Emotion Coaching

Emotion coaching is a universal strategy for supporting the behavioural and emotional well-being of children, adolescents and adults. It can be used as an ‘in the moment’ technique to connect with your loved one, redirect behaviour and avoid or de-escalate outbursts. It can also be used to support the development of emotional health in general.

But how does it work? Relating to your loved one using the principles and skills of emotion coaching activates growth enhancing chemistry in the brain that leads to stronger connections between regions of the brain involved in the regulation of emotions. Therefore, by experiencing emotion coaching repeatedly, and over time, your loved one will develop the capacity to manage their own feelings instead of acting out with behaviours, developing symptoms or needing to connect with others in order to feel ok.

Steps of Emotion Coaching – Brief Version

Ready to begin?
First things first – check in with yourself. Are you calm? If not, take a breath. Seriously. 
The breath is like the brain’s remote control. It’s definitely a powerful, yet undervalued resource that is readily available and will make it easier for you to engage in the steps of emotion coaching outlined below.


Step 1: Validation Level & Goal of Interaction

The first skill of emotion coaching is to validate your loved one. You can do so by transforming “BUT to BECAUSE”.
For example, when your loved one tells you they feel sad about missing out on a family event, rather than leading with a typical response like:
“I can understand why you might feel sad but there’s always next time”
You would first imagine why it would make sense for her to feel sad and then convey your
understanding using the word “because” like: “I can understand why you might feel sad because you know you’re going to miss out on the fun”
Validating your loved one’s emotional experience – even if you don’t personally agree – will have a calming effect for your child. In fact, validation is most effective when it involves at least three “becauses”. For example... “I can understand why you might feel sad because you know you’re going to miss out on the fun; and because you were really looking forward to this; and because you don’t know when you’ll have another opportunity”. You don’t need to use the word “because” each time, but it can help you to structure your validation until doing so becomes more natural.
If you want to increase the effectiveness of the skill of validation, when you communicate your statement using three “becauses”, match your loved one’s tone and volume. For example, if they are feeling blue, say it low and slow. If they are feeling angry, say it with energy (but not anger). Doing so will quite literally calm the emotional circuits in their brain.

  • “I notice you seem sad – you’re hunched over, and your head is down.”

  • “Sit down with me – what’s going on?”

  • Ask questions - "What then?" Give prompts - "Tell me more," "Uh-huh.”

  • Overall show interest in him (through verbal, nonverbal cues), show that you are paying attention (nodding, eye contact, etc.)


Step 2: Accurate Reflection

Reflect on what he is saying, without adding any interpretation (E.g., "So you're frustrated because...” Then ask  - "Is that right?". Remember, you’re not evaluating the accuracy, merit or usefulness of their thinking, just reflecting what is. Example: "I hate myself” Reflection: "You hate yourself because.....and that makes you feel......."
Note: you don't have to actually agree with him.


Step 3: Articulate Unspoken Thoughts and Feelings

Try to "read" or imagine the feelings, thoughts and fears that might be underneath his statements. To uncover underlying thoughts, you can ask questions like “What are you worried it will mean if this happens? What do you think it says about you that this happened?”  Then, to uncover the underlying associated emotions, you can ask how thinking this way makes him feel (this should elicit more underlying emotions like shame, disappointment, hurt, hopelessness). 
*Remember to check for accuracy. It is best not to make assumptions.       

  • Example: "I hate myself” Reflecting what’s underneath: "When you lost your lego piece, it made you think you can’t do anything right. Like you’re always making mistakes or doing something wrong. And that made you feel....”



Let him know it makes sense he would think/feel/act this way given:

  • His past learning/history (e.g., “It makes sense you feel this way because I think you feel that you’re not good at things and that you’ve made a lot of mistakes”)

  • What’s important to him (e.g., “You don’t want to feel like a failure. You just want to feel good about yourself. It’s so important to you that you do everything right.”

You can also validate:

  • His positive intention for his actions or lack of negative purpose (e.g., “I know you didn’t mean to do this”)

  • How his feelings make sense given his interpretation of the situation (e.g., “No wonder you feel so mad at yourself. You think that when you lost your lego piece, that meant you can’t do anything right”)

  • How out of control his feelings feel (e.g., “I know your feelings feel really strong right now, maybe you feel like you can’t control them”)


Step 5: EMPATHY -Meet the Emotional Need

Once the other feels validated, you can then offer emotional support. Every emotion has a specific emotional need. If your loved one is sad, offer them comfort (e.g., a hug). If they feel angry, help them to communicate what it is they need (e.g., space, a boundary, to feel heard). If they feel shame or anxiety, you can now offer reassurance and practical support. That being said, our society is deeply conditioned to offer reassurance when someone shares with us that they are struggling in some way. Providing reassurance WITHOUT validation is ineffective, despite how often we feel pulled to do so. That said, when preceded by deep validation, reassurance is much more likely to have the desired effect.

  • Provide empathy for his experience of the situation, while trying to avoid making it about your own emotions E.g., “It must be so so hard to think this way about yourself.”


Step 6: OFFER A CUE OF AVAILABILITY - Meet the Practical Need

Let him know you’re the bigger, stronger, wiser and kinder parent – you can handle his big feelings, and you’re going to help him get through them. 
    •    E.g., “How can I get you through this?”; “I’m here for you”; “I’m going to stay right here with you to help you through these feelings.”
Finally it’s time for problem-solving! When faced with an emotional challenge, most of us want to move right to “fixing it”. However, if you skip over the steps above, you are likely going to experience resistance to your efforts to solve the emotional problem. Your loved one may also get frustrated, perhaps feeling like you aren’t listening. And so the order in which you move through these steps is very important. Only after you’ve validated and offered emotional support do you then support your loved one practically.


Once his feelings have calmed, you can help him come up with different ways he could interpret the situation. Next time you have these feelings, what could you do instead?


Practical Tips:

When using the steps of emotion coaching, the skill of validation is critical. It calms the brain and makes the other more open and flexible to comfort, reassurance, problem-solving - even redirection and limits. There will be times when you will notice that once you’ve deeply validated your loved one, meeting the emotional and practical need isn’t even necessary because they will feel calmer or will have figured out themselves what to do next. Be aware, however, that once you start to validate your loved one, they may initially react in the following ways:
“Why are you talking to me like that? That’s weird.” “You can’t possibly understand.”
“I’m not sad – I’m mad!”
Do not be discouraged by these types of responses. They are normal and to be expected when you initiate a new style of communication, especially if there is a history of strain in the relationship. In these instances, simply start over with validating anew. We call it “validation whack-a-mole” and it’s actually a great sign that your loved one is feeling heard and is willing to share with you more than what was initially on the surface. Keep using the validation script and be sure to communicate three “becauses” each time and the emotional storm will soon pass.

Other Examples

(1) When he says “You will hate me” if you’re angry:

    •    Listening to non-judgmentally: 
    •    E.g., “What do you mean when you say that?”; “Tell me more – what makes you feel that way?”
    •    Accurate reflection
    •    Uncover and reflect what’s underneath:
    •    E.g., “You think that when I’m angry at you, that means I hate you. You think I can’t love you and be angry at the same time.”
    •    E.g., You’re worried that I won’t love you anymore
    •    E.g., You’re afraid that if I’m mad at you, that means you’re a bad kid
    •    Validation:
    •    E.g., It makes sense you would feel this way. You’ve seen the anger that has caused people say things that are hurtful, and that makes you think they hate you. You’ve learned to feel anger is scary.
    •    E.g., You just want to be loved. You just want me to love you-you don’t want me to be mad at you
    •    E.g., When I’m mad at you, you feel all alone. You’re worried there’s no-one to love you.
    •    Empathy
    •    Cue of availability
    •    Alternative interpretations:
    •    What else could it mean when I’m angry at you?
    •    How can you tell the difference between anger and hate?
    •    Mom can both love you and be mad at the same time. When you’re mad at mom because of........do you still love me?
    •    I know anger feels scary. But it’s okay to feel angry sometimes. Everyone feels angry. It’s normal. We don’t have to be afraid of it. What’s most important is what you do with your angry feelings – as long as you don’t hit or say really mean things, it’s okay to let out your anger.

(2) When he loses his temper:

    •    Listening to non-judgmentally: 
    •    E.g., “Tell me what happened when you got angry.” 
    •    Accurate reflection
    •    Uncover and reflect what’s underneath:
    •    E.g., “When those kids were [doing something to him], that made you think.....and that made you feel.......”
    •    Validation:
    •    E.g., No wonder you were angry. You felt HURT (reflect the emotion underneath the anger), you felt rejected. 
    •    E.g., You didn’t mean to hit anyone. Your anger feelings were just too big, and you didn’t know what to do with them. 
    •    Empathy:
    •    The cue of availability:
    •    E.g., I know you feel really bad about what happened. I want to help you learn how to cope with your feelings.
    •    Alternative interpretations/actions:
    •    Your anger felt really overpowering, and it made you lash out. But what happens when you do that? It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to hit. What could you do instead next time?

(2) When he says “I want to kill myself” or makes similar statements:

    •    Listening to non-judgmentally: 
    •    E.g., “Tell me what happened when you started to feel this way....”
    •    Accurate reflection
    •    Uncover and reflect what’s underneath
    •    Validation:
    •    E.g., “No wonder you felt like this. You were feeling so upset with yourself. You just wanted to make your feelings go away, but you didn’t know how.”
    •    Empathy: E.g., It must be so hard to feel so sad/bad about yourself that you think you want to kill yourself. 
    •    The cue of availability:
    •    E.g., “Thank you so much for sharing these feelings with me. That means you don’t have to go through them alone”  (*Make sure he doesn’t feel like he did something wrong by saying this to you – that could make it harder for him to come to you with these feelings*)
    •    Alternative interpretations/actions:
    •    Sometimes when people feel sad or upset or mad at themselves, their feelings are so strong that they think “I don’t want to be here anymore” “I just want to make these feelings go away.”  What can we do to help you get through these feelings?  

Generally, what are some of the messages he would benefit from hearing?  
    •    Anger does not always have to be scary
    •    You don’t have to be a perfect child. I expect you to make mistakes. I will support you the same, whether you’re happy, mad or sad. All feelings will get the same response from mom.
    •    Mom is not going anywhere. Mom is bigger, stronger, wiser and kinder and can handle your big feelings. You can help mom sometimes, but you don’t have to take care of mom – that is mom’s job. 
    •    Mom will never stop loving you. There is nothing you can do to change that – it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes or do things wrong, it won’t affect mom’s love
    •    When people feel angry, they lose control of the thinking part of their brain. That means they say things that don’t make sense and say things they don’t mean and that are not true. 
    •    Lots of scary things have happened, and you’re worried about losing mom. These are the things that you can always count on to be true: etc. etc.

Echo FeatherstoneComment