Emotion coaching for the earthquake generation

Dr SOPHIE HAVIGHURST is a co-author of the Tuning into Kids programme. On a recent visit home to New Zealand, she offered South Island parents some helpful tips.

Tuning into Kids is an international parenting course that teaches parents how to recognise, understand, and respond to the emotions of children in an accepting and supportive way. This approach helps children to become emotionally intelligent, which leads to increased self-confidence, greater physical health, better performance in school, and healthier social relationships.

Dr Havighurst’s top tips for understanding your child’s emotions are:

Q1. What happens for a child when their emotions are supported?
Firstly, the child feels heard, understood, connected, and not alone with their big, overwhelming feelings. This helps the child to calm down.

Secondly, the parent often helps put words to what the child is feeling and experiencing. For example, “it sounds like you’re worried Lucy won’t play with you today”. This process helps shift the child’s experience from the feeling part of the brain to the thinking part.

Q2. What prevents parents from effectively emotion coaching their children?
Sometimes it’s just the circumstances – parents might be in a hurry or overwhelmed themselves. Sometimes parents don’t have the skills to know how to respond, or they fear what will happen – they don’t trust that going toward emotion, instead of shutting it down, will actually lead to a better outcome for their child. And some people’s beliefs about emotion get in the way, for example, “anger is bad” or “boys don’t cry”.

Q3. You enjoyed a typical idyllic Kiwi childhood. In recent years, our children in the South Island have experienced a far less idyllic start: 10,000 plus earthquakes in their formative years. How can emotion coaching help our children and their families?
As loving parents, we try to protect our children from pain – we try to distract them or provide rational thinking strategies. These can be helpful, but often we miss the emotion involved. Sometimes parents need to do the opposite – allow their child to express their strong feelings of, for example, fear and worry.

At Tuning into Kids, we encourage parents to slow down and hear their child’s pain before rushing in with a solution. For example, be connected physically to your child: wrap them in a hug. At the same time say things like, “it can be really scary, can’t it?” Only once their child has started to calm down should parents explore things like, “I wonder what would help you go to school today?”

Q4.  How can emotion coaching support children that are experiencing ongoing anxiety?
Anxiety can stay for a long time even when a child feels heard and supported. So, as well as responding with empathy, parents need to teach children skills to manage their anxious feelings, for example, through slow breathing and using props like a necklace or pounamu that they can touch when feeling worried.

Parents also need to tune in to children’s worries so they can recognise when a child’s big feelings around a small issue, such as the frustration of toast being buttered the wrong way, are actually caused by the small issue triggering underlying anxious feelings.

Q5.  Is emotion coaching only for families experiencing problems?
No. The emotion coaching skills taught at Tuning into Kids are not just parenting skills, they’re relationship skills. People often say the skills improve their relationship with their partner, their adult siblings, and even their work colleagues. Really, it’s about tuning into others, not just kids.

Several times a year Family Works offers the Tuning into Kids parenting course to Canterbury parents. To learn more, contact Janice Huddy:

03 363 8214 / familyworksuppersouth.org.nz