Why it is important to help your child with their emotions:

Helping children understand their emotions will set them up for success in multiple areas. The skills that children will need to be successful in their life will be strongly influenced by their emotional intelligence.

Researcher John Gottman has found that parents who help coach their children with their emotions are better off in areas of academic performance, social competence, emotional well-being and physical health. His research also demonstrated that kids with emotional coaching parents recovered from stress more quickly than others.

Parents have the responsibility to teach kids a wide range of skills and learning to understand and manage their emotions is one important area. Emotional interactions between family members create a foundation from which they learn values and morals.

One of the keys to effective parenting is to be present with all kinds of emotions and demonstrate healthy ways to understand those emotions.

Just because you love your child does not mean that emotional coaching will naturally come easily for you. This is a skill that takes time to practice and may come easier to some more than others. Understanding and regulating your own emotions as a parent is critical in helping your child develop these skills.

It is important to note that all feelings are acceptable, but not all behaviors are. Being an emotional coaching parent does not mean there is no discipline or limit setting.

John Gottman pointed out the following key areas that parents can be an emotional coach to help their kids learn to understand their feelings and react in healthy ways.

How to practice being an emotional coach:

  1. Be aware of your child’s emotions (and your own)
    • Pay attention to the range of emotions and recognize that they are a natural part of life
    • Observe how your child expresses their emotions – read their body language
  2. Recognize the emotion and use it as an opportunity for connection and teaching
    • Your child’s emotions are not evidence of your competence as a parent or as a challenge to your authority
    • Encourage your child to talk about their feelings without dismissing or avoiding them
    • Acknowledge small emotions before they escalate into big emotions that may lead to concerns
    • Use emotions as an opportunity to learn and problem solve together
  3. Listen empathetically and validate your child’s feelings
    • Take your child’s emotions seriously and show them that you understand
    • Avoid judging or criticizing
    • It’s better to simply reflect what you notice
  4. Help your child verbally label emotions
    • The act of labeling emotions can have a soothing effect on the nervous system
    • Reassure kids that it is normal to feel two things at once
    • Set an example by naming your own emotions and build a vocabulary of different feelings
  5. Set limits while helping the child to problem solve and find good solutions
    • Help them understand the difference between the feeling and the action – correct the action not the feeling
    • It’s important for your child to understand that their feelings are not a problem but there are some actions/behaviors that are not acceptable; e.g., it’s okay to feel mad, but not okay to punch your brother
    • Help them problem solve – what are some possible solutions or alternatives for next time
    • Look for the good and praise it (positive reinforcement) – point out what they are doing right
    • Use their past success and achievements as an example to encourage them

Like most things in parenting, we teach more through how we model a skill than by lecturing. Your ability to demonstrate emotional intelligence will help your child learn by example. Kids do not know how to understand and manage their emotions automatically, it is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced. There will be times when you are frustrated or angry with your child and it is okay to express this in a way that is not going to damage your relationship. You can show them that strong feelings are not bad and they can be expressed and managed in a constructive way. Protecting and prioritizing the relationship between you and your child is the foundation to teaching all the other important things. It all comes down to listening to your child without judgment, validating their experience and being on their team to find a solution.

Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.