Emotion Coaching: An Adoptive Family Finds Their Way From Loss to Attachment

Priscilla Singleton, MSW, LMFT, LCSW,  is a licensed clinical social worker and a marriage and family therapist. Ms. Singleton’s areas of expertise are separating and divorcing families, adoption, promotion of child and adolescent connection in their families, children of divorce, and co-parent counseling. Ms. Singleton has been in practice for over 25 years.

Leslie Greenberg’s work on emotion coaching is particularly helpful in working with adoptive families struggling with attachment issues. Greenberg describes emotion coaching with parents as a process that guides parents toward awareness and management of their children’s emotions. Emotion coaching teaches parents to accept and work with the child’s anger and sadness. Parents can do this work alone or with their children in session (Greenberg, 2001). The parents’ level of pain and reactivity can help guide this decision. Parents may need a period of time to deal separately with their emotions toward their child before they are able to be completely open to the child’s struggle.

Successful emotion coaching between parent and child can strengthen the attachment bond. Catherine, age 17, came to live in her adoptive family at the age of 12. She lived with her birth mother and younger sister up until that time. She described her birth mother as rejecting, abusive, and “scary”. Catherine expressed a great deal of anger toward her adoptive parents, particularly her adoptive mother. Sometimes she expressed the anger actively by yelling at her parents or throwing something. Other times she expressed it passively through non-compliant behavior. Catherine’s parents initially were able to be understanding of her behavior given her traumatic background. Their understanding began to waiver as their desire to nurture and guide Catherine was repeatedly rejected. They entered treatment due to the lack of connection each member felt in the family and the increase in the number of angry exchanges. Treatment involved both individual and family sessions. Initial work was done with the parents alone in order to guide them toward awareness and management of their emotions. Both parents were able to identify their own struggles with rejection and abandonment and their overwhelming sense of sadness over their daughter’s past. Catherine was also able to do some work in her individual sessions identifying her more vulnerable feelings of sadness, loss, and fear of abandonment.

The true attachment work could only be accomplished when Catherine was in session with one or both of her parents. A pivotal exchange occurred one evening in session when Catherine was able to accept a compliment from her father. Up until that point she had come to believe that she would only hear negative comments from her parents. Often she misinterpreted her parents’ words as a result of her negative expectations. In session that evening I asked Catherine if she could tell me what emotion she heard in her father’s voice. She responded, “Well, I don’t hear anger.” I asked Catherine again to listen to her father’s voice and look at his face and tell me what she heard in her father’s voice. She was able to look into her father’s eyes briefly. She turned to me and said, “I don’t know…maybe he sounds sad?” I then asked her to look at her father, and ask him if he was sad. Catherine became slightly self-conscious and laughed nervously, but she was able to look directly at her father and ask him if he was sad. Her father said, “Yes, I am so sad your life was so hard before you came to us. I wish we could take away all of your pain so that you could feel happy and safe more of the time.” Catherine for the first time was able to look into her father’s eyes for an extended period of time. For the rest of the session, Catherine was able to ask her parents questions about her birth mother and openly share many of the traumatic events she was subjected to at the hands of her mother. Since then, Catherine has been able to seek out her parents for comfort and for guidance, and has significantly decreased her angry outbursts and non-compliant behavior.

Greenberg, L. (2001). Emotion focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through feelings. Washington, D.C.: APA Press.

Priscilla Singleton, LCSW, LMFT sees clients at Council for Relationships Exton. Our staff of over 100 therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and interns practice at 10 locations in the greater Philadelphia area. We help people of all backgrounds live their best lives by improving their important relationships. We are committed to providing high-quality counseling services to all, regardless of ability to pay. Request your first appointment today.