Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Be an Emotion Coach for Your Child

Your child can learn to manage their emotions just like any other skill.

Key points

  • Children must learn to express and regulate their emotions just as they must learn any other skill.
  • As an emotion coach, you can help your child learn the steps and strategies they need to manage their emotions, big or small.
  • In this article, we highlight several key, evidence-based steps you can take to be an emotion coach for your child.
  • By taking these steps, you can help your child learn the skills they need to manage their emotions well.
Source: Anastasia Shuraeva/Pexels
Source: Anastasia Shuraeva/Pexels

This blog was co-authored with Dr. Craig Bailey, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Despite our best intentions, there are times when our children’s emotions push us to our limits. Maybe we snap back, raise our voices, respond sarcastically, or simply ignore them. During moments like this, we have all said things that we didn’t mean and acted in ways we feel badly about. All of these situations leave us feeling guilty for not being the parent we aspire to be.

Knowing how to effectively respond in these moments is challenging. Advice on how best to handle our children’s emotions is conflicting. Do you set stern limits and enforce them? Do you allow your child to express their emotions however they want? Do you need a discussion about every emotion in every moment?

A helpful way to approach these challenging situations is to remember that children must learn to express and regulate their emotions just as they must learn any other skill. From this perspective, you can think of yourself as their emotion coach. As an emotion coach, you will help your child learn the steps and strategies they need to manage their emotions, big or small. This role is important: Having strong emotion regulation skills is an essential component of well-being, including being able to succeed academically, making and maintaining prosocial friendships, and managing stressful circumstances in healthy ways.

We’ve collected some evidence-based steps and strategies you can use as a parent to be your child’s emotion coach:

Step 1: Reflect on who you want to be as a parent.

A great first step in being an emotion coach is figuring out the type of coach you want to be! Do you want to be the fun and relatable coach? The stern and strong coach? Or the warm and grounding coach?

Remember a moment when you regretted how you handled your child’s emotion. Most likely, the reason you regret your response is because, deep down, you feel the way you acted is not the type of parent you want to be. This is often when we’re hardest on ourselves.

To help you figure out what kind of emotion coach you want to be, start by writing down three qualities that align with the parent you strive to be. Do you want to be caring and understanding yet strong? Perhaps you want to be comforting, patient, and one who creates a safe space for your children. Maybe these qualities are the ones you admire in your own family, or maybe they’re qualities that you wish those caring for you had had.

By reflecting on these qualities ahead of time, it will be easier to use them in the moment when you need to be reminded of who you are and what you stand for.

Step 2: Reflect on the qualities you want your child to strive for.

As an emotion coach, a big part of your role will be having a sense of which skills and qualities you want your child to develop and scaffolding their experiences to help them get there.

A helpful way to figure out which emotion skills you want to foster is to consider this: When you’re not around, how do you want your child to solve problems and treat others? Write down three qualities toward which you want your child to strive. Do you want your child to be empathic, brave, and patient? Strong, calm, and friendly? These qualities will help guide you in coaching your child through their emotional experience. As your child gets older, you can engage them in this process by asking questions like: “What qualities do you want to have?” and “How can you embody these qualities, even when you are upset?”

Remember, emotion coaching is not about giving your child the answers and solving their problems for them. Instead, we are trying to empower our children to be better, even when they make mistakes.

Step 3: Regulate yourself!

Being an emotion coach means that you need to be a source of guidance and support, even when your child’s emotions are causing you to have emotions of your own. If an athlete was stressing out before a big game, a good coach would do what they could to create a calm environment, regardless of how they were personally feeling, in order to help that player get into a better headspace and be their best out on the field. The same is true for parents who are emotion coaches.

This means that you may need to take some deep breaths, remind yourself of the parent you want to be and the goals you have for your child. If your child is older, you may even tell them that you need a minute to calm down before you begin to engage with them. Being a source of guidance and support can only happen when you provide a calm, supportive environment in which your child can engage with you.

Remember: When your child is upset, your goal as an emotion coach is to bring your child into a calmer place, not be brought into their storm of emotion.

Step 4: Lead by example.

Good coaches are good role models: By leading by example, you will demonstrate these behaviors for your child and, in doing so, set an expectation for how to express and manage feelings.

This is easier said than done. As adults, we still struggle with our emotions sometimes. It’s OK that you don’t have it all figured out. Being your child’s emotion coach means that you will be working on your emotions along with them. Leading by example doesn’t mean you will never make mistakes or do or say things you regret. Instead, leading by example means modeling how to try something new when things are not working or ask for forgiveness when you make a mistake.

Keep in mind that your child can’t read your mind and won’t always know what you’re thinking and feeling. So much of your emotional experiences happen internally, so your goal is to narrate your experiences and regulation efforts. This can be pretty weird at first! But just like any other skill you want your child to develop, you have to first give them opportunities to see the skill they are trying to learn.

One of the easiest ways to begin modeling is to follow this simple structure. State:

  1. How you are feeling
  2. Why you feel that way
  3. The emotion you are trying to feel instead
  4. The strategy you are going to use to get there

For example, you can say:

“I’m feeling really frustrated because I’m having a hard time with a problem I can’t solve. I’d really like to feel more calm. I’m going to take a walk outside.”

This seems like a very simple statement, but it takes some of the most important components of your emotional experience outside of your mind and externalizes them for your child.

We can use this type of structure to have open conversations about the emotions we had throughout the day and ask our children to weigh in. For example, “When I was at work today, I felt frustrated because my coworker was bugging me. I wanted to feel more calm, so I decided to go for a walk and take some deep breaths. When I got back to my desk, my frustration felt much smaller. Have you ever felt that way? What did you do to feel calm?”

We can also use this structure when we need to acknowledge that we did not manage our emotions well. In these moments, we can explain what emotions we were feeling, apologize for how we behaved, and explain how we plan to do things differently next time.

For example, “I was feeling really frustrated because my computer froze and lost a big assignment I’d been working on, and I raised my voice with you. That’s not how we treat each other in our family, and I’m sorry that happened. Next time, I’m going to take some deep breaths to help myself feel more calm before I talk to you.”

Not only do these conversations help model regulation, but they also give kids a vocabulary with which they can speak about their own emotions, allowing them to have conversations with us about them.

Step 5: Allow time for practice when the stakes are low.

It’s important to highlight that, just like any other skill, your child needs practice when the stakes are low. A soccer coach would never try to teach a player a new skill during a championship game!

You can start by focusing on building your child’s emotion awareness and vocabulary. For example, use the time you have with them to label their feelings of calm and pride or disappointment and irritation and then share times you felt those feelings. Discuss the feelings of characters in movies and in books. Ask how they think the family pet is feeling and why. Emotions are everywhere!

When everyone is calm, you can also develop plans for how your child will manage their emotions in the future so that everyone has lots of time to practice. For example, you can work together to create a coping kit, practice belly breathing, explore emotion journaling, or try grounding exercises, like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

One of the most important things you can do as an emotion coach is to give your child lots of examples of good regulation behaviors and have conversations about emotions when everyone is calm.

Step 6: Don’t forget the locker room debrief.

Regardless of how the game ends, a good coach always debriefs with their players. There are some fundamental pieces of these conversations that you can apply to being an emotion coach.

First, you acknowledge what went well and what didn’t go well, from both their perspective and yours. This gives both of you a chance to reflect and share how you feel rather than you simply telling your child how they did.

Second, ask how things could have gone differently if they had the chance to do it over again. Getting specific allows your child to think deeply about their own thought process and behavior. You can also chime in here to give them feedback and encouragement.

For example, if a child says that they want to ask for something calmly instead of yelling, we can talk through what specific strategies they will need to use to be able to do this. Do they need to first tell you that they are upset? Do they need to use some techniques to physically relax their bodies before they will be able to speak calmly?

By committing to these types of plans, we as parents have something to direct children to when they are starting to seem upset. We can say things like “Hey—remember last time when you got angry? You said that you wanted to use some deep breathing together to help you feel calmer. Do you want to do that now?”

Your child’s emotions can be tough and overwhelming, but children can learn to express and regulate their emotions just as they learn any other skill. By following the steps outlined above, you can become an emotion coach for your child and help them master their emotions, big or small.

More from Kalee De France Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today