Emotion Coaching for Social Emotional Development
by Dr. Jamie Lewis
One of the most important skills we learn as children is emotion regulation. A well-regulated child will not upset easily, and when upset, will learn to regulate and return to baseline relatively quickly. When we learn to regulate emotions as a young child, we are more likely to handle overwhelming experiences as adults. Adulthood is accompanied by a variety of stressful situations (e.g., finances, work conflict, relationship conflict, children, errands, health) and it can feel as though we are just not able to manage it all. Emotion regulation provides more stability so we can better handle what life throws our way.
Emotion coaching is a technique that can be used to facilitate emotional regulation. Before we can expect a child to regulate their emotions (e.g., utilize appropriate and effective coping strategies), we must teach them to identify and label their emotions. Emotion coaching does just this – supports emotion identification and helps build the child’s emotion vocabulary. Parents, teachers, and other adults in the child’s life can take the role of emotion coaches.
The steps to teaching emotional regulation for children are:
- Awareness & Observation: First, the adult must be aware of the child’s emotion by observing closely. They must look out for the expression of the emotion (e.g., smiles, frowns, tears, raising of eyebrows, throwing, screaming, clapping, etc.). Start by identifying the more straightforward emotions (angry, sad and happy). Over time, try and identify more subtle emotions (irritated, confused, proud).
- Reflection: The adult should then reflect what they observe (e.g., ‘you are sad that your sister didn’t play with you’). Adults should try their best to make empathic and validating reflections. This will help soothe the nervous system. Once the child has a label to their emotional experience, they can learn to employ the appropriate coping strategies.
Emotion coaches will need to set limits around the emotions they witness in children. For example, an emotion coach should try to separate emotion from actions (e.g., being mad is acceptable, but hitting is not acceptable). In the case of high dysregulation, emotion coaches will need to allow more time and space to calm down before moving into problem-solving. A dysregulated child has limited access to their frontal lobe and will not be able to engage in problem-solving until they have calmed. Once the child has calmed and regained access to their frontal lobe, they are ready to begin problem-solving (e.g., identifying alternate solutions).
Below are some emotion coaching phrases:
- “It’s okay to feel mad. It is not okay to hit”
- “You seem proud of that painting”
- “You are confident that you know the answer”
- “That is frustrating, and you are staying calm and trying to figure it out”
- “You look like you are having fun spending time with your friend”
- “You are forgiving of your friend because you know it was a mistake”
- “You are being patient because you know these things can take some time”
- “You are so curious and asking good questions”
- “You are afraid because you didn’t know that person”
The first rule of emotional regulation coaching with kids is that the adult has to be regulated themselves! So take a quick break to calm yourself down if you need to, or takes some slow deep breaths, or use other techniques to help yourself get calm. Then use the tips above to help the child learn to identify, label and regulate their emotions. This is a vital skill and can be taught with some effort and patience.