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Facing Trauma

This week on the Podcast Angharad Candlin, my new friend in Sydney, Australia chats to me about emotion coaching; how to connect with your child and ensure that they feel emotionally safe so that they will share with you. We covered anxiety, trauma, social media and how to form a deep connection that will last a life-time.

I asked her to write a piece for us on ways that we can help our children build resilience through their difficulties. I love what she's written here - she shares a great mnemonic (such a great word, but what a tongue-twister!). And she also shares some personal stories of resilience.

Pop here to listen to our conversation

Over to Angharad...

One of the most important things that we can do as parents to help our children build resilience is to emotion coach them. Emotion Coaching was developed by John Gottman in the 90s and has been researched and evaluated thoroughly. John Gottman is a renowned psychologist and researcher in the space of families and relationships.

There are five steps to emotion coaching and it’s important that we do all of them. I like to use the mnemonic RIVER to help remember what those five steps are:

R The letter R stands for Recognise.

Recognise that your child is having an emotional response to something. This can sound really basic. However, with the busyness of our world the stress of relationships, mortgages, rent… not to mention COVID-19, we can actually forget to tune into what’s going on for our children.

I is for intimacy

See your child's emotional responses to something as an opportunity to build intimacy and connection. Often when somebody is having a big emotional response to something what we want to do is to take a step back or to shut it down in some way. But actually, if we can see it as an opportunity to build our relationships and an opportunity for intimacy then it helps our children and it helps our relationship with our children.

V is for Validate

We recognise the children are having an emotion, we’re using that opportunity to build intimacy and the way that we do that is to validate the emotion that they are experiencing. To let them know that it is okay to be feeling that way. In fact, it’s understandable to be feeling that way. Dan Siegel is a well-known psychiatrist and researcher and he says that we need

to “feel felt”. Alan Shore has another way of putting it he says, “children are hardwired for connection”. When we validate their feelings, children feel connected.

E is for Emotion

To help your children find the name for the emotion that they are experiencing. We are not born with a language of emotions. We discover our internal emotional state by seeing the responses from somebody else (usually our caregiver). They give us the language to label the emotional state that we are experiencing. We need to give our children a language for their emotional world. We can’t ask our children to use their words to tell us when something is wrong if they don’t have the words in their vocabulary.

R This second R is for Resolution

It’s about problem-solving, finding a way through, finding a way to do it differently next time. And here is where the tricky thing lies because parents love their children and want what’s best for them, what 99% of parents do when their children are experiencing something difficult is to problem solve it or fix it for them. If we solve our children’s problems for them, they will never find a way to solve their own problems. And if we go straight to problem-solving while our children are still expressing and experiencing big emotions then they will never learn how to soothe themselves because they haven’t first experienced being soothed by their carer. We can only know how to soothe ourselves when we have first been soothed.

This emotion coaching is restorative and life-giving for our children, whether the issue they have had is big or small. As most readers will know, last year saw the most horrendous bushfires. Very close friends of mine have a holiday house on the south coast and usually spend Christmas there. Last year they had returned early leaving two of their adult children there, Amy, my god daughter and her sister, Laura who was a very new mum at that time.

The trauma of bushfire

As we watched the news and the days passed we began to realise the escalating danger to Amy and Laura. It was very difficult to make any contact with them because the mobile phone towers were down. The danger for them really started on the morning of New Year’s Eve when the bushfire raged through. The little village that they were in wasn’t expected to be hit by the bushfires and all of the bushfire brigade members were at nearby towns and locations fighting the fires. That morning they realised they needed to evacuate to the beach to seek safety from the fires. Amy, her cousin and her uncle (who I hasten to add had previously been a volunteer in the rural fire service) realised that was nobody available to fight the fires so the three of them got whatever hoses they could and buckets of water and ran around the streets putting out fires. They literally saved houses from burning.

In the meantime, the rest of the family evacuated to the beach, but Laura and her husband were separated from the rest of the family. Laura was huddled down on the beach trying to protect her little tiny baby from the smoke and fires by putting her down her dress. At some point the worst thing happened which was that the scrub on the beach set on fire. Laura was terrified as I’m sure was everyone else. Laura’s husband went to help fight the fires on the beach which meant that Laura and her daughter were stuck on the beach alone. This went on for hours, the electricity was down, mobile phone towers were down, petrol stations had run out of petrol, there was nowhere to get food or drinks.

In the end the family all returned home from their places of refuge and they were okay physically. Emotionally not so much. They then had to try and get back to Canberra or Sydney from where they were which was incredibly difficult because of the roads. It’s hard to describe the enormity of a bushfire storm. It is truly awesome in a terrifying way. I think it took them about 10 hours to drive to Canberra where they stayed overnight.

Emotion coaching

When they finally got back to Sydney I quickly made time with both of them to give them an opportunity to debrief. Various people had, out of the goodness of their hearts told them that they would be fine, they’d get over it in a couple of days, to stop talking about it, don’t dwell on it. Even though it was well intentioned it made things harder for the sisters. What they needed was for somebody to bear witness to the horrifying events that they had been through.

Amy and I sat for hours in a cafe talking about it. I tried to ask very few questions, I tried not to give any kind of advice, I tried to just sit and listen and care. I met Laura at home and her experience had been so different from Amy’s. Amy had agency, she literally picked up a hose and fought the fires. Laura however had a baby to protect. She could do nothing except sit on the beach and protect her baby. As a mother that has to be one of the most courageous things she has ever done and probably ever will.

What they needed when they came home was for their experience to be heard, for their feelings to be validated; for somebody to sit with them and listen; for somebody to help them find the words to express the abject terror of being stuck in the middle of a bushfire with no way out.

Children grow when they 'feel felt'

When our children experience anxiety and fear, no matter the size of the issue, we need to support them through it, not to try and eliminate it, not to minimise it but to honour it, give it shape, give it language and to help them find their own way through. Bushfires will always, I expect, be a trigger to fear for Amy and Laura, however, the process of emotion coaching will not only have helped them to heal, but it will have have built resilience in them for the future.

Angharad Candlin

November 2020


Angharad is a Psychologist, Speaker, Consultant and Trainer with nearly 30 years experience working with families. She is the lead author of 2 externally evaluated and internationally recognised parenting programs; Keeping Kids in Mind and My Kids and Me. She is a dynamic and entertaining speaker and has the capacity to breakdown complex psychological and neurological processes into steps that are easy to understand and apply. Angharad offers training around Trauma, Parenting, Groupwork, Leadership and Relationships. She lives in Sydney with her sister and her Mum and four boys whom she co-parents with her sister since the loss of the boys' father to a brain tumour.

Contact Angharad here


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