view our emotions as a normal, human reaction to a triggering situation.

So, as we listen and empathize with our kids, we can help them identify what — exactly — their feelings are. The idea isn’t to tell children how they should feel. But rather to ask questions, volunteer our own experiences, and help your child analyze his or her own emotions.

For instance, suppose a child arrives at a pizza party. She wants cheese pizza, but all the cheese pizza has been eaten. There is only pepperoni pizza left, and the child hates pepperoni. The child starts to get upset, so the adult listens, empathizes, and helps the child verbalize her feelings.

Adult: “It looks like you’re feeling upset about that.”

Child: “I only want cheese pizza. I can’t eat pepperoni!”

Adult: “I know what you mean. That’s happened to me before…I thought I was going to get to eat my favorite food, and then they didn’t have any. I felt really disappointed and frustrated.”

Child: “I’m mad because other kids got to eat cheese pizza. It isn’t fair!”

Adult: Yeah, that’s a really hard feeling, when something happens that isn’t fair. It can make you feel mad, even when it isn’t anybody’s fault. Like this party. Nobody meant it to happen. But it still can make us feel mad about it.”

4. If your child is in the grip of strong emotions, allow for time to calm down.

When your child is upset, you might be tempted  to start problem-solving, or to expect your child to start reasoning with you about the situation. But powerful emotions — including anxiety, anger, and fear — trigger a “fight or flight” response. They block our ability to reason and control our impulses, and make us vulnerable to overreacting to additional triggers.

So if, for example, a child is highly-distressed about going to the doctor, this isn’t the time to list all the reasons why medical visits are important, or to bribe or pressure your child to cooperate. The immediate focus is to take a pause, and allow the stress response to wind down. Look for signs that your child’s breathing has slowed down and become more regular.

5. If needed  — and when your child is ready — you can also focus on problem-solving.

This includes setting limits, and talking with your child about possible ways to prevent or avoid future conflicts. For instance, if — during an angry tantrum — you child hit his brother, you will want to reaffirm that this behavior is unacceptable. You can discuss why we have rules like these, and ask your child to think of other, acceptable ways to cope with anger in the future.

What would be fair? Safe? Kind and respectful to others? If your child suggests solutions that are impractical or problematic, you can point out these difficulties, and share solutions that have worked for you in the past.


Evidence: Does emotion coaching really make a difference?

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).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that emotion coaching is a magic cure-all. Some kids have troubles that require more than emotion coaching to remedy (Dunsmore et al 2016). But it makes sense that empathy, sensitive talk, and thoughtful problem-solving would 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 opens in a new windowcoping with aggressive or defiant kids, and these opens in a new windowtips 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 opens in a new windowtips 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. 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 opens in a new windowa constructive approach to correcting your child’s mistakes.

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

These evidence-based tips can help you opens in a new windowteach your child to overcome negative impulses and emotions.

6. 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 outcomes. For more information, check out these articles:


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. opens in a new window“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  opens in a new windowJesus Dieguez Fernandez / flickr

Content last modified 9/2021

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