The importance of relationships within child development is well documented. There has been rapid growth in parenting research over the last 10 years. Particularly focused on the influence of parenting on the emotional and social development of children. An increasing body of research and evidence documents the importance of positive parent-child interactions. Positive interactions with parents are thought to improve self-esteem, self-regulation, self-confidence, independence and child mental health and wellbeing.
This does not mean parents do not guide behaviour and enforce boundaries. Positive parenting focuses on positive reinforcement of wanted and favoured behaviour. It focusses on the importance of listening to and loving your child, which in turn builds their ability to listen to and love others. Research shows positive parenting techniques are more likely to be successful for long term behaviour guidance and improves parental autonomy and wellbeing.
The importance of empathy
Empathy is a key ingredient in every relationship, it enables us to build relationships, make moral decisions and have moral consciousness. It is considered crucial for effective parenting. Empathy can be explained as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s situation. Empathy is thought to be the foundation of emotional intelligence. Neurological research shows humans are born primed for empathetic capacity and the ability to form strong attachments to others. A baby’s very survival depends on it.
Effective empathy is the ability to subjectively share another person’s feelings, which is thought to trigger a helping response in the brain. By offering and providing a child empathy parents may understand their child’s distress and can offer help and guidance rather than becoming angry or annoyed. Empathy has been linked to many wonderful human qualities such as compassion, kindness, generosity, acts of service and peacekeeping. Research shows that parents who promote and model empathy raise more empathetic children. Empathy is the basis of emotion coaching; which encourages empathetic development and capacity in children.
What is emotion coaching?
Emotion Coaching is a principle focussed on nurturing and supportive relationships which guide children through learning and managing their emotions. It is based on the research from psychologist John Gottman. It is not just a parenting tool but a philosophical approach to processing and understanding emotions. Emotion coaching is used to improve a child’s ability to learn how to manage their strong emotions and difficult feelings and used to promote child wellbeing and resilience. It is generally used to teach and develop social and emotional behaviour.
Emotion coaching stems from the understanding that there are six main emotions; Joy, Anger, Surprise, Fear, Disgust and Sadness. If you haven’t seen Inside Out then watch this clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koNNIaj8BM0 ). We all can recognise, regulate, accept and manage our emotions, it is part of our human experience. Emotion coaching accepts that all feelings are normal and appreciated but enables regulation of those feelings in a way which does not cause harm to oneself or others. It engages our ‘thinking brain’ rather than our ‘survival’ system.
Benefits of emotion coaching
Gottman and subsequent research has found that emotional coaching has many social, emotional and physiological benefits. Emotion coaching encourages the development of child-parent relationships that foster ‘pro-social’ behaviour. Behaviour which is positive, helpful, kind and self regulatorily. Research also found children had better attention capacity and increased intellectual performance, as well as enhanced problem-solving capabilities and stress management.
Responsive parenting and emotion coaching
Whilst responsive parenting can be simply described as recognising and responding to a cue from a child, it incorporates understanding a child’s developmental stages. By understanding development parents can respond to behaviour in an age-appropriate way. At birth, babies are prepped for social and emotional development, however, it is the role of parents to foster social and emotional development.
Babies need consistent and continual responsive parenting. This means responding to cues and cries. Babies cannot self soothe or self-settle. Their overall brain development, in particular social and emotional development, is too immature to be able to calm themselves down. By responding to babies cues and cries parenting are laying solid foundations for social and emotional development, including feelings of safety, trust and confidence in parents.
Over one year old children continue to develop rapidly. They begin to experience more emotions and may begin to protest against parents. It is at this age onwards that emotion coaching has the biggest impact. It is important to highlight parents can still offer comfort, soothing and affection whilst emotion coaching. Between the ages of one and two toddlers will still need a great deal of soothing from parents to help calm their emotions before coaching can take place.
How to emotionally coach
There are four steps to emotion coaching;
- Parents recognise the emotion and empathise
Parent acknowledges their child’s emotional moment, calms their own emotions, empathises with their child and is ready to help and teach.
- Parents name the emotion, offer reassurance and containment
“I can see you are angry, you are angry because we have to stop playing and you are having fun. It is okay to be angry.”
For older children, you might encourage them to name their emotion.
“I wonder if you are sad about not being able to see your friends, it’s okay to feel sad, I get sad about not seeing my friends too”
“I know you want to continue to play and have fun, but we have to stop now. We can continue this another day. Remember our number one rule is to be kind. We only use kind hands with Mummy.”
“Do you think if you feel angry like this again a calm down period with Mummy would be helpful?”
Emotional coaching can be used in the moment of feelings or reflectively afterwards.
Parents have a huge influence on their child’s ability to regulate their emotions. Children observe and learn a great deal from watching their parents. Role modelling empathy, emotional regulation and social behaviour are essential in encouraging healthy social and emotional development.
Part of emotional coaching requires parents to reflect on their understanding and attitudes regarding emotions. Reflecting on their own ability to calm their emotions and offer their child containment. A child’s emotions cannot be regulated if the parent is not able to regulate themselves. If this is a new concept to parents, and they have not been taught how to regulate themselves as a child, this approach takes patience and practice. Parents can learn alongside teaching their child.
Parents can start to tune into their own emotions by naming them. This can be done either vocally or silently.
“I am feeling different. I am feeling angry, I am angry because yet again I am the only one emptying the dishwasher. It is okay to be angry. It is best not to shout just because I am angry, I need to role model kind words. What is going to make me feel less angry and calmer? How can I improve this situation in the future?”
Being emotionally available and offering emotional containment for a child 24/7 is EXHAUSTING. Responsive parenting is not just understanding the needs of a child but also of your own. Self-kindness, self-compassion and offering boundaries for your emotions is equally as important. Recognise when your limits for availability are being reached and ask for help. Offloading to a family member, friend or a health professional can be hugely beneficial.
Emotion coaching, whilst not a new concept, might be new to many parents. Previously emotions and feelings have not been as freely discussed. However, with more awareness and promotion of mental health, we are understanding the importance of talking about emotions. Now, more than ever, emotion coaching is recognised as highly beneficial to the social and emotional development of children. Parents might not get it right the first time, or every time, but as with almost all things in supporting child development consistency is key! Don’t forget emotion coaching is also about highlighting and acknowledging happy emotions too – “I can see how excited and happy you are about playing in the park!”.
Calm Parents Happy Kids – Dr Laura Markham
Solihull Approach – https://solihullapproachparenting.com/research/
Tuning into Kids – https://tuningintokids.org.au
Triple P – https://www.triplep-parenting.uk.net/uk-en/blog-and-videos/blogs-and-news/
Aha Parenting – https://www.ahaparenting.com
Emotion Coaching UK – https://www.emotioncoachinguk.com