In uncertain times, unsettling times or upsetting times, children often struggle as they pick up on the emotional climate around them.
Emotion coaching is a parental response style that helps children understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur and how to handle them. It involves recognising the emotions your child is feeling and viewing emotions as an opportunity for connection, then responding supportively using empathy and naming emotions prior to setting limits around behaviours.
Emotion coaching can be difficult to do during times of stress, when your own anxiety, irritability or anger can often shut down your ability to feel empathy with your children. It takes awareness, intention and practice, but when you are able to move your focus to trying to identify and respond supportively to your child’s emotions, it can bring you into the present moment and can be calming for both you and your child. Together, then, you can tackle challenging times with strength and connection.
It can be difficult to notice your child’s emotions. Toddlers and children often ‘act feelings out’ or they hold them in. When they are held in or not responded to, feelings can build up throughout the day or the week and then finally a huge meltdown can happen over something small. Can you identify your child’s emotions behind behaviours, verbal statements and situations before the meltdown? Often our children have to really escalate emotions for us to notice, and we completely miss emotions when they are still at a lower intensity.
For example, at the moment your child may ask you over and over about COVID-19. Try to see if their questions about COVID-19 are driven by anxiety or curiosity. Name their feelings first. ‘You sound curious about …’ ‘You sound anxious/ worried/ scared/ upset/ angry about …’ Then validate their feelings by letting them know you understand. ‘I understand you are worried. Many people are worried about this.’
Let them talk and listen to their concerns. Try to sit with their feelings without minimising them and without panicking them. You don’t have to ‘fix’ – just be with them. Remain their rock and their light. Use lots of non-verbal empathy to stay alongside and slow things down. Finish by pointing out what people are doing to help the situation – show older children some of the music clips that are being created by communities, young people and celebrities. If boredom is the predominant emotion, acknowledge that boredom can feel painful. ‘Yes, it is so boring I hear your pain’. Then pause and hear them out.
Finally ask your child what they could do about feeling bored – work out their needs. Do they need inspiration or do they need connection? Do stick to limits (e.g. screen time has been used up for today) and acknowledge that these may not be easy for the child to accept (‘you love watching Kipper The Dog, you wish you could watch him all day long!'). Then find ways to help your child meet your expectations by teaching them the skills they need or redirecting them to other enjoyable things to do. Even toddlers can benefit from you talking to them in this way, they take in so much from your tone of voice and your body language – which sounds and looks a lot more comforting when you use emotion accepting language. Emotion coaching facilitates emotional connection, which is very calming for a child.
Tips for these challenging times:
Look after your own emotional wellbeing.
In times of prolonged stress, anxiety levels quickly escalate. Ensuring that you find small moments of calm in your day is going to be hugely important and will make it more likely that you can respond in an emotion coaching way. These small moments may include resting or sleeping when your baby/toddler is sleeping or when the children are watching a movie, exercising to de-stress (even if it is just a quick dance to your favourite song), to eat healthy food (be sure to include fresh fruit and vegetables), and to do something that you find enjoyable or calming (e.g. having a bath, spending time talking to your friend or partner, creating, reading a book, or spending time in nature, or doing some deep slow belly breathing).
Try to be more in the present moment, noticing your beautiful garden or a picture on the wall, mindfully enjoying the food you eat (look up mindful eating!), or practicing gratitude for the things you have.
Notice your posture and facial expressions – just changing these from slumped to straight, from frowning to smiling can help to improve your mood.
Switch off from social media and the news as much as possible – or try to have a designated time of day for this (ideally when young children are not around). Making music and singing with your children is a wonderful antidote to anxiety and stress as it switches off the alarm state in the brain and strengthens our ability to switch to calm.
Notice how you express and manage your emotions.
For example, are you expressing every emotion as anger and irritability? How would people know that you need comfort if your sadness is expressed in this way? What is the impact of your emotion expression on the emotional climate in the home? What are you role modeling?
Toddlers and young children are wired up to imitate you. They are very tuned in to your verbal and non-verbal emotion expression. Sometimes we don’t practice what we preach which can be a confusing message for a child.
Are you yelling at the kids telling them off for yelling? When you notice emotions escalating try to check in with yourself and your child to figure out what you need. Do you need to build in some movement to diffuse the situation (e.g. dancing or singing or jumping around). Do you need to seek a moment of self-care or do you need support?
Building in a pause when emotions run high can help. Consciously slow down – don’t move as fast, don’t breathe as fast, don’t answer as fast. Let there be a little space around things. Try walking to another room, or having a cup of cold water, or splashing your face with cold water, or counting and breathing. Parenting is challenging for everyone, you are not alone if you feel the need for support.
Have clear rules and appropriate expectations.
Emotion coaching is not a magic fix for the moment – it is a long-term process that asks us to work towards a shift in attitude toward greater acceptance of emotions. It helps to build strong connection over time and sits supported by routines, clear family rules and age appropriate expectations.
A helpful analogy is that a family is much like a professional sporting team. The coach knows each team members’ strengths and weakness and assigns them roles accordingly. Skills are practiced to prepare for match day. Then there is always a debrief which helps to prepare for next time.
Children’s brains are still developing and the parts of the brain involved in regulating strong emotions are not fully developed until the late twenties and even mid-thirties. Adults therefore carry the role of helping children to calm during moments of heightened emotions and to teach them the skills required to meet adult expectations. Children need guidance and coaching within supportive warm relationships. They feel safe when you implement limits with empathy and conviction. Keep in mind that all of us require co-regulation (i.e. being soothed by a trusted other) when we are feeling emotions at a high intensity, but children rely on this especially.
Bring routine into your day as much as possible.
At times of crisis, routine often goes out the window and we lose patience for repetition, yet toddlers thrive in predictable environments and they love repetition. Can you have designated times for playing games, creative endeavors, singing, time alone, screen time, reading books, going for a walk or a bike ride (do try to still get fresh air if you are allowed!), and rest?
As much as possible try to have set times for breakfast, morning tea, lunch, dinner and snacks. When children are hungry or tired it triggers their fight or flight system and having regular meal times can help. Beware also of a drop in dopamine after screen-time use – build a bridge back to the real world with connection or food.
Routines create a sense of safety for children. It can be helpful to create a timetable with your older kids to provide them with a clear structure for the day. Of course, some spontaneity – especially if it involves lifting the mood – is important too. Tune in to your own and your children’s needs for this.
Find some activities to do. There is a wealth of information shared on social media at the moment that is wonderfully inspiring.
Toddlers often just want to do what you are doing. They love to help washing dishes, cleaning, or baking (e.g. cracking eggs), or chopping up fruit. They also need play time where they can take the lead and you follow their instructions – and they need time to run and jump and dance to let off some steam.
For older children, you may want to help them find a way that they can support their community (e.g. they could make a ‘free toilet paper stall’ out the front door or draw happy pictures for neighbours). Providing children with such tasks can give back a sense of control and hope.
Finally, look out for Tuning in to Kids or Dads Tuning in to Kids groups – many are currently offered online. We are also soon releasing our online program of Tuning in to Kids at www.tuningintokids.org.au.