How Emotion-Coaching Parents Help Kids Develop Their EQ

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read" by Philippa Perry. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s your child’s emotional intelligence (EQ)? What’s your role in helping them develop their emotional skills?

As a parent, it’s your privilege and responsibility to teach your child how to understand, regulate, and express their emotions in a healthy way. If you’d like to join the ranks of effective emotion-coaching parents, Philippa Perry offers practical advice in her book The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read.

Continue reading to learn how to foster your child’s emotional development by coaching them in acknowledging and naming their feelings.

Emotion-Coaching Parents

According to Perry, recognizing, naming, and respecting your child’s emotions is a key way to form a strong bond with them and raise them to be mentally healthy individuals.

(Shortform note: The practice of noticing a child’s emotions and using them as opportunities for teaching and intimacy is called emotion coaching. Years of research suggest that children are healthier and more successful in all aspects of life when their parents employ this technique with them. If you want to be an emotion-coaching parent, consider using specific prompts that validate and soothe your child’s emotions—you can find numerous examples online.)

The Different Ways We Deal With Emotions

Perry states that, typically, parents who have trouble handling difficult emotions fall into two categories: They suppress their feelings, or they react disproportionately. If you tend to suppress your feelings, you’ll be more likely to do the same to your child, either by dismissing their feelings or telling them they should feel something different. Because this makes the child feel like their emotions are insignificant or undesirable, they’ll likely avoid expressing feelings to you in the future. 

If you tend to react disproportionately, you might become overwhelmed by your child’s emotions, getting upset and crying with them. You take on their emotional state. In this case, your child may stop expressing their emotions to you because they feel like they’re upsetting you too much or you’re unfairly seizing their feelings. 

(Shortform note: To avoid becoming overwhelmed by your child’s emotions, consider using the following steps. First, take a deep breath to center yourself before you engage with your child. Second, remind yourself that your primary goal is to help your child calm down and to build a closer relationship with them, not to add to their emotional turmoil. Third, refrain from taking your child’s feelings personally, especially when they’re upset with you—they’re not fully developed and aren’t capable of self-regulating their emotions like you are. Fourth, use a mantra to calm yourself down. For example, you might tell yourself, “This is not an emergency, but an opportunity to help.”)

Ideally, you recognize and respect your child’s feelings by naming and affirming them (which we’ll further discuss below), instead of denying them or making the emotions your own. When you’re able to do this, your child will feel understood and comforted instead of criticized. Over time, as you continuously show respect for their feelings and offer them love and understanding, they’ll learn to work through their emotions and comfort themselves. 

(Shortform note: Some experts argue that, as you’re working on letting your child feel all of their emotions and helping them through the experience, you should remember that limiting your child’s behavior isn’t the same as limiting their emotions. Behavior is separate from emotions, and you should coach your child in this principle; though it’s OK to feel any emotion, not all forms of expression for those feelings are OK. For example, you might teach them that it’s OK to be upset, but it’s not OK to hit someone to show them that you’re upset with them. You set the behavioral limit that hitting isn’t OK, but there’s still no limit to what they’re allowed to feel.)

How Hiding Your Negative Feelings May Affect Children

Expressing negative emotions in a healthy way is better than suppressing them in front of children, according to some research. A study conducted on 109 parent-child pairs found that suppressing stressful emotions made parents less positive partners during a collaborative task.

First, the parents completed a public speaking task and received negative feedback, which was meant to induce stress. Then, researchers directed them to complete a Lego project with their child. The children had written instructions but weren’t allowed to touch the Legos, and the parents had to put the Legos together—this meant the pairs had to work closely with each other.

Researchers told a random selection of the parents to suppress their feelings of stress from the public speaking task during the Lego activity. These parents didn’t offer as much help or warmth to their children, and the children in these pairs were less responsive to and positive with their parents. This suggested that the children picked up the negative emotions more strongly when their parents tried to hide their feelings instead of expressing them.

Putting It Into Practice: Name Your Child’s Emotions

Perry says to practice naming your child’s emotions when they’re upset to show that you understand them and to show them how to do it for themselves. As you do this, remember to consider their age and how it affects their ability to express themselves. 

Your child may react in a way that seems irrational to you, but their feelings are as valid as anyone else’s. For example, say your child falls and hits their knee. They have a small scrape, but you can tell they aren’t seriously hurt. Still, they begin to cry inconsolably. You might feel tempted to tell them not to cry or that their scrape is no big deal because it hurts you to see them so upset. However, this likely won’t comfort them since to them, the injury feels like a real danger. They might stop crying to please you, but they won’t feel understood.

Instead, acknowledge their feelings by saying something such as “You hurt your knee and I see that made you feel scared.” This shows them that you’re in tune with their feelings, they’re allowed to feel that way, and you’re there to support them. Over time, they’ll learn to name their emotions themselves. 

(Shortform note: There are many different ways to respond empathetically to your child and help them name their feelings. For example, you might state what you perceive they’re feeling outright: “You’re feeling [emotion] because of [event or circumstance].” Alternatively, use the phrase, “It sounds like you’re feeling…” to acknowledge that you might not be right in your observation.)

How Children Express Emotions at Different Ages

As Perry notes, children express their emotions differently depending on their age. From the time your child is born to the age of nine months, they’ll primarily use vocalizations, facial expressions, and body language to communicate their emotions and needs to you. For instance, they might cry to indicate discomfort or squeal to indicate joy.

Between seven and 18 months, they’ll likely begin expressing themselves more intentionally. For example, they might push away food that they don’t like, or they might hug you when they’re scared or want to show affection.

Between 16 and 24 months, they’ll probably start using a mix of gestures and language to express their emotions, such as smiling, clapping, and verbally expressing pride about something they accomplished.

By the time they’re 21 to 36 months, they may start describing and naming emotions themselves. Additionally, they’ll likely start acting out emotions while they’re playing pretend and demonstrating more complex emotions, such as guilt.
How Emotion-Coaching Parents Help Kids Develop Their EQ

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  • The tools you need to cultivate a healthy relationship with your child
  • How to make sure your child is an emotionally secure individual
  • Why the way you speak about yourself has a big impact on your child

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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