Hello and welcome to our next Therapy Connect Conversation. My name is Kirsten O’Rourke, your host for a three-part series where we unpack some thoughts and ideas around emotion coaching, and how to support your child with those big, emotional reactions to things that are out of their control. Joining us again in this third conversation is our special guest Sophia Garner.
Sophia is a master’s level social worker and board certified behavior analyst with extensive experience working with individuals with a range of abilities, challenges, and concerns. She has specialist training and experience working with families and clients who are experiencing challenging behaviors.
So Sophia, what I know of emotion coaching is, it’s a tool that can be used to support how we manage our child’s really big reactions to events, and often events that are out of our control. We touched on this a little bit in our last session when we were talking about building tolerance. So, how do we help when our kids are having big emotions? Do we even try and fix the problem? There’s so much going on in our world at the moment, and so much is out of our control, causing these big emotions. SO, what is emotion coaching exactly?
Emotion coaching is actually a tool that’s used across a lifetime, it’s not just for kids. It’s for adults as well. It’s just a really great way of giving yourself a bit of a framework for responding to other people’s big emotions, especially our kids. I think the hardest part is we react to somebody else’s experience and emotions. As parents, that’s such a natural thing to feel their pain with them and to react.
So I think this gives you a bit of a framework to help you step back and think, okay, how do I mindfully respond to this big emotion that this child is having? Emotion coaching is a way to teach self-regulation through co-regulation. Throughout the years, it might look slightly different. For an early learner, you might be doing a lot more co-regulation and more problem-solving. And as they’re getting older, it’s collaborative with problem-solving or facilitating their own problem-solving.
And that’s the big one isn’t it? That’s when there’s problems that we can’t fix even though we really want to fix it.
Not all problems have solutions or need to be solved or can be solved and often they’re the trickiest ones to manage. The first point to think about is to be aware of your child’s emotional experience and expression. Big emotions, whether that’s anger or screaming at you or throwing things, crying or being withdrawn, recognise that as a moment to connect with them and to teach some of these skills that we’re going to go through here. A lot of the time, we can shy away from that and want to shut it down. It’s important to take a step back, and try not to let the avoidance of that experience dictate what you then do next, which can be really challenging to do. So, we can always focus on one step at a time and not try and do everything all at once.
The next part is labeling and describing your child’s experience. So, labeling the emotion that you think that they’re experiencing and describing how you know what they’re experiencing? This part we often miss. We often say, “Aw, you sound really angry.” It’s like, well, how do you know they’re angry?
I know they’re angry if they’re red. That really helps, especially in children with disabilities, to recognise their own physical sensations, and what that means for their emotions. So it’s like, oh, usually, when I’m scrunching my face and my face is clenched, it means I’m pretty angry. They might not be recognising that connection between what they’re doing and their emotions. So that’s a massive part just there, just labeling and describing.
The describing part is important, because so often I think it’s quite easy to label, but even for us observing, I think sometimes, it’s quite hard to describe how we know. I know that you’re angry by what you’re doing, but even that describing part, is quite hard to do.
It can feel a little bit clunky in the beginning. You might feel a little bit weird doing it, but that’s okay. Just keep working through that. From there, you’d go on to figuring out the why. So, what happened that made you feel this way? Using a lot of ‘I wonders’ can help. We’re wondering rather than telling them. I wonder if it was because your brother came and knocked your tower over that you’ve worked really, really hard on, and you were so excited to show us when we got home from work. Trying to help them connect the dots is important. It’s like I’m feeling this thing, these are the sensations I’m experiencing, and this is the thing that happened that made me feel this way. From there, empathise with them.
I think sometimes it can seem like such a small thing to ask when there are so many bigger things going on in the world in our lives. Our kid’s get upset because their tower got knocked down or whatever it might be. They weren’t allowed to go somewhere or something happened. If they’re having that big of a reaction, that shows you how important that thing was to them. And even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, it definitely is to them. So, trying to empathise with them, it’s like your emotions aren’t wrong. You know? It’s going through those experiences and we’ll get on to this into the next step. Not all behaviors associated with emotions are okay, but all emotions are okay.
Yeah. All emotions are okay. Yeah. Reinforcing that is key.
It’s like, I can totally see. I totally get how angry you would be about your tower being ruined. That’s really upsetting. We might not really care so much about the tower, but they really did, so we want them to feel understood. From there, you’d go onto replacing the limits on their response to their emotions or giving replacements. So, that’s where you might be like, hey, it’s okay that you’re feeling really angry at your brother for knocking over the tower. But, it’s not okay to hit him or to throw a bottle at him.
Sometimes there might be times where I often stop, and don’t go that further step. We’re placing a limit on their response to that emotion, and emphasizing that all emotions are okay. And now, we’re going to have a look at what you did with that emotion.
It’s important to make sure that you only ever do that after you’ve done all these other things, first, because you don’t want to go straight in there and be like, kicking’s not okay! They just can’t say that right then, so you need to make sure that if you see them just deflate a little bit once you start doing this, and that just the intensity of the emotion is taken away before you try and engage in replacements. You can be empathetic and still have limits, really firm limits, on what is and isn’t okay. It’s like, I have to be really understanding, or I have to be really firm. You can actually be both.
So, you can also place limits using the steps we’ve talked about.
Yes, and even if they’re frustrated with that limit, ‘I get that you’re really upset that I’m not letting you throw something at your brother, I can see that that’s really frustrating for you. ‘It’s okay to be frustrated about that’ is an acknowledgement, and is also giving replacements. That’s really important.
So, what could we do to let your brother know that we’re really upset with him? What could we say to him? I wonder. And trying to act confused and see if they’ll give you the information. We could say, “Stop. Oh wait. I don’t like that.” It’s like, that’s an awesome idea. Let’s try it. And then, actually, role play out the situation, which can be really useful. I just skipped on then to be collaborative with problem solving.
So that’s the final step, giving a replacement but getting them to join in and collaborate with you to work out what that might be.
Yeah. Exactly. And, using a lot of ‘I wonder’ or ‘what if’ or ‘maybe this’. Depending on the age and school level of your child, you might need to give them a response in those more early years.
As a parent I’m thinking, because my children are a bit older, and they’re going into that stage now where it’s friends, or it’s not getting to go for a sleepover when someone else did, or it’s not getting invited to a birthday party because they could only have four kids. It’s those big emotions that are coming out now that I can’t fix it as it’s happening.
It’s really challenging. And I think our instinct as adults and caregivers, is to fix. We want to make the painful thing go away. It’s like, I don’t want my child being upset. It’s like, that’s really painful for you as an adult. We want to smooth the way. And a big part of that is to recognise that in yourself. So, it’s like I’m really uncomfortable with my child’s suffering right now. And that’s okay for you to experience that and just label that yourself. Right? I use this on myself all the time. And then, for your child, it’s just making space for that big feeling to be there and for you to be there with them.
Yes. Making space for the big feeling.
And we’re not going to try to make it go away necessarily. We’re not trying to shut it out. It’s just that this is here, we’re going to experience it. I’m going to be here with you while we do that. So, it’s like I can see that you’re really upset. You’re crying and you’re all shut off. I wonder if it’s because he didn’t invite you to her birthday party. I can totally imagine how upsetting that must be for you to feel exploited. And it’s okay to feel really upset about that. But it’s not okay to send a mean text message or something like that.
And that’s the response to the emotion, isn’t it? That’s where we need to work collaboratively and help them think of a replacement or what they might be able to do. It’s a bit more destructive. I think coming back again to the current things going on in the world and with COVID restrictions and lockdowns, and just that sense of fear of being at school, being at home, being at school, home, school. You know? I think there’ll be a lot of big emotions surfacing at the moment.
Yes, that’s where that making space comes in, and it might look something like this. If you’re responding to a child being really upset about lockdown, it kind of just sucks. You know? This is just a bad time. And to even know that this is a bad time and I’m here with you. I’m going to sit with you while you feel like this, while you feel terrible, and I’m going to be here and I’m going to be available to you. And even just saying those words, it can feel really awkward sometimes, but I can see you’re going through something really horrible and it is. It’s pretty bad right now. But, I’m going to be here with you.
And I guess that’s that framework, isn’t it? It’s that not going straight to limiting the response, but needing to take a step back and help them be aware and have some of that co-regulation.
And even not trying to immediately reframe it either. Because you don’t want them to feel like their emotional response is not valid. I think sometimes, if you go straight to, “Oh, but isn’t it so good to be at home all the time?” Or, “Oh, but you get to watch so much TV.” Or, “But you get to do this”, it can sometimes really invalidate the experience they’re having initially. So, I think reframing over denying isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just maybe not the first thing that you do.
That’s great. And I love that handout that you showed us with the steps, and connecting the dots. The steps to work through some of this emotion coaching and I think you’ve made it really clear and a really easy framework to use in those situations. Thank you Sophia. That’s the third and final of our conversations with you. Thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your knowledge. Very much appreciated.
Therapy Connect is a private allied health, telehealth practice. We support clients around Australia, particularly NDIS clients, that are needing access to speech pathology, occupational therapy, psychology, social work, dietetics, or physiotherapy.
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