Your children’s emotions are not always easy to read and sometimes might be puzzling. Children often lack the words to explain their feelings and may have difficulties telling you about what’s troubling them. Here’s how you can help your kids gain confidence to manage difficult emotions, increase their resilience and find practical, values-based solutions to their challenges.

As a parent, you want to understand your children’s world and give them the best possible support and encouragement. Sometimes it seems we’re second-guessing, looking for clues and not sure how to respond to difficult behaviours and outbursts. Sometimes we expect our kids to be able to tell us what’s wrong, help us find the answers, rather than the other way around. That’s the parenting job, helping them explore their emotions, learning to put feelings into words and how to manage big feelings in small bodies. If you have teens, then perhaps it’s more like enormous feelings in sizable bodies!

Of course, emotions and behaviours are not the same things. For example, we need to help our kids know that it is okay to feel angry, because it’s a normal human experience, but it is not okay to hit others when you are angry. It is important to set boundaries on their behaviours, but not on which emotions your child feels.

The challenge is we so often didn’t learn how to do this well from our own parents. Without learning new skills, we are likely to repeat the unconscious lessons learnt when we were young. That’s why so many people who swear they’ll won’t behave like their mother or father, end up repeating the same patterns over again. The great news is you can choose to change this.

Emotion coaching is a research-based, five-step process developed by Dr John Gottman designed to teach children basic emotional skills, competence and resilience. Both parents have a major influence on the emotional health of their children. In the past, fathers had a more remote, less emotional involvement and played a protective, authoritarian role. Research indicates that a positive, emotionally involved father figure plays a pivotal role in a child’s life. So essentially, both parents should be involved.

Emotion Coaching Consists of Five Basic Steps

1. Be aware of emotions — your own and your child’s

Emotional awareness means you recognise when you are feeling an emotion, you can identify your own feelings, and you are sensitive to emotions in other people. Our emotions reveal our strengths and fears.

As parents, we need to pay attention to lower intensity emotions as well as the high voltage variety. It’s good to be aware of all emotional states and not to ignore, or dismiss the negative, or difficult emotions, such as anger or sadness. They use emotional moments to teach kids life lessons and build closer relationships. They chose to stay with upset or angry children, rather than tell them off, or send them away.

2. Recognise emotional moments as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching

Don’t reject your child’s emotions, even difficult ones such as anger, or jealousy. Don’t take your child’s (or anyone else’s) emotions personally—their feelings are their own.

Instead, accept the emotions and encourage your child to discuss these emotions with you. These moments are opportunities to build a connection and to teach your child skills to soothe themselves.

3. Listen with empathy and validate feelings

Use your heart to listen to words and to see what is going on for your child, or someone else. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions and gestures. Take what your child is saying seriously, and try not to judge, or criticise him/her. Active listening may be an important skill to use.

4. Help your child name the emotion

Labelling emotions and helping your child recognise what they are feeling can help reduce frustration, and have a soothing effect on their nervous system. Remember to help your child name the feelings they are experiencing, rather than telling your child what they should be feeling.

5. Set limits and help problem-solve

Be sure to let your child finish expressing their feelings first. The problem is the behaviour, not the feelings. Set limits on inappropriate behaviour, based on your parenting values. Consider helping your child understand the way we want children to act, the tolerated behaviours (leeway for learners and leeway for hard times) and behaviours that cannot be tolerated. Help them name and scale these.

Ask your child to identify a goal around problem-solving and encourage them to come up with options for solving the problem. Use the following questions to evaluate these options to choose an appropriate option:

  • is this solution fair?
  • will this solution work?
  • is it safe?
  • how am I likely to feel? How are other people likely to feel?

Emotion coaches ask more questions and give fewer instructions and advice. They encourage children to learn to think for themselves by offering age-appropriate opinions and guidance as needed. For example, you could share how you handled a similar situation when you were young.

Keep in mind that children learn from their mistakes as well, these are great opportunities so reign in impatience, punishment and get-it-right-now tendencies.

For more information read John Gottman, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child