Emotion Coaching: The Magic Pill of Parenting

On a windy winter Tuesday, I walked among dark shadows through a rundown neighborhood in Cleveland. Waddling my way to the corner of a one-way street, I arrived where an authentic Ristorante stands, decorated with heavy ancient calico drapes and thick wooden crowning. I pull the door open and am quickly greeted by an enveloping warmth. A swoosh of cold air tugs loose strands of hair ’round from the back of my neck. As the door closes, the sound of blizzard traffic then silences from behind. Scanning the two rooms, I realize I’ve made a mistake by not putting in a reservation for my friend Sarah and I. This small family-owned Italian kitchen is bustling. A note on the menu pressures patrons not to linger so as to allow incoming guests mutual enjoyment of an authentic meal. 

“We are glad you have chosen to dine with us at our cozy, homey family-owned restaurant; thank you! Please be mindful that many others, like you, would like to dine with us. We, respectfully, ask you to be considerate of others waiting to be seated” (Bruno’s Ristorante-Home, n.d.).

Small print at the bottom of the menu seems a push against the Italian ritual of relational gatherings, moving customers away from lingering conversations about death notifications, the most loyal mechanics, what the kids are up to, and uncomfortable changes in the community.

Sarah walks in, eyes outlined by bright robin-egg glasses. She is dressed in a checkered wool jacket overlaying dark red and rust tones. She reminds me of Cruella de Vil, only way cooler with her fresh buzz haircut. We climb into high chairs in front of a small window covered in fern frost and ice flowers. Sarah sits with her head framed by a small circular window that adds to the coziness of this space. We feel a bit cramped and awkward at first. Once we are squished into our window corner, we ease into the comfort of the intimate space. I suddenly understand why it’s difficult for patrons to leave in an appropriate amount of time.

Sarah and I start our evening with a celebration of her most recent proud-parent moment. Her broad affect elates at the recent accomplishment of tricking her 3-year-old child toward behavioral tasks. She details that as soon as she starts to go after him for naptime, he laughs and runs in the other direction, as though it is now time to play. She is pleased to announce having learned alternative techniques to manipulate him into her own will. Each interaction becomes a playful challenge for him to take on. She says to him, “I bet you can’t open the bathroom door on your own!” He proudly complies to disprove her doubt, walking right to the bathroom and opening the door. Another challenge results in his climbing up on the potty. Brushing his teeth and getting him into the bedroom require additional strategies. We laugh together as I imagine him feeling proud that he can defy her challenges while she simultaneously feels proud of her ability to sneakily direct his behavior. She has learned the art of tackling his little defiances. And yet, we know that in about 3 weeks, he will catch on and she will need to change tactics. At least it is a win for a parent to appreciate in the moment: today’s defeat of the tricky toddler. I think every parent can relate to a strategy of defaulting to little white lies in order to compel kids into compliance.


Parenting requires copious amounts of energy, patience, resources, and commitment. When it comes to parenting styles, The American Psychology Association identifies 3 types: Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative (APA). In their book, “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child,” researchers John and Julie Gottman review these styles. Beyond the APA, the Gottmans include a fourth style, which they argue is the preferred approach to parenting: Emotion Coaching. Emotion Coaching takes place when adults coach a child through their emotional experiences by being attuned to them, expanding their emotional vocabulary, and validating their feelings. Essentially, Emotion Coaching is a technique in emotion regulation.

Research reveals that more traditional parenting approaches have a tendency to stifle a child’s ability to process thoughts and feelings, identify their own needs, trust their reality, and obtain confidence in themselves. Rigidity in parenting might make it difficult for that child-turned-adult to navigate relationships and problems in the world later in life. Conversely, much of the attachment-based evidence in collaborative or emotionally validating parenting styles point to effective growth and the ability to adjust to various experiences, as well as change. When parents are more attuned to their child and are able to use language as a way of identifying and soothing emotions, the child’s emotional intelligence grows. This results in increased self-confidence, increased adaptability, and an increased ability to cope. There is also evidence that children are better able to set clear boundaries, articulate their needs and feelings, and engage in a better understanding of themselves and others.

Authoritarian Parents can be dismissive of their child’s emotional needs, holding a “my way or the highway” mentality. They often believe children should be seen and not heard. They may view respect and compliance as marks of success in their parenting. These children often grow up being defiant and dishonest, and they lack self-confidence and question their own perspectives and desires. They may live in fear or become increasingly defiant, fighting to take control in a world in which they feel they have no control at all. 

Dismissive/Disapproving Parents lead with shame and judgment, often withholding affection or frequently correcting a child. These children may struggle with anxiety related to performance or have internalized shame, which results in a lack of self-confidence and self-compassion.

Laissez-Faire/Permissive Parents tend to be so sensitive to their own guilt, or wrapped up in their own life, that they don’t set limits. They often don’t notice the child’s needs for limits and direction. They may bypass the discomfort of upset by giving in or giving the child too many options. Living in an environment where there is little follow-through on consequences along with experiencing emotional dismissiveness, these children may struggle with setting boundaries or respecting the boundaries of others. They may lack a sense of self-confidence, feel confused, or engage in indirect communication. They might also become aggressive and defiant, growing into adults who are unable to function with boundaries in relationships and society.

Emotion Coaching Parents are tuned-in to their child’s world of feelings, needs, and meaning. Emotion coaching is a magical little 5 step process that helps increase a child’s emotional intelligence and expand their emotional vocabulary. They also learn how to self-soothe, build on problem-solving skills, and enjoy an increased sense of security and self-confidence. As the parent, YOU become your child’s coach through modeling, mirroring, and curiosity. The 5 Steps to Emotion Coaching go something like this: 

  1. See your child. Tune-in to them. Notice when something is up. Notice when they are having an experience. 
  2. Identify their upset or behavior as an opportunity to connect with them. 
  3. Verbally name the emotion. Sometimes this can be a guessing game, but oftentimes children look to us to help them navigate their experiences. Try saying something like, “You seem sad;” “I can see that you are embarrassed;” or “You are scared, aren’t you?”
  4. Validate your child’s experience. This is one of THE most important steps. Soothe your child. Ensure they are able to self-regulate. Verbally affirm them by saying things like, “Of course you are worried about failing your math test! You studied so hard and struggled to understand the formulas – it was very hard for you. I understand that fear of failing after working so hard.”
  5. Problem-solve. AFTER the child is self-regulated would be the best time to teach a lesson, parent, or problem-solve. Just like adults, children cannot process information when they are emotionally aroused. 

It’s easy to fixate on behavioral outcomes and obedience when it comes to parenting. We have a tendency to see something is up and jump right to “Parenting/problem-solving.” Yet, this jump misses the most important part-emotional attunement and acknowledgment. Feelings are big and are much more present for a child because the part of their brain that processes information is UNDER-developed. As adults, we can be a guide to help them navigate difficult experiences as we coach them to a place of making meaning. We help them manage what can seem at times like “the end of the world” and help them to respond instead of react. This method of parenting is also a great way to show you love and care about your child’s experiences, which ultimately helps them to thrive.

Helpful Tips to Remember:

Avoid asking your child “what is wrong?” or “how do you feel?”
Children are often unsure of how they feel and unable to verbalize what they are experiencing and why. That is where you, as an adult, can lean toward them and make a tentative guess (hold up a mirror). Ask questions or make statements like, “Are you feeling embarrassed?” “You seem sad;” “Are you feeling left out?” “Did that make you feel sad?” Allow them to correct you. If they sense you aren’t getting their actual experience, rest assured – they will correct you! As children move into adulthood they may be more forthcoming in telling you how they feel.
Notice Out Loud. Tell them what you notice. “I see you hiding under the blanket, are you feeling embarrassed that you got in trouble?” “I saw you throw the book across the room, were you feeling mad?”
Don’t make it about you. Sometimes the tendency is to show that we get what someone else is feeling because we have had a similar feeling. It is a misstep to start talking about how you failed a test when you were in school or how you were embarrassed that one time. This response tends to move the focus away from the child and their experience and put the focus on yourself. The child needs us to stay present with them in their unique experience.
Keep Yourself Regulated. One of the most harmful things for a child is to be isolated or ignored in moments of distress. Isolation may leave them feeling ashamed, dismissed, and like their feelings don’t matter. If you are escalated as a parent, it is okay to model for them that you need a break so you can “get calm” before you two address what just happened.
NEVER EVER skip step 4. Validate your child’s emotions. This in and of itself builds self-confidence and security, as well as a sense of understanding and care. If all of these steps go out the window in the moment, at the bare minimum, validate your child’s experience. 

Next time you see your child have an emotive experience, try it out. Emotion Coaching is also transferable to adult relationships! It can work wonders in managing conflict and de-escalating intense interactions.


Act: A Parenting Program by the American Psychological Association. (2015, June). Parenting Styles. American Psychological Association. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/act/resources/fact-sheets/parenting-styles#:~:text=Authoritative,don’t%20always%20accept%20it.

Bruno’s Ristorante – Home. Bruno’s Ristorante & Catering. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2023, from http://www.brunosristorante.net/

The Gottman Institute. (2023, February 11). The four parenting styles. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved February 13, 2023, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-parenting-styles/

Gottman, J. M., Declaire, J., & Goleman, D. (2015). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Steps of Emotion Coaching. Emotionfocusedfamilytherapy.org. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2023, from http://www.emotionfocusedfamilytherapy.org/steps-of-emotion-coaching/ 

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