What is 'Emotion Coaching'?


 (Image is from the Gottman Insiitute Facebook page, used with permission)

In which we suggest a way of talking to children about their big, overwhelming emotions, like rage or sadness, when they are hard to console or reason with.

One of the hardest things for parents to do is to respond to their child when they are upset or angry, in a way that helps their child calm down, and at the same time, feel heard and understood. 

The 'inventor' of emotional intelligence, Dr John Gottman, calls this important skill 'emotion coaching'. When children are upset, overwhelmed, tired or even hungry, we often try to talk to them as if they were adults, saying things like: 'What's wrong', or 'Why are you behaving like this?' They may  appeal to reason, saying 'Come on, you know we have to be at school in ten minutes! Do you want to be late?' (Sounds familiar?) 

In other words, we try to use reason and logic to solve an emotional problem, and often, it doesn't work.

When young children are upset, they are usually not able to think rationally and respond 'appropriately', or as we could like them to. Instead, emotion coaching can help children calm down and feel better. 

The Gottman Institute has helpfully broken emotion coaching down into 5 simple steps:

  1. Be aware of your child's emotions
  2. Recognise emotion as an opportunity for connection or teaching
  3. Help your child verbally label emotion
  4. Communicate empathy and understanding
  5. Set limits and problem solve

What this means in practice, is saying to your child, who is resisting going home from the park, something like: 'You are feeling really upset right now. You were having so much fun. You wish we could stay here and play. You really don't want to go home, but we have to leave'. 

Yes, that is a lot of words, but no questions, no lecturing, and no attempting to use reason.

Acknowledging their feelings, and naming them, helps your child to understand their emotions. It also teaches them how to talk about them, instead of 'acting out'. It takes time, but using this approach consistently does children develop emotional literacy. 

Its not the same as 'giving in' to demands, which can create problems in the long run. Its ok to set limits, as well as emotion coach, as in the above example: '...we have to leave'.

Emotion coaching can feel strange at first, but like most new skills, it gets easier with practice, and it works!

If you are unsure about using emotion coaching, talk to a counsellor or therapist who is familiar with this approach, and they will be able to help you by coaching you on how to emotion coach!