How to Be an 'Emotional Coach': 7 Tactics to Help Your Child Tune into & Harness Their Emotions
As we learned in Part 2, parents generally fall into two categories - emotional coaches or emotional dismissers. Most of us practice with our kids the methods we learned from our parents unless we make deliberate effort to change.
To recap: Parents who are emotional coaches consider that talking with their child about emotions is an opportunity for learning, connection and intimacy. They see emotions as a portal that allows them into their child’s world. They know when to sit down and explore their child’s emotional reaction with them, when to give the child space so he can work through his own emotions and when to coach the child to not get overly attached to an emotional reaction. Children growing up with parents who are emotional coaches learn to thoughtfully reflect on their emotions, and how to enhance their positive emotions. Psychologists and Neuroscientists have found that children who grow up with parents who use emotional coaching have a calmer central nervous system, a lower resting heart rate and a healthier emotional brain circuitry. These are the kids who stay cool under pressure!
You might be feeling a little bit daunted at the idea of being an emotional coach, especially if you were raised with emotionally dismissive parents. Believe me, I get your nervousness, but the good news is that becoming an emotional coach is a skill you can learn and Sophie Havighurst, a colleague of mine in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, Australia, has found that moms and dads of toddlers, preschoolers, children and teens have done just that.
After attending the ‘Tuning into Kids’ program (developed by Jon Gottman) parents in her studies were more encouraging of their children’s emotional expression, increased their use of emotion labels, and were more skilled at discussing causes and consequences of emotions with their children. This had positive effects for both the parents and children.
You too can become an emotional coach...
The first step in becoming an emotional coach is to question your own beliefs about the nature of emotions. If you have grown up believing that emotions should be avoided, now is the time to question that belief for the sake of your kids.
The second step in emotional coaching is to help your child to tune into and harness their emotions. I’m including a few ideas as to how to do this below:
1. Get into the Habit of Asking Your Kids How They Feel
My tip is to simply get into the habit of asking your child the following questions: ‘What are you feeling right now? 'How does that make you feel?' ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ By asking these questions you are taking notice of your child’s emotions and they feel supported even if they decide it’s not worth talking about. Mind you, the timing of these questions is important, and if my kids, Nick or Emily, are in an intense emotional state I do not ask these question straight up.
Neuroscience shows us that when we are feeling strong emotions the brain is highly activated in the limbic system. In a highly emotional state, the limbic system takes dominance over our frontal lobe. This state is called an ‘amygdala hijack’ (pronounced am –ig –dulla) because it is as if the amygdala has literally taken your frontal lobe hostage. It has hijacked your thinking mind.
According to prominent child psychiatrist Daniel Siegal when your child is in a state of amygdala hijack they won’t be able to answer your question because the answer requires them to be thinking with their frontal lobe. Your best approach is to calm them down with soothing words, a calm tone of voice, compassionate facial expressions and calm body language.
When your child feels calm again the blood flow will disperse from their limbic system and go back to the frontal lobe allowing them to think clearly and reasonably about the problem and the emotions they just experienced. This is when you can ask them how they are feeling and do they want to talk about it.
Siegal offers a useful metaphor that I have found works well with my children and that is the idea of the downstairs brain (the limbic system) and the upstairs brain (the frontal lobe).
When children are in a state of emotional distress they’re in their downstairs brain and they need to feel that you are ‘there’ for them to help them calm down. Only then will they be ready to climb back to their upstairs brain. You can use mindfulness techniques. A hug or a laugh will do the trick too. When my children see me get stressed they’ll often say “Mom, do you need to climb back to your upstairs brain?”
2. Encourage Your Child to Explore Their Emotions By Using Metaphors
You can encourage your child to explore their emotions by using metaphors. You don’t have to use the word ‘metaphor’ with your children, rather you can ask them to describe something that their emotion might also be like. Questions that help children to develop emotional differentiation include: If your feeling was a color, what color would it be? Where do you feel this emotion in your body? What shape do you think this emotion is? If this emotion was an animal, what animal would it be? Does this emotion have a smell? Nick thinks happiness smells like mint and Emily says love smells like popcorn.
Recently, Emily had a meltdown, when we spoke together afterward and I asked her how she was feeling she told me, "Mom, sometimes I get so angry that it feels like a bolt of lightning shoots through my body." The next time she seemed angry, I asked her, "Do you have lightning inside you?” She paused and then said, "No, I’m not angry, just frustrated." The metaphor of lightning worked wonders. In that moment she was able to label her feeling, differentiate between two types of negative emotions and de-escalate herself from anger to frustration. Believe me when I say that this moment of de-escalation worked well for all of us!
3. Mute Your TV and Guess the Emotions
A fun way to help your child learn about emotions is by muting the volume on your television and then guessing the emotions of the actors. You can use the same game when you’re out in public places with your children. Take some time to sit down together and ‘people watch’. Try to guess the emotions of people walking past by observing their body language and facial expressions. Learning to read subtle emotional cues is a useful skill for your child to develop. For instance, the angle of a person's eyebrows and the shape of someone’s shoulders can tell us if that person is happy, angry or sad. This exercise can teach your children to distinguish fear from frustration, love from joy, curiosity from excitement, etc.
4. Temperature Check or Thumb-o-Meter
One quick technique you can use on a daily basis with your child to help them understand, label and express their emotions is the emotional temperature check where you each give a weather report of your emotions (i.e., sunny, stormy, mild with a chance of rain).
Another technique I use with Nick and Emily is the thumb-o-meter. Thumbs up means they are in positive mood, thumbs sideways means they are in neutral mood and thumbs down means that they're in a negative mood. After I see where their thumbs are pointed, I ask them to elaborate by telling me the specific emotions they’re feeling.
5. Bears App or Happify App
If your child is into technology (did I just write an oxymoron?) then you might like to check out the Bears app and the Happify app. The Bears app works well for younger children and has 48 illustrations of bears each showing different emotions through their facial expression and body language. Your child can swipe through the different bears to find the emotion they are feeling at that moment and you can use this to start a discussion. This is a good app to use when your child is in their downstairs brain.
You can also ask your child to show the bear that they think a friend, or someone else, is feeling. They can also use the bears to express how they felt after various experiences like a school excursion, winning a game, losing a game, fighting with someone, visiting their grandparent in the hospital and so on.
For teenagers, the Happify app is a great resource. The app and website have activities and games for your teenager to undertake, as well as, tracks to listen to. Happify is based on science of positive psychology and focuses on the five key areas of savoring, gratitude, generosity, meaning and empathy. Your child can keep their own profile and track the activities they are doing.
This is also a site for you to use. I like the savoring games and activities, as well as, ‘Today’s Grateful Moment’ diary where they have a specific section on promoting gratitude in families. I also like ‘Happify Daily’ which is a great way to get an injection of positivity with its inspiring and positive stories of human nature.
Happify has mindfulness tracks your child can listen to. Because mindfulness helps your child become aware of their present moment thoughts and feelings as they arise, your child will learn to notice their range of emotions and the relationship between their emotions and their strengths. Richard Davidson’s research has shown that people who undertake mindfulness courses have decreased activity in their right prefrontal cortex (the house of negative emotions) and increases in activity in their left prefrontal cortex (the house of positive emotions) at the end of the course compared to the start of the course. This is because they are learning how to detach from the negative thoughts and direct their thought towards the positive. Noticeable changes are seen in the brain in just 8 weeks.
Music is a great way to help connect children with their emotions. Daniel Levitin’s research shows that when we listen to music almost every region and neural subsystem in our brain is activated. The particular combination of rhythm, timbre, pitch, volume and harmony evokes deeply held emotional response. Broadly speaking, songs in major keys and with fast tempos are interpreted by our brain as mood lifters. In contrast, slow songs played in minor key tend to make us feel sad or reflective.
My children have created a soundtrack based on all of their favorite songs ranging from Disney, hip-hop, classical, gospel, jazz and pop. The soundtrack includes songs that have upbeat melodies and songs with positive themes about love, happiness and friendships. Pharell Williams is a big hit in our household. We also include songs about resilience, triumph and overcoming negative events. ‘I’m a Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child, ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M and ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor are three of our favorites.
We put on the soundtrack and dance like crazy people in our living room. The music itself is uplifting, but by doing this on a regular basis with my children I am creating a positive memory association for them. I am also teaching that music is a tool they can use to help manage their own emotions.
The emotion of gratitude has received considerable attention from positive psychologists and it also happens to be one of my own favorite research topics. To feel thankful and have the ability to notice the good things around you is a powerful psychological tool for emotional management. Gratitude increases life satisfaction, happiness, and resilience. Putting on ‘gratitude glasses’ makes the good things in your life stand out like searching for Waldo with a pair of prescription glasses that are specifically designed to make him leap off the page.
The warm goo of gratitude works in a number of ways. First, gratitude creates a feeling of abundance because it helps us to see all the good things in our life. This feeling of abundance makes us feel satisfied with what we have and it counteracts a feeling that we are lacking or don’t have enough. Indeed, researchers have found that teenagers who are high on gratitude are less materialistic. Given that they don’t consider themselves to be lacking, they don’t have to fill the gap by purchasing things. This is especially important for kids in today's world who are bombarded by marketers telling them they are not good enough or don’t have enough unless they look, act, dress in a certain way. Gratitude has been shown to reduce resentment and bitterness and it works to counteract depressive thinking.
The second way gratitude works is that it strengthens our relationships. Psychologists classify gratitude as a social emotion which means it is an emotion that has positive effects on you and others. When we feel appreciation towards someone, more often than not we are motivated to thank the other person. The end result is that you get the warm feelings that prompted gratitude in the first place and the other person gets the warm feelings of being on the receiving end of your appreciation. Think about how good it feels when your son or daughter wrap their arms around you and thanks you for something you have done.
The function of gratitude is to bring people together. It is a bonding emotion. A social glue. Being a social emotion means it gives a ‘2 for the price of 1’ benefit and this is why I have become such a big fan of gratitude. It’s not that other positive emotions like joy and awe aren’t valuable, it’s just that in a family context prosocial emotions like gratitude have a ripple effect across all members.
Building an Emotionally Intelligent Brain
It’s never too late to start being an emotional coach. It doesn’t matter if your child is 2 or 22. The change starts with you. The most powerful form of emotional coaching comes through the way you understand and express your own emotions. All the activities I have suggested above are helpful to you too. Let your kids know what emotional weather you are, join in the Thumb-o-Meter game, get on to Happify, use the Mindfulness apps, let your kids know when you are in your downstairs brain, dance in the living room and express gratitude. If you and your kids regularly repeat the activities outlined here and make them part of your family routine you are doing way more than creating an emotional experience for your child in that moment, you are changing their brains and paving strength-based pathways for them.
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As a University researcher, Lea Waters, PhD, turns her science into strength-based strategies to help organizations, educators and parents around the world build resilience in their employees and children, helping them to thrive. Lea’s keynotes and talks offer her audience a unique blend of science and practice. To find out more about working with Lea or to book Lea for your next event, please contact us.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): London Scout, Eye for Ebony, Alexander Dummer, Bruno Nascimento, Senjuti Kundu, Kelly Sikkema, Gabby Orcutt, and Alicia Jones on Unsplash.
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