Updated: May 23
Emotions lie at the heart of parenting and all human interactions. Emotions and their expression communicate important information that provides us with opportunities to attend to our own needs and the needs of others. While our own emotions influence how we parent, children are wired to quickly pick up on our emotions, which impacts how they feel in stressful situations. When we are stressed, they are stressed. When we are calm, they are calm.
It is common to experience an emotional climate of anxiety sometimes, which can negatively impact children's healthy emotional development. However, there are several essential things that parents can do to promote their children’s healthy emotional function during these times. These include maintaining supportive, predictable and clear daily structures (such as routines, rituals, and clear family rules), healthy screen limits, healthy emotional communication, and strengthening family connection and resilience.
Nurturing emotional development
Our ability to manage emotions in the family is difficult at the best of times, let alone when we're feeling anxious. Yet, our children’s development of emotional skills (such as being able to recognize, understand and manage emotions and their expression) is shaped during childhood, with everyday interactions contributing to how the child will manage emotions as an adult. This process begins when a child is born and some argue, even earlier. Research has shown that the way we role model emotions and their expressions, the way we react to children’s emotions and how we directly coach children about emotions has an impact on the emotional climate of the family, on children’s emotional development, and later mental health.
In our suite of parenting programs, we teach parents the skills required to express and respond to emotions in supportive ways. Research involving 14 trials has found that improvements in these aspects of parenting via teaching parents skills in Emotion Coaching can lower family conflict, improve parent and child emotional competence and reduce child and adolescent internalizing (e.g., anxiety) and externalizing problems (e.g., challenging behaviours).
What is emotion coaching?
Emotion coaching is a parental response style that helps children understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur and how to handle them. It was first proposed by John Gottman and colleagues, who conducted research into how families communicated emotionally and identified four ways that parents respond to children’s emotions. The emotion coaching response style has been identified as optimal for children’s healthy emotional development. Parents with this response style first noticed emotions behind children’s behaviours or verbal statements (or situations).
Secondly, they saw these emotions as opportunities for connection and teaching (i.e., rather than thinking that their child was naughty or annoying, they wondered if their child needed connection or help).
Thirdly, they accepted all emotions and empathised with the child’s experience (i.e., they imagined what it might feel like to be in their child’s shoes and communicated their understanding to validate the child’s experience). Fourthly, they helped children to understand and name their emotions. Finally, once children were calmer and connected, they worked on solving problems or setting limits around unacceptable behaviours.
How does emotion coaching help?
Babies, children and teens thrive in emotionally secure relationships where they are (according to Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson) consistently feeling ‘safe, seen and soothed’. Emotions are contagious, and children’s brains are wired to pick up on emotions in the environment quickly. This is why often when you are sick or stressed, your children are less settled – just at a time when you need them to be ‘doing all the right things’. When we can role model healthy emotional expression, our children benefit immensely. They will be more likely to express emotions healthily – they can’t help this as they are wired up to copy us! Our calm can also be contagious! At a time of heightened anxiety, this is important to remember. We continuously communicate to our children that their world is safe or unsafe, which will impact their sense of safety. If, in times of emotional distress, the child can count on their parents to provide a safe and calm environment, the child can be buffered from the negative impact of stress. Emotion coaching can also help children feel seen and soothed because you focus on their emotions and needs. It is calming for the child when you are fully present with your child and can see and empathise with their struggles. We can do this verbally (as in emotion coaching language) or non-verbally (soothing sounds, rocking, hugs, and caring gestures). When we can use emotional moments as opportunities for connection and teaching, we can build our children’s skills in identifying, understanding and appropriately responding to emotions in themselves and others. It is the many micro-moments each day that will build these skills.
Gottman also highlighted three response styles that dismiss children’s emotions despite parents being full of good intent. For example, as identified in his research, parents who used an emotion-dismissing style were quite warm and responsive. Still, they ignored emotions (especially uncomfortable ones) and often responded by immediately wanting to make things better by rescuing children, trying to fix the problem or correcting their children’s behaviour. In my own work as an emotion coach, I have found many parents who, upon noticing their child’s fears, for example, go straight to reassurance and explanations: 'Don’t worry, you’ll be okay', 'Don’t dwell on it'. These are often ways that we reassure children without providing them with the opportunity to understand and process their emotions fully. Often this can give them the message that their feelings are not valid. We can even dismiss our newborns’ distress in this way. For example, when our little one is not enjoying having their nappy changed, we can say quite warmly (or think to ourselves internally), ‘Oh, stop the crying; it’s only a nappy change; we’ll be done in just a minute, calm down, shhh. So we can be warm, but we have a certain attitude to emotions where we ignore them and get on with it. Gottman also identified a more lax or Laissez-faire emotional response style. We are all familiar with this, especially when we are trying not to rock the boat. For example, currently, we may respond by giving in to children’s demands much faster to keep the peace (i.e., let them stay on devices all day, give them treats they want, etc.) – maybe because we are trying to keep quiet because mum or dad are working from home or because we are too exhausted to deal with strong emotional reactions. This more lax response style accepts all emotions but fails to educate the child about emotions and does not place guidance around behaviour. Gottman also found a more emotionally disapproving style, where parents disapproved or were critical of their children’s emotions (particularly uncomfortable emotions) and where they were primarily focused on their need to regain control or power or to teach the child right from wrong or to toughen the child up. All of us can identify with responding in this way, especially when we perceive our children misbehaving deliberately or when we are tired and overwhelmed. For example, with our older children fighting or speaking disrespectfully, we may punish their misbehaviours by sending them to their room.
Similarly, if using the nappy changing example, an emotional disapproving response might include becoming cross or saying things like ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, stop the fussing! Every time! I can’t stand this!’. When we are tired, stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, we are more likely to use emotion-dismissing response styles. Therefore, focusing on our own emotional well-being is one of the greatest gifts for our children.
Self-care for healthy emotional communication
Margot Sunderland, author of the book ‘The Science of Parenting: What every parent needs to know’ (and many others!), highlights that self-care is paramount to healthy emotional communication in the family. Find something to do that you find calming. This doesn’t need to be expensive or take a huge amount of time – in fact, small things done often are very effective! Self-care can be done alone, with others and can involve things we find calming (such as lying in the park, listening to music, reading a book, meditating, having a cup of tea, or having a bath) and things that help us destress (such as going for a run or a bike ride, dancing, singing, weeding the garden, or doing yoga). Sometimes, when things are too stressful to consider self-care, we may need ‘community care’ where we accept help from others (such as receiving help with shopping or cleaning, having someone look after the children, or receiving a meal). Try small gradual actions – even just turning off your device can become a moment of self-care.
Christiane Kehoe is the Emotion Coach Expert at Parents You've Got This and presents at our Toddler Masterclass series.