Dr Janet Rose is probably best known as the principal of Norland College, an institution that is no stranger to this blog (see here and here). Dr Rose also has a wealth of experience in early years education and training and has a particular interest in emotion coaching.
You may be wondering what emotion coaching is. In layman’s terms, it’s about acknowledging your child’s emotions, understanding why they are expressing particular emotions and making clear some behaviours are acceptable while others are not.
Dr Rose, who also founded the emotion coaching consultancy Emotion Coaching UK, defined it thus:
“Emotion coaching is a way of telling a child that they are supported, cared about, understood and respected whilst also communicating that not all behaviours are acceptable and that they need to moderate how to express their feelings and desires.”
This Q&A is a little longer than many of the ones I usually write, but I think it provides parents with some interesting ideas and ways for helping their children acknowledge and cope with their emotions. I found it very interesting to read and reflect on my own behaviour and I’m sure many other parents would find it interesting to do the same.
Dr Rose, what is your interest in emotion coaching?
I first discovered emotion coaching as a parent and found it to be a very useful tool for supporting my children’s behaviour. I then started researching the effectiveness of its use in schools and early years settings and found that it helps to improve children’s behaviour whatever their age with a number of other positive outcomes, including helping the adult to feel calmer in dealing with challenging situations.
With emotion coaching, a child learns to empathise, read the emotions and social cues of others and control their impulses. They are able to learn to self-calm and self-regulate, delay gratification, motivate themselves and better cope with life’s ups and downs – essential skills for when they are grown-ups, too!
I’ve heard of there being five steps to emotion coaching. Can you elaborate on this at all?
Emotion coaching is an ‘in the moment’ strategy and is essentially a way of communicating with children during distressed behaviour. It involves noticing, acknowledging, validating and empathising with how a child might be feeling. It also involves setting limits on poor behaviour and working with the child to problem solve more helpful behaviour and ways to regulate their emotions.
It can be adapted to the age and developmental level of the child. Emotion Coaching considers all behaviour as a form of communication and makes an important distinction between children’s behaviour and the feelings that underlie that behaviour.
A key message is that all emotions are acceptable, but not all behaviours. It is about helping children to understand their different emotions as they experience them, why they occur and how to handle them, leading to happier, more resilient and well-adjusted children.
Gottman (Dr John Gottman, a US-based academic focused on relationships and family life) claimed that Emotion Coaching involved 5 steps – but it’s more like a process of communicating. Research in England has identified 4 key parts to using emotion coaching:
- Recognising the child’s feelings and empathising with them (“You seem to be upset. I understand how you’re feeling. I can help you calm down.”)
- Validating the feelings and labelling them (“I think you’re cross because you don’t want to leave the park. It’s normal to feel annoyed when you have to stop doing something you enjoy.”)
- Setting limits on behaviour, if needed (“It’s not ok to kick things when you’re feeling cross.”)
- Problem-solve with the child (“Next time you feel like this, you can tell me or use your calming breaths to help you. I’ll also make sure I tell you how much time you have left so you can have a last turn on your favourite slide.”)
Why should parents have an understanding of emotion coaching?
Emotion coaching has a strong evidence base from around the world and the research has shown how it can play a key role in supporting children’s social and emotional development. It can have a positive impact on their friendships (because they’re more popular, probably due to being more emotionally stable), their academic achievement (because they have fewer behavioural problems, probably because they are less distracted and able to focus more at school).
There’s also evidence it has a positive impact on the heir physical health (because they have fewer infectious illnesses, probably due to being able to regulate their stress more easily) and their resilience (because they are better able to control their impulses helping them to overcome adversity and resist temptation).
Our ability to regulate ourselves in stressful situations lies at the heart of mental health and wellbeing and so emotion coaching has a longer-term impact on our ability to enjoy life.
Some will question emotion coaching and write it off as ‘snowflake’ behaviour. What would you say to this?
At first impression emotion coaching might appear ‘weak’ as a key element involves empathising with how children are feeling but it is equally about guidance: Being clear about the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and working out ways to help a child manage their feelings and behaviour more constructively. The research clearly shows that emotion coached children are actually more resilient, popular and academically successful than children who are not.
It’s also important to remember that experiencing empathy is an important part of children’s development. Think about this in the same way we think about how children learn language. Children aren’t born with language, they learn to speak by having adults talk to them. The same applies to empathy. Children aren’t born empathic, so they need to experience it in order to learn about it. This helps them to take on the perspectives of others and develop an understanding of how we should behave with others
What would you say is the impact of having an emotionally dismissive approach to raising your children?
John Gottman’s initial research on Emotion Coaching drew attention to less effective ways of supporting children’s emotional regulation and subsequent behaviour. Adults who are ‘disapproving’ or ‘dismissive’ of children’s emotions tend to ignore, criticize or reprimand emotional displays focusing attention on the behaviour and not the feeling’s underlying the behaviour.
Such adults may view stress-induced emotional expression as a form of manipulation, a form of weakness and/or something that should be avoided or minimised (collectively known as ‘emotion dismissing’). Parents who largely use threats of punishment to modify behaviour can lead to children relying on innate survival mechanisms such as disassociation (not caring) or becoming reactive (aggressive) in an attempt to compensate.
Sometimes it simply involves trying to use distraction or humour to resolve the behaviour without acknowledging how the child might be feeling. An emotion dismissing style, whether disregarding or punitive, has a negative impact on children’s emotional regulation and behavioural outcomes, which includes their mental and physical health. This can be equally true of the ‘permissive’ or ‘laissez faire’ parent who indulges the child’s emotions without setting clear boundaries of acceptable behaviour. It’s also important to remember that not all behaviour requires an emotion coaching response, sometimes distraction or a disapproving look is all that’s needed in that moment!
Are there any particular pinch points in a family’s life where emotion coaching is particularly useful such as bereavement, separation, divorce, arrival of another sibling etc.?
Pretty much all the research on bereavement and divorce show that ignoring, dismissing, disapproving or distracting from a child’s emotions during such difficult times is pretty much the opposite of what they need. What the research advocates is empathy and guidance.
A child who feels sad or angry about a divorce, for example, which may manifest in unacceptable behaviour, still needs to have their feelings acknowledged and validated but with a clear message about their behaviour. It’s important to normalise feelings, particularly around loss, as this will help with their recovery more effectively. The same is true for the arrival of a new sibling. A child will feel naturally displaced, upset by the changes in routines and attention. So again, it’s important that their feelings are noticed and discussed so that they can start to learn to recognise and regulate them.
What common mistakes do parents make when trying to understand their children’s emotions?
The most common mistakes are to focus on the behaviour rather than the feeling and using logic and reasoning too quickly or too much. If a child is particularly upset, they first need to be calmed. A calm brain is more open to listening to reasoning and more able to remember the rules you may be trying to teach them.
Avoid asking ‘why’ questions when the child is in a distressed state as children in an emotional state need to be returned to a relaxed, calm state before we can reason with them. If we propose solutions before we empathise, it’s like trying to build a house before a firm foundation has been laid. Empathy helps the child to calm down, so they are more open and able to reason, helping to create neural connections in the rational brain to become an efficient manager of emotions.
Part of conveying empathy involves body language and tone. How we convey our empathy can be as important as what we say, particularly as the brain processes tone and body language before it processes the words we hear. A final common mistake is thinking that children’s ability to calm down and respond to our commands should happen quickly.
It takes nearly four years for a child to learn to speak fluently, even though they’re spoken to thousands of time a day. It’s therefore not surprising that it can take years for children to learn to self-regulate properly. Children need repetition to develop strong neuronal connections in their brain and the more you emotion coach, the more they will learn to emotion coach themselves.
This may seem like an obvious question, but how do children’s emotional needs change as they get older?
As children grow and develop, they generally become more aware of their emotions through the development of their language and are more open to reasoning, as the logical regions of their brain become more complex. There are some particular stages when their increasing understanding of the world and their wishes to engage with it leads to particular challenges, such as during the toddler and teenage years.
What is true for all ages is that if children’s emotional development is not always supported effectively, they may have difficulty managing their emotions which invariably manifests as challenging behaviour. What might be different is how we emotion coach.
For example, when a baby cries, we are all probably natural emotion coaches, soothing the baby and murmuring comforting words i.e. empathising with how they feel and calming them. As the baby grows and starts to be able to challenge what adults say and do in various ways, our communication expands into teaching them about the world and the rules within it i.e. moral values and acceptable behaviour, but a toddler still needs to be calmed first.
For slightly older children and tweens, the combination of the four four steps seems to work most effectively, particularly as their emotional vocabulary has expanded and they can communicate in a two-way conversation with adults more effectively. They can begin to engage with finding their own solutions to managing their feelings and behaviour.
When the teenager starts to develop a wider perspective and sense of agency that may clash with their parents’ rules or wishes, they still need an empathic ear. Indeed, research suggests that what teenagers most want is empathy. They already know the rules and they want to figure things out for themselves. So, the first two steps are probably the ones parents should focus on during the teenage years.
It’s the Christmas holidays, a time of stress within families. How can parents make best use of emotion coaching at this point in time?
You can use emotion coaching techniques to support a child’s behaviour during what can be a particularly exciting, overwhelming or stressful time for families with young children. When your child gets upset, try the following:
- Take them to a calm space in the house – acknowledge how they might be feeling and empathise: “Ahh, I think you must be feeling tired and upset that you can’t have…. I’d feel a bit upset too but it’s not okay to throw toys.”
- Validate their frustration or grumpiness: “It’s normal to be grumpy when we can’t have something we really want and we’re feeling tired.”
- Be explicit about how you’re helping them and why: “I know that you want to keep playing with your toys, but it’s time for bed now and sleep is really important. It will make you feel much happier tomorrow. In the morning, we’ll play with your new toys together, would that be fun? You can choose your favourite cuddly toy and story now, and we can cuddle up and read the story together before bed.”
- Once the child is calmer you can teach them rules about behaviour and strategies for coping next time they are feeling tired, or overwhelmed, or lose control.
How does emotion coaching fit into the Norland syllabus?
Norland students are all trained in emotion coaching. It forms an integral part of the degree and diploma programmes and we visit it through lectures, masterclasses and through reviewing its usage when students are on placement.
It’s not the only strategy we teach, as parents and carers need a whole toolkit of different ways of supporting children’s emotional development and behaviour. For example, books can be an excellent way of helping children understand their feelings and developing their emotional literacy. There’s nothing wrong with using distraction as a means to moderate behaviour if the child is not too distressed. And sometimes, a frown and a disapproving word is enough to prevent a child from transgressing. But emotion coaching is still one of your most important tools!
Finally, where can people find more information about emotion coaching?
You’ll find information online at the Emotion Coaching UK website or on Dr John Gottman’s website.