“Coaching children through their feelings- What can I do when my child experiences big emotions?”

When your child experiences big emotions, it can often feel overwhelming and upsetting. However, whilst difficult, these moments can be an important learning opportunity for children, which form the building blocks for effective emotion regulation throughout their lifetime!


What is emotion coaching?

“Emotion coaching” is a communication approach which supports children to be aware of how they are feeling, accept their full range of emotions and express their feelings in an appropriate way.

Research has shown that this approach can lead to increased resilience, greater academic achievement, increased social popularity, reduced illness and fewer behavioural difficulties (Gottman, 1997).

So how can I help coach my child through their feelings?

Step 1: Be aware of how your child (and you) are feeling

– Tune in to how your child may be feeling at a particular moment. Just like adults, your child will experience a variety of emotions every day- this is normal and healthy!

– Take time to learn how your child expresses different feelings. Notice changes in their body language, posture, tone of voice, facial expressions and behaviours. Tune in to all intensities of your child’s feelings- not just the largest, most obvious emotions.

– Observe what happens in your own body when your child expresses different emotions. How does their feeling make you feel? How do you usually react?

Step 2: Connect with your child

When we witness our child experiencing uncomfortable emotions, we may want to distract them and protect them from their discomfort, or maybe we are in a situation where we feel unable to take the time to assist them through their feelings. Sometimes we might also be afraid of making the situation worse or maybe feeling too overwhelmed and upset ourselves.

However, if we ignore our child’s feelings or attempt to make them go away, we never help our child to learn how to manage their emotions effectively. In fact, the feeling (and associated behaviours) may come back bigger the next time.

– Instead, try to remind yourself that all emotions are an opportunity to connect with your child and help them learn to manage their feelings in a safe environment.

– Gently reach out to your child if they will allow it (i.e. sit next to them, hold their hands, hug them).

– Alternatively, remind your child know that you are there for them verbally (i.e. “It’s ok to have these feelings”, “I’m here”)

Step 3: Listen to your child and validate how they are feeling

Like adults, it is important for children to feel that their feelings are heard and understood. Ask yourself- how would you like a close friend or family member to respond to you if you were angry or upset?

– Invite your child to tell you how they feel. Allow them some space to express their emotions without interruption or judgement.

– Validate your child’s feelings, remind them that all feelings are ok (i.e. “its ok that you are feeling this way”, “It makes sense that you feel X”, “I feel X too when this happens to me”)

Step 4: Help your child to label the emotion

Children may not always have a name for the way they are feeling. By helping them to put a word on their feelings, we can help to build up their emotional vocabulary.

– Reflect to your child what you are noticing in their body language and behaviours (i.e. “your voice is telling me that you seem a bit angry”)

– Use information about the situation to guess the feeling behind your child’s behaviour (“I’m wondering if you might be a bit worried about X happening today, is that right?”)

– Point out emotions experienced by characters in their favourite books or tv shows. Help children notice the facial expressions and behaviours related to these feelings.

– Act as a role model. Point out times when you experience different feelings throughout the day where it may be appropriate to share with your child (i.e. “Mum’s feeling a bit frustrated because I lost my keys”).

Step 5: Set limits and help your child to problem solve

– Assist your child to use strategies to cope with their feelings at the moment (eg; taking deep breaths, counting to 10, sensory tools)

– When feeling a little calmer, offer your child opportunities to solve problems together (“I know you are disappointed we can’t go to the playground right now. What could we do instead?”). Help your child think through the possible consequences of solutions they think of.

– Whilst validating all feelings that our child experiences, we don’t always have to accept our child’s behaviour. Instead, set clear limits: (“It’s understandable that you feel upset that your brother took your toy, it’s not ok to hit him though. What could you do instead?”).

Who can help?

If you have concerns about your child’s ability to regulate their emotions, or would like to learn more about how to support your child when they experience big feeling, psychologists and occupational therapists may be able to help.

Further information about emotion coaching can also be found online, by visiting the Gottman Institute website: https://www.gottman.com/parents/