Updated: Aug 11
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.