Why Your Child or Teen Needs An Emotion Coach (And Why You Are the Person for the Job)

At a recent workshop I asked parents to share something about their children that they were really proud of - not in terms of accomplishments, but in terms of behaviors they have been working on. This distinction is important.

You no doubt feel proud if your child makes the honor roll or sinks the winning basket in an important game. These are indeed accomplishments. Sometimes, however, our children’s greatest growth is revealed in the less obvious and less heralded moments.

“Sometimes my son tells me he hates me when he flies off the handle,” a parent shared. “As you can imagine, it’s really hard to hear.”

She went on to say that it has been hard to know what to do. She had to do the work of sifting through her own intensely emotional responses to get to the place where she could communicate an important message to her son. “Your anger isn’t the problem, but how you are expressing it is hurtful.” They worked on it. And worked on it.

Then she shared one of her proudest moments. “Recently he went into a meltdown and started stomping around the house. I heard him stomping up the stairs and then all of a sudden he stopped. It was quiet for a moment and then he shouted ‘I don’t hate you. But I am really angry!’” The rest of us in the parenting workshop nearly burst into applause – for both the little boy and his mom.

This parent could have shared a less vulnerable story, perhaps one that had a flowery resolution. Something like, “My son rarely melts down anymore and when he does he hugs me and tells me I am a good mom.” Instead, this parent was willing to describe a real life episode. Her son still stomps around. He is still working on emotional regulation. But he made a giant leap on that staircase. For the first time he was able to pause and make a choice about how he was going to express his anger and frustration.

This is something to be really proud of.

You are your child’s emotional coach.

Whether you knew it or not, you became your child’s emotional coach the moment he or she was born. Teaching children how to manage intense emotions is an important-and challenging- parenting responsibility. It entails helping them understand their own emotions and those of others in order to make good choices.

Impulse control and emotional regulation are core executive function skills that improve as their prefrontal cortex matures. But children don’t learn these skills on their own. They require practice from early childhood all the way through adolescence and they look to caregivers and other adults as their guides--their coaches.

University of Washington professor John Gottman, coined the term “emotion coaching” when he found that children whose parents help them regulate their emotional worlds were more confident, happy, and successful. He argues that it can be easy to address misbehavior without attending to the underlying emotions. When we do this, we miss an important opportunity to build our children’s emotional regulation, a skill that ultimately helps them make better choices in the future.

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka also emphasizes the importance of emotion coaching in her book Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles. (Put this practical book on your reading list!) In her years of experience as a parent educator, she has found that when parents claim their roles as emotion coaches they are able to turn would-be power struggles into learning opportunities.

So what does emotion coaching look like? Check out our 5 tips for emotion coaching to get you started (and get tips for regulating your own emotions too!).

Have you tried emotion coaching with your child or teen? How is it going?