It’s no secret. Middle-class, Western parents are struggling with raising their children. Expectations are high. We’re looking at parenting in ways it’s never been looked at before. We’re demanding things of ourselves (as parents) that we’ve never been expected to deliver before. And we’re requiring a lot of our kids. The pressure to “get it right” is as high as it’s ever been.
Over the past five decades, discoveries about attachment relationships, motivation, and how people work have helped us find better ways of working with (rather than doing to ) our children. Science has helped parents parent better than ever. The pain (and trauma) of old-school parenting that was harsh, hostile, and even abusive, is increasingly recognised and that style, rejected. Today’s parents are less likely to routinely ignore their children’s feelings, isolate their children, or cause their kids physical harm.
In other words, the pendulum has swung away from the behaviourist approach of punishing unwanted behaviours with time outs, withdrawal of privileges, smacking, yelling, threats and other harsh punishments. Parents are seeking more “gentle” parenting approaches. They want to “attune” themselves to their children’s emotional world. This is mostly a good thing.
Why parents feel lost
But amid the shift, many parents feel lost and confused. They feel as though the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. They know they don’t want to be aggressive and abusive to their children but new approaches feel like an overcompensation. In their minds, now that behavioural approaches are on the nose, some parents feel they’ve been disempowered. If they can’t use carrots and sticks, punishments and rewards, and if time out and other threats are off the table, the only alternative they see is to let the children run free, and that’s not an alternative that feels suitable.
The push for parents to attune to their children is best emphasised by the idea of “emotion coaching”. But to many parents, emotion coaching doesn’t make sense!
Here’s a direct quote from a parenting author/expert, Carla Naumberg, on the well known Honestly podcast with Bari Weiss:
My big problem is that it leaves zero room for the parent’s experience and feelings. It leaves zero room for the parent to show up as a real person… I just have no patience for parenting models that expect parents to show up in some sort of perfect way to every interaction they have with their children. It’s not possible. It’s not necessary. And it’s not how real relationships work.
The purpose of this article is to offer some clarification for everyone who is confused about what emotion coaching is and how to do it. To do that, we need to start by talking about how our emotions were responded to when we were kids.
Most parenting intervention tends to be about changing the problematic behaviour of our children and forcing compliance. Emotion coaching is a response to challenging behaviour that considers the big feelings behind the behaviour.
Have you noticed that when your child is feeling lousy, she acts lousy? When kids don’t feel right, they can’t behave right. Emotion coaching is about helping a child feel right - almost like mentoring them through their hard time. Once they’re feeling right, they can behave right. And it’s about doing it in a way that preserves (and strengthens) the relationship between parent and child.
If your upbringing was like mine, as a child you were often told to ignore your emotions. You were told to stop being silly and get on with things. “Stop complaining and do it. Why? Because I said so.” How often were you told to:
“Cut it out”
“Don’t do that”
“Settle down”, or
“Give it a rest”
At any point did you pause, look at your parents, and say, “Good point. I’m really letting my emotions get the better of me. Thanks for the heads up.”
Of course not. When your parents turned away from your emotional experience - or turned against it with anger or frustration - chances are that you felt undermined, ignored, and unworthy. You felt like you didn’t matter and that your feelings were irrelevant.
Did you turn out fine in spite of it? Probably. But, as I’ve written before, just because you “turned out fine” doesn’t mean everything that happened to you (i) was acceptable, or (ii) should be replicated for the next generation.
Thinking back to those times when you were emotional and probably behaving like a brat, what did you actually want?
Chances are that you wanted your parents to turn towards you with understanding, compassion, and empathy. You wanted them to hear you. You wanted them to get how it was for you. If we’re being honest, you probably also wanted your own way, but if you couldn’t have that, at least being heard and understood would have been nice.
The simple truth: we like it when people understand our emotional world.
When our partner becomes attuned to our emotions, it feels good. We feel understood. Our connection to them is deepened. Our trust is strengthened. Our sense of safety is enhanced. Our kids feel the same way. When their emotions are validated - or simply sat with - they feel connection. That is, they feel seen, heard, and valued.
And that’s what emotion coaching is all about. It’s actually caring enough that your child (or partner) is struggling that you stop and be with them through the struggle.
How does it work? The brain science
We often think of kids’ brains as being less developed than our adult brains. But the reality is a little more nuanced. Young brains have way more neurons (brain cells) than adult brains, and way more connections between those neurons. This overabundance of neural connections is a big reason why our kids’ brains are prone to being overwhelmed.
For example, say your child is feeling a bit hungry. The stress levels in their brain start to rise. They’re also getting tired, so stress levels go up a bit more. And maybe they haven’t had a moment of connection with you for a while. Stress levels go up again. Their brains are starting to flood with stress hormones. So when another stressor comes along, like their block tower falling over, or their sister looking at them the wrong way, the emotionally reactive part of their brain (the limbic system) takes over. This prevents the “thinking part” of their brain ( the prefrontal cortex ) from being in the driver’s seat.
You’ve heard me say that “high emotions = low intelligence”, and this is why. Access to intelligence is reduced when the stress system is activated.
So if we come along and shame or punish our children in these moments of emotional reactivity, what we’re actually doing is adding fuel to the fire. Their levels of stress hormone just keep rising, leading to more “bad” behaviour. Moreover, their big emotions can be contagious, leading us to feel cranky and chaotic too.
But if we emotionally coach our kids through these moments instead, we can help them catch our calm. By co-regulating and remaining level and balanced ourselves, we help our children experience decreased distress and reassure them of our responsiveness. We reduce the amount of stress hormone flooding their brain and help them get the prefrontal cortex back into the driver’s seat. And over many interactions of co-regulation, we strengthen their ability to self-regulate by strengthening the circuits in their brain for emotional regulation.
When to NOT emotion coach?
Emotion coaching is a sophisticated method of guiding children through emotions… but to be perfectly honest, there are often times that it won’t work. And because it can be complicated, it’s not something you need to do all the time. (Purists will be mad at me for saying this, but I want to make sure this is achievable for everyone, so stay with me.)
First off, some good news.
Most of the time you don’t need to do anything at all when it comes to “emotion coaching”. In fact, if your child is upset they need the same kind of thing you need when you’re struggling (and that’s not coaching). They need someone to sit with them, be calm, stay quiet, and perhaps express quiet reassurance.
Think about it. Talking is highly stimulating. It’s sensory overload for a child who is already overwhelmed. Trying to emotion coach while emotions are at 10 out of 10 is too much!
True connection with someone struggling at this point means not emotion coaching. Offer a hug. Offer your presence. Offer safety. And even offer space - with the promise that you’ll be right there as soon as they need you.
All you need to do is be calm, quiet, and close.
Emotion coaching requires us to check in, name the emotion, talk things through, establish limits through problem solving, and so on. Trying to do this with a tantruming child will only make things worse. (But note, so will turning against the child with disapproval and so will turning away from your child dismissively, so don’t go with those strategies. Just stick with what I’ve mentioned above.)
Let me say it again: The best emotion coaches know that you don’t try to emotion coach in the middle of a tantrum or other high energy emotion. It doesn’t work. It’s too late. Get in earlier, or do it later.
The steps for dealing with most emotional outbursts are super simple. Rather than overcomplicating our parenting, try this:
- Be with them (if they’ll let you)
- Don’t do anything
- Problem solve with them when they’re calm
That’s it. Nothing more.
(Note that allowing a child to feel big feelings doesn’t mean that we excuse crappy behaviour. If they’ve done something wrong we need to address it. But we can only address behaviour effectively if things are calm and balanced, which means we must deal with the emotions behind the behaviour first.)
Also, you won’t emotion coach for every little thing. Just because your child is having an emotion doesn’t mean you need to stop everything and “attune” to their emotional world. That’s not realistic. Who’s got time or headspace for that? Sometimes you just call out to the kids fighting in the living room and say:
“Kids. Give it a rest!”
If your kiddo is kicking a wall in anger, you won’t emotion coach. You’ll pull them away from the wall - gently. Then you’ll calmly but firmly let them know it’s ok to be mad but kicking is not. And return to the steps above. Offer a hug. Offer your presence. Offer safety. And even offer space - with the promise that you’ll be right there as soon as they need you. But reaffirm, they’re not to kick the wall. The bigger conversation can come later.
The idea that we have to be hyper-involved in our child’s every emotion places an unfair burden on us. And if we find ourselves parenting in a heavily emotionally-demanding way, then we will be overworked and unhappy. We don’t have to emotion coach every situation. It’s just not practical. And often the “do nothing but be a stable, gentle presence” approach is enough.
How to emotion coach
But when things are challenging, emotions are starting to build, and we have the time and space to work with our kids, there are some simple steps we can follow that will be helpful if we want to coach our kids through their emotions.
Ok, I confess you won’t find this in any research paper. But guess what… when your eyes are soft, your voice is too. Your approach will be calm and balanced. You’ll be compassionate. This one’s for you as much as it’s for your kids.
When your child is having a big emotion, they’re feeling challenged by something beyond their capacity to control. The stress is too much. And as a result, their emotion regulation capacity is decreasing. This is when they need you to be at your best. Remember, soft eyes.
Connect but don’t correct
When challenges arise our impulse is to fix things. Our child is doing the wrong thing. We want to deal with it. Fast. Or our child is uncomfortable. We want to make it all better.
It’s worth remembering here that it’s not about the block tower falling over, or whatever it was that finally triggered them. It’s about all the emotions bottled up inside over the course of the day. Swooping in to fix things isn’t going to help. We need to help them work through their emotions before we can move onto problem solving. (Remember that at this point, their limbic system is in the driver’s seat, so we need to get the prefrontal cortex back in control before they will be ready for logical thinking).
So what does it mean to connect? It means to help our child feel seen, heard, and valued. That means that as they start to lose it, we go to them and recognise their pain. And we do that best by moving to step three.
Name it to tame it
Our next job is simply to say, “You’re feeling really ______”. In other words, describe what you’re seeing. The late Fred Rogers taught that “if it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” For decades psychologists have emphasised that “if you can name it you can tame it.” We approach our child and simply say what we see.
“Gee, you’re feeling frustrated that your block tower fell over”
“I get mad when things don’t work out too”
“It looks to me like you’re feeling really upset about what just happened, is that right?”
This response to a child is not saying “it’s ok for you to do the wrong thing”. It’s not justifying a child’s inappropriate behaviour. But it is validating the emotion and helping them to identify what’s happening inside themselves. It is letting them know you understand how they’re feeling. It’s doing that thing you wanted someone to do when you were a child having a hard time. It’s saying “I see you. I hear you. I value you.”
I recognise that sometimes this might feel like pandering to the child. It might even reinforce that strong emotion, enabling it even further. Sometimes it does. But mostly it feels good to be heard. And this leads to the important next step.
Create space for the emotion
Imagine a train travelling through a tunnel. Would you ever smash through the mountain and drag the train out of the top? Of course not! What a mess!
Emotions are like that train. They’re in the tunnel. Now’s not the time to drag the emotion through the top of the mountain and make a big mess to get it out. Instead, if we’re patient, that big emotion will run its course and come out the other end.
A lot of emotion coaching is doing nothing but being there with your child while their emotion does its thing. (In other words, a lot of emotion coaching is not coaching at all. It’s just being together.)
Consider how it feels for you, as an adult, to have someone sit with you in your discomfort and not take it away, but instead, allow you to be you while you feel it all. They accept you. They tell you, “I get it.”
There’s no shame. No guilt. No “hurry up and get over it so we can live our lives.” It’s just acceptance that things are like this now - and that’s ok.
Your partner walks over to you and says, “You’ve had a rough day.” Then they hug you. They’re not taking away the difficulty. They’re not telling you it will be ok. They’re not fixing it. It’s simple acknowledgment, description, and closeness.
Feels good right? And it helps you regain your balance.
Emotions come and go in the same way that waves come and go. The wave washes up the beach, covers the sand with water, and then recedes. Emotions do the same thing. They wash over us (or our children) and cover us in distress or frustration (or joy) and then someone rings us or we start cooking dinner and the emotion diffuses and washes away, replaced by a new one for the new moment.
This is what we need to allow for our children. Our role as emotion coach is to sit with our child as they experience the emotion, help them understand it, and make it feel safe. Younger kids might like a hug, older ones might want you to just listen while they vent about what’s going on.
The central element of this is connection. Connection creates safety, predictability, and security. And with that comes peace, comfort, and the ability to think rationally again.
The paradox of this is that the more accepting we are of the challenging emotion, the more likely it is that it will dissipate that much faster! And once things are calm, we can move on to the next step.
Problem solve together
This is where we outline why something isn’t ok, ask what should be done to avoid these kinds of issues in future, and move towards solutions. Once children can regulate their emotions, they can regulate their behaviour so we don’t have to do it for them!
It goes like this:
“Ok… now you’re feeling better, let’s work out what to do next time so we don’t have to deal with this craziness again.”
“Now that everyone’s calm, we need to talk about things. It feels rotten when this stuff happens. How can we get it right next time? What do we need to work on together?”
This collaborative problem-solving approach is not soft-ism. It’s not letting the kids get away with things. Rather, it’s where we have clear, firm boundaries established. We set out expectations for next time. We ensure our kids know what the expectations are.
The trick here, however, is that we do it collaboratively. We involve our child in a problem-solving partnership. We create buy-in. We empower them.
Oh, and we don’t always do it right away. Just because the emotion has levelled off doesn’t mean things aren’t raw. Sometimes we might set the appointment:
“I know this was a big deal. We won’t talk about it just now, but later this arvo - or on the weekend - we’ll have a sit down and talk things through so we can do it better next time.”
Does emotion coaching fix everything?
There are a million reasons your child might be on the floor screaming. Maybe it was a sibling who teased or hurt them. It could be that they’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or stressed ( HALTS ). Maybe you said no to them and they’re mad. Perhaps there is something happening that is going to require heavy-duty help (like an undiagnosed health or psychological condition).
It’s tempting to tell you what to say and assure you it will all work out. But that feels unfair. That’s because in some ways there is no perfect thing to say here. There is no perfect script. There is no “right” way to respond.
And it can also feel hard because we are expecting ourselves to show up with the temperament of Mother Teresa!
But there are more effective things we can do and there are less effective things we can do. The less effective things are getting mad, getting even, or dismissing or ignoring your child. The more effective things we can do tend to be oriented towards being present, being understanding, and offering emotional support through the steps I’ve outlined.
But please note - emotion coaching won’t fix everything. If your child has ADHD or autism, emotion coaching won’t “fix” their diagnosis. What it will do is stabilise life when everything is intense. It will bring a sense of peace to the relationship. And research shows it can help with a host of other things as well.
Outcomes of emotion coaching
Evidence is abundant for the use of this gentler, positive parenting technique. Relative to alternative parenting strategies (along traditional lines) using emotion coaching approaches results in:
- Improved parental understanding of child development
- improved parent-child communication
- improved relationships
- improved emotional skills and emotional intelligence in both children and parents
- improved self regulation , for kids as well as parents
- improved persistence through frustrating tasks (due to improved self regulation)
- improved peer relationships (due to improved emotional skills and self regulation)
- improved academic outcomes (due to improved emotional skills and self regulation)
- decreased depression in children
- decreased internalising problems (anxiety and other mood disorders)
- decreased aggression in children
- decreased behaviour problems
It’s a compelling list. The evidence is in. If we can do the emotional labour, it makes a difference.
When our kids are coached in how to be aware of, understand, and work through their emotions, they learn the skills of regulation, they learn how people work, and they learn how to do life better.
And that is because it builds connection and closeness. It fosters trust and understanding. Over time, it reinforces boundaries and it emphasises problem-solving over punishment. It’s a powerful parenting solution.
What if it doesn’t work?
If you think that reading this article means you’re at the end of your troubles, you’re exactly right. But it’s important to ask, “which end?”
Just because you now know what to do doesn’t mean everything will magically work out. The first 100 times you try this, you’ll possibly fail. It’s hard to change our patterns. It’s hard to remember the process. And your child may not want to comply. At all.
Remember that even with emotion coaching, there will be times when kids need to meltdown to release all their pent up emotions. There are times when you can do everything right and it still won’t work. That’s not a problem with you or with the process. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed emotion coaching. Because emotion coaching is allowing the space for whatever the emotion is that our child is feeling.
And besides… kids struggling to work with us on big things: that’s life. It’s the fact that children are messy. It’s the reality that your child might be so upset that no amount of coaching will help until they’ve screamed and wailed and done what they have to do.
While it’s tough to experience, once they’ve finally cried and let go of their pain, they’ll be much more likely to sit with you and work things out. Go with it. Work with them. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
The take home message
Parenting is often uncomfortable. Raising children means dealing with a whole lot of emotion and intensity that we wouldn’t otherwise experience. Those high energy emotions - particularly the ones that are also unpleasant - can be a lot to deal with. But the way we deal with them can make an enormous difference to the peace we feel in our home, the peace we feel inside ourselves, and the peace our children feel.
Emotion coaching is not a pot of gold at the end of a magical rainbow. But done the right way at the right time with the right motive, it is a positive, kind, relationship-restoring, evidence-based strategy that builds better families. And to me, that makes it the best option out there.