The phrase “emotional intelligence” has become a real buzz word recently. But what is it exactly and how can we foster it in our children?
Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware, to control and express our emotions, and to act empathically in our day-to-day interactions with others. It is then, without a doubt, a key component necessary for us to thrive socially and emotionally.
How can we, as parents best guide our children to encourage emotional intelligence?
It is never too early to start. Begin by being responsive to the first cooing and smiles of your newborn. Take turns as though you are having a conversation, mimic the noises they make. By mirroring this way, and by being responsive to their cries and needs you are setting them off to a great start on their emotional and social development journey.
Think long term
At the same time be mindful that emotional intelligence takes time. Have realistic and age-appropriate expectations. We often assume that just because our linguistically able toddler does well at day-to-day communication, that this means skills such as emotional intelligence, reflective thought, not acting on an impulse etc. are just as developed and match our development. We might wonder why despite our explanations and encouragement they still have moments where e.g. they hit, throw things or bite. Emotional Intelligence is a process and it takes time and a LOT of patience. It is not about looking for quick fixes. So avoid listening to experts who use such quick-fixing claims. Expect to be in this for the long haul, and to be repeating yourself hundreds of times before your children understand. By being aware of this right from the start you are more likely to remain calm and able to gently guide your child through emotions and situations. We assume that just because we have explained something once, our children will have the ability to internalise that and incorporate into a similar future scenario. Not the case. Learning about emotions takes time and requires certain brain structures which again take time to develop.
Create a safe space for children to express emotions
Connection is key to everything when it comes to parenting. In fact when connection is lacking, that is when children are the most likely to act out. Children will often ask for it in the most unloving of ways. The bottom line is this: your children want to feel loved and heard. They need to know their feelings are valid. To us certain things they get upset over may seem trivial, but it doesn’t make their feelings any less valid. To them it matters, so show them their feelings matter to you too.In case of very difficult emotions (as some like to call them tantrums), do not ignore those feelings by using punishment, time outs, the naughty step etc. By doing so you are teaching them that their emotions are not acceptable, that it is not okay to feel them, that they should suppress them. This only make them less aware and expressive about their own feelings as well as the feelings of others (i.e. less emotionally intelligent). Are we then surprised that we have a whole generation of adults unable to tell why they feel sad or how they feel at all in the first place? Not to mention it totally ruins your connection and the trust and safety they hold in you. Let them feel all kinds of emotions. Give them the safe space to express and say how they REALLY feel without fear of how your pride or expectations will react. They need to feel they are allowed to be real with you. That is how you set a foundation for the future teenager who actually tells you where they are going or what went on at the party, because they are not afraid of your judgement. And lastly, do not ever tell your child to stop crying, to be quiet or to grow up. Treat them with respect and kindness and honour that divine pure spark within them. Do not try to tame it.
Children learn not from what you say, but from what you do. So be mindful of other people’s feelings. Show empathy to every living creature. Guide them through difficult emotional situations. Show great self-awareness and talk about your own feelings. Acknowledge and honour their feelings.
Talk about feelings as much as possible
Use everyday scenarios and difficult situations as blessings and opportunities to guide your child through emotions. Talk about how certain things make you or others feel. When watching a movie together, be inquisitive about what they think the character is feeling. I often ask my toddler why he thinks his baby brother is upset and what he thinks would be the solution. When your toddler hits or bites, show concern for the other child. Do not be tempted to focus on scolding your child. Remain calm and gentle. But do explain that e.g.”we don’t hit”. Remind them of situations in which they might have experienced this themselves and ask how that made them feel, and compare it to the current situation. Explain that this hurts others, makes them upset. Say that you know they are overly excited and wanted to play or are irritated and tired. In cases of sibling rivalry, teach them to listen to one another in turns, so they begin to see that their version of events is not the only version. That others experience feelings separate from theirs. Follow up the next day to help them incorporate the messages learnt. Point out how e.g. the other sibling is trying to be respectful of their feelings after the conversation or is trying to make amends.
Use emotional intelligence strategies
Children as young as two, can be taught simple breathing exercises. My toddler is well aware that this is something we can turn to when feeling stressed and overwhelmed. With older children teach them meditation, yoga and mindfulness. Doin it together can be fun! Exercise and some physical activity outdoors even, can have a great effect on resetting our emotional thermostat. Often younger children will have an actual physical need to throw things, in such cases explain that throwing breakable things and inside the house have their natural consequences, but that we can turn to healthier, less damaging alternatives e.g. throwing soft balls outside in the garden. The same goes for biting- have chewable toys even for your toddler if biting is an issue. Explain that when they feel like biting they bite a said toy (because a toy cannot feel pain), not others.
Invent healing stories to work through difficult emotions
Story telling as well as pretend play can be a wonderful way for children to explore emotions. Use analogies in creative ways to portray the feelings your child is going through, and how disagreements or other difficult situations can be approached and solved. Children will often instinctively do this themselves in their play.
Avoid asking them to simply say “sorry”
When facing conflict or wrongdoing of any kind, we need to be careful as to not expect our child to simply say sorry. This can be more damaging than helpful. When there is no self-reflection involved, no shift in their perception of what the other is feeling, there is no actual intrinsic change in them. They are simply saying sorry to please you or avoid punishment. Surely we want our children to ACTUALLY know when something isn’t right and how their actions might have caused another to feel? This brings me to my final point.
Do not worry about other people’s expectations
We often feel under so much pressure to scold, criticise and punish our children, during difficult situations. Unfortunately beliefs centred around emotional intelligence and age-appropriate ability to regulate emotions are outdated. So are the beliefs about using punishment in parenting. That is why we often get the unsolicited advice like “if you do x and y he will learn”. Because my older son David was advanced linguistically people often expected him to act way older than what he was capable of developmentally. Remember that your relationship with your child and the actual development of their emotional skills is far more important than what others think of you, your child or your family. You cannot control that.
What you can do is support your child to develop those skills.
What you can do is work on your connection.