By Lisa Frede, initially written for Complex Trauma Resources: complextrauma.ca
“I hate you!” Screamed 6 year old Lily, her face scrunched up into a snarl. “I hope you die and all your kids die too!” Her foster mom Jen took a deep breath. Sometimes keeping the attitude of being playful, accepting, curious and empathic (PACE) that Daniel Hughes suggests is key in working with traumatized children felt impossible. “Oh Lily I see you’re upset. You must be really mad that you have to put away something fun. I get that it would be so hard. It may even feel like I don’t like you right now because I’m asking you to stop playing.” Lily scowled and stomped her feet hard, but she stopped screaming and looked at Jen with smouldering eyes. “Ya you’re so mean,” she said, her bottom lip sticking out in a pout. “I want to keep playing!”
“I wish you could play forever and ever until you were so tired of playing that you fell asleep standing up,” Jen teased gently, “but now it’s time to get ready for bed. I’ll help you put things away and then we can have our night time snack!” She was preparing herself for pushback while she started putting away Lily’s colouring project, but was surprised when Lily tossed a handful of crayons into the case with only a huff of protest. She knew she would need to practice emotion coaching many, many more times before any significant shifts took place in Lily’s ability to articulate and regulate her emotions, but she would count this as a small victory.
The practice of empathy is foundational for complex care interventions (CCI) as it demonstrates an attempt to understand a child’s unique experience. The 5 emotion coaching steps taught within Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) offer a beautiful template for providing an empathic response to children and youth who live with the effects of complex trauma.
5 Steps of Emotion Coaching
- Attend to the Emotion
First, acknowledge the emotion verbally, whether it’s expressed as subtly as a fidget that you recognize as a sign of increasing anxiety in your child, or as “big” as destroying someone’s precious possession out of rage – “I see that something’s up!”
- Name it
Then attempt to put into words the emotional experience that may be welling up inside your child; if it’s difficult to see what might be happening for them, take a guess – they will tell you if you’re wrong! Bringing awareness to the body sensation that they may be experiencing can also be helpful in building the capacity to notice and attend to emotions more effectively. “I see that you’re feeling a lot of anger, your hands are making tight fists!
- Validate the Emotion
Validation is simply stating that the way your child feels makes sense given the context, their background, and/or the situation. This can be very challenging when you’re caught off guard by the emotion, find it difficult to understand, or highly dislike the associated behaviour, yet it is so important in that it lets them know that you are willing to try to see things from their perspective. “It makes so much sense that you would feel anxious about going to a new school when you’ve had to change schools so many times already!”
When practicing empathy and validation remember not to point out the bright side or silver lining as that immediately discredits everything you’ve said so far. According to Brene Brown, one of the signals that you’re about to undo an attempt at validation are the words “at least.” For example, “at least you got to play for a few minutes” or “at least I’m not asking you to do a chore instead of playing” minimizes the child’s emotional response even if your intention is to make them feel better. Empathy and validation call us to “be with” someone without attempting to change or alter what they feel. With this in mind it’s also important to not try to convince them to see your perspective or explain using logic; that is for another time, another conversation.
- Meet the Need
Next, remind yourself of the basic emotions and their corresponding needs. If your child is sad, offer a hug; if they’re angry, help them with setting and defending boundaries; if they’re afraid, protect them from the source of danger; if they’re anxious, support them in confronting the situation. In her article Emotions in Parenting, Dr. Greenberg, the founder of EFFT, outlines more thoroughly how to emotionally coach a child who is experiencing sadness, anger, fear or shame (link below).
- Fix it/Problem Solve
Finally, attempt to come alongside your child to offer your help in addressing what may have triggered their emotions. Often the steps of attending, naming, and validating diffuse their discomfort enough that this step isn’t needed, but when the situation calls for further problem solving it can feel incredibly supportive for your child to hear that you’ll join with them to help figure it out.
Children and youth with emotions that are overwhelming or confusing often do not have the skills to put into words what they’re experiencing. When you speak the unspoken for them it is often a huge relief for them and can be quite disarming. Emotion Coaching targets development in the Emotional Regulation domain of the CCI approach by strengthening children’s ability to recognize a range of emotions, put a name to them and resolve their feelings in healthy ways.
Resources and References
Article on Emotions in Parenting by Dr. Leslie Greenberg C. Psych.:
Enjoy this short animation on what empathy looks like by Brene Brown: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
Book: Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children by Daniel A. Hughes