Emotion Coaching:

The HEART of Parenting Children and Adults with Intellectual Disability


Every parent wants the best for their children, especially when it comes to nurturing their emotional growth. For parents of children with intellectual disabilities, this might seem like an uphill task due to the unique challenges that these conditions present. But worry not, because Emotion Coaching is here to help. 

In essence, Emotion Coaching is a five-step approach that promotes emotional intelligence in children. By using this approach, parents can help their children understand, express, and manage their emotions effectively. It’s like giving your child a roadmap to navigate their feelings, which in turn, helps them build meaningful relationships and better adapt to life’s challenges.

The image is a slide detailing a three-step

 The Benefits of Emotion Coaching

Children who are emotion coached tend to be more resilient, perform better in school, and have healthier relationships. They develop a higher emotional intelligence that not only enables them to understand their own emotions, but also the emotions of others. This allows them to empathize, express themselves clearly, and handle conflicts in a more mature way. 

Emotion coaching your child with Down syndrome or another intellectual disability helps enhance their social skills and emotional expressiveness. They learn to better recognize and respond to social cues, fostering their interpersonal relationships. This form of coaching, therefore, serves as a potent tool for unlocking their emotional potential.

 The HEART of Emotion Coaching

Now, let’s delve into the five steps of emotion coaching, encapsulated in the acronym 'HEART':

  1. Home in on your child's emotions: This first step is all about tuning into your child's feelings. This might involve paying attention to their facial expressions, body language, or verbal cues. Being aware of your child's emotional state is the first step in providing effective support.
  2. Embrace the opportunity for connection and teaching: Recognize the emotional moments as opportunities for bonding and imparting emotional wisdom. Instead of shutting down their feelings, validate them, and use them as a stepping stone to teach about emotions and their appropriate expression.
  3. Actively listen and affirm their feelings: Show your child that their emotions matter by giving them your undivided attention. This can be achieved by reflecting back what they say, which helps them feel understood. Validation is key; let them know that it’s okay to feel the way they do.
  4. Recognize - help them recognize and label their emotions: Assist your child in verbally identifying their feelings. This step not only aids in their understanding of the current emotional state but also helps them to communicate their feelings more effectively in the future.
  5. Teach problem-solving and set limits: As much as we validate and empathize with our child's feelings, it's also important to guide their behavior. After you’ve identified and validated their feelings, discuss acceptable ways of expressing those feelings and help them find solutions to their problems.

Implementing these steps in your daily interactions can transform your relationship with your child. It encourages a deeper emotional connection, fosters trust, and equips your child with valuable skills that they will use throughout their life.

Remember, parenting is not about being perfect but about being present. So, take a deep breath, keep your heart open, and embrace the beautiful journey of emotion coaching.

 Emotion Coaching in Action

Here are some examples of what emotion coaching might look like for a few common parenting challenges. 


"My child gets upset and is "dropping" in the parking lot because they don't want to go into the grocery store."

  1. Home in on your child's emotions: Start by observing your child's behavior. They might be crying, yelling, or throwing themselves on the ground. It's clear that they're upset, and it's your job to try to understand why. "I see that you're really upset right now. Is it because you don't want to go shopping?"
  2. Embrace the opportunity for connection and teaching: Recognize that this moment, challenging as it is, can be used to build connection and understanding. Kneel down to their level, making eye contact to show you're there with them. "I know you're upset, and I'm here to help you. This is a chance for us to learn how to handle these big feelings together."
  3. Actively listen and affirm their feelings: Now, give your child the opportunity to express themselves. They might say they're tired, they're bored, they'd rather go to the park, etc. Whatever it is, listen to them without interruption, then reflect back what you heard and validate their feelings. "You're upset because you wanted to play more, and shopping sounds boring to you. It's okay to feel frustrated about this."
  4. Recognize - help them recognize and label their emotions: You've listened and validated their feelings, now help them to put a label on their emotion. This will increase their emotional vocabulary and understanding over time. "It seems like you're feeling frustrated because you'd rather be playing right now. It's hard when we have to do things we don't want to do, isn't it?"
  5. Teach problem-solving and set limits: Finally, help your child to find solutions to their problem. Let them know that although their feelings are valid, their behavior needs to be appropriate. "I understand that you're frustrated, but we can't lay on the ground in the parking lot. Let's think of some things we could do to make the shopping trip more fun. Maybe you can help me pick out some fruits?"


"My adolescent has a rigid and long morning routine that makes it difficult for the family to leave on time for things." 

  1. Home in on your child's emotions: Start by acknowledging the feelings your child is experiencing. Adolescence is a complex period, and their mourning routine could be a way to handle anxiety, stress, or insecurity. "I can see how important this routine is for you, and I understand it helps you feel settled and ready for the day."
  2. Embrace the opportunity for connection and teaching: This moment provides an opportunity to teach flexibility, time management, and the importance of family commitments. "Your routine is important, and we also need to find a balance with our family responsibilities. We can work together to find a solution that respects both."
  3. Actively listen and affirm their feelings: Give your child the space to express their concerns, fears, or reasons behind their rigid routine. Reflect their feelings back to them and validate their emotions. "You've shared that this routine helps you feel prepared for the day, and I can understand why it's important to you. It's okay to feel this way."
  4. Recognize - help them recognize and label their emotions: Help your adolescent to label their emotions. This can provide a sense of control over their feelings and increase their emotional literacy. "It sounds like you might be feeling anxious if you can't complete your routine. Is that right?"
  5. Teach problem-solving and set limits: Finally, discuss potential solutions that respect both their needs and the family's schedule. This might involve tweaking their routine or waking up earlier. Validate their emotions but also establish the need for flexibility. "I understand that you're anxious without your routine, but it's causing us to run late. How can we adjust your routine so that we can also leave on time for our commitments?"


"I try to use emotion coaching, but my child refuses or is too upset to hear me." 

When a person is too emotional or upset, it can be tough to move through the steps of emotion coaching, particularly teaching and problem-solving. Here's what parents can do:

Allow space for emotions: Understand that it's okay for your child to express strong emotions and that they might not be immediately ready for problem-solving. Their brain is in a high-emotion state, which makes it difficult for them to think clearly and rationally.

Provide comfort and reassurance: If your child is upset and cannot engage in problem-solving, provide comfort first. A hug, a soothing word, or simply your calm presence can help them feel safe and loved.

De-escalate the situation: Use calming techniques that work for your child. This might be deep breathing, a quiet song, a sensory activity, or retreating to a quiet place.

Postpone the teaching and problem-solving: It's often more effective to wait until your child has calmed down before you revisit the issue. In a calmer state, they are more capable of understanding and learning.

Model emotional regulation: Show them through your actions how to calm down and manage strong emotions. Children learn a lot from watching their parents.

Remember, every person is different, and what works for one might not work for another. It might take some trial and error to figure out what helps your child calm down and be ready to learn. It's also beneficial to teach these strategies during calm moments, so they have tools ready when strong emotions arise.

Emotion coaching is a long-term strategy that builds emotional intelligence over time. Even if it feels challenging in the moment, keep in mind that you're helping your child develop critical skills for their life.


Common Challenges

Emotion coaching is a valuable tool for parents, but it can come with its share of challenges. It can be especially challenging for parents who experienced different approaches to parenting as a child themselves. Here are some common ones:

  1. Managing Their Own Emotions: One of the most significant challenges parents face is managing their own emotions while trying to coach their children. It's natural for parents to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or anxious, especially when their child is distressed. Learning to regulate their own emotions is a key step for parents in effectively using emotion coaching.
  2. Misinterpreting Emotional Signals: Understanding a child's emotions isn't always straightforward. Subtle cues might be missed or misunderstood, leading to confusion for both the parent and the child. It's a learning process to accurately recognize and interpret these cues.
  3. Time and Patience: Emotion coaching can take a considerable amount of time and patience. In the midst of a busy schedule, it might seem easier for parents to dismiss their child's emotions or to try to quickly "fix" the problem, rather than spending the time needed to go through the steps of emotion coaching.
  4. Difficulty in Validating Negative Emotions: Society often encourages us to suppress negative emotions, leading some parents to struggle with validating feelings like anger or sadness in their child. It can be challenging to reassure a child that it's okay to feel these emotions and that they're a normal part of life.
  5. Expecting Immediate Results: Emotion coaching is not a quick fix. It's a long-term strategy that gradually helps children build their emotional intelligence. Some parents may become discouraged if they don't see immediate changes in their child's behavior.
  6. Balancing Empathy with Discipline: Striking a balance between validating a child's emotions while also setting appropriate boundaries and expectations can be challenging. Parents might worry that empathizing with negative feelings might encourage "bad" behavior. It's crucial to remember that validating emotions doesn't mean condoning inappropriate behavior.


Remember, it's completely normal to face challenges when implementing emotion coaching. Like any skill, it takes practice, patience, and perseverance. It's a journey both for the parent and the child, filled with learning and growth opportunities.


To help you put emotion coaching into action, we've create a couple of handouts to help. Print and post the Emotion Coaching steps handout to help you remember the steps when you need need it most. Hang it where you will see is regularly or carry a copy in your purse or wallet so it is there when you need it.

The Emotion Coaching Worksheet will help you identify and plan for common situations ahead of time. Having a plan in place will increase the chances that you will be able to use the steps in the moment. 

Click here to download the PDF: Emotion Coaching Handouts