6 Ways to Create Emotionally Intelligent Children
What is it Emotional Intelligence?
“Emotional intelligence means being able to read your own and other’s emotions, and being able to respond to the emotions of others in a cooperative, functional, and empathetic manner. Emotional intelligence is a kind of social “moxie” or “savvy” about even very complex social situations. It requires knowing who you are, knowing your own feelings, knowing your own needs, and being able to handle yourself and compromise these needs with the needs of sometimes very complex social situations.”
John Gottman, Ph.D., The Gottman Institute
What are some EI traits?
Awareness, empathy, compassion, patience, validation and respect (to name a few) are valuable and necessary attributes. They are also parts of a set of skills that teach children how to manage their emotions while in relationship with others.
FACT: Research shows that children exhibiting these skills are more likely to succeed in the world more so than children with a high IQ’s and good academic records.
It helps to talk with children about them, as well as, model them. Dialogue teaches children how to connect words to their emotional experience and that is empowering. Modeling the behavior shows the child tangible actions associated with the concept, which they will store in their memory. Then when they get a “cue” from the environment reminding them of this response, they can then try out through their own behavior. This is important since children’s brains are still developing. They will literally “see” what you are doing better than hearing the words.
A note about the learning process in children: parents often say, “I kept having to repeat myself”. Believe it or not, that is a normal part of development in children. A verbal repetition of concepts is one way they learn. But if you’re child still just doesn’t seem to be getting it, you are not doing anything wrong, it might just be the way it’s being presented. Each child receives information differently. Some children learn by seeing (visually), some by hearing (auditory) and some learn kinesthetically (touch and experience). Try out different ways to explain something. They might need to see the consequences or try it out to understand the response. It’s the difference between watching a video about a sport vs. reading about it vs. actually playing it. Find out how best your child learns.
- Teach Awareness about emotions. It’s bringing a consciousness and presence to the emotional experience of the child (and sometimes for parent too) For example, it might be helping a child gain awareness that things will not be “fixed” like they thought. This might include talking about what this different outcome feels like for them. Many children need help making transitions, so this is an added step to help that process. Awareness is an “open” experience, and an invitation to explore thoughts and emotions. It offers a space for understanding. A dialogue about raising awareness is not an attempt to deflect, dismiss or control a child’s feelings, or create an outcome.
- Show Compassion. Compassion is defined as “a deep feeling of sympathy”. A necessary parenting skill is the ability to tap into the emotions of the child. Emotionally availability is necessary to model compassion. Saying things like “I see you are hurting right now. I’m sorry that happened”. Or “I’m so happy for you, it sounds like you are excited about that trip” are statements that can be invitations to discuss what their emotional experience is. One goal of this type of learning is for the child to define in words what the experience is they are feeling. Another goal (for the parent) is to simply be present and engaged, with an open mind and heart towards the child and their experience. That can be a soothing and comforting feeling for a child. The idea is to try and feel what they are feeling in that moment and reflect that back to them.(Compassion, empathy and awareness can also be applied to our own experience as parents, as we wonder about all the things we should or should not be saying. Or how to respond when that desire to fix things pops up during our attempt to suppress the feelings of judgment or intolerance we might have in that moment. Buddhist theory teaches that we must first have compassion for ourselves before we can have it for others. Be patient and kind to both of you!)
- Model Empathy. Defined as “the experiencing of someone else’s thoughts or feelings”. There has been a lot written about the importance of children developing empathy. Modeling empathy to your child is the best way to teach a child about what empathy is. Check in with your child with phrases like: “I hear that what she said really hurt your feelings”. Or, “I get that you are angry right now”. It might also be letting them know how you feel when something mean is said to you. For example, “I know you are frustrated right now, but when you yell at me, it hurts my feelings”. Responses like these (without a parental fix at the end of the statement) can offer a feeling of unconditional support to your child or open the door to their awareness of how what they do impacts others emotionally. That is a defining element of empathy. These can be simple dialogues, yet they are critical to a child’s development, because children will, in turn, try out those comments on others to build the skills. Children also need to be able to differentiate empathic experiences from other internal experiences they have, like compassion, sadness or apathy.
- Show Patience. If you are naturally calm and patient, you are lucky because sometimes that is hard to muster when parenting a child or children. One definition of this is “the ability to suppress restlessness”, (something kids need a lot of help with!) Patience is great to model because it gives the child the experience of what it feels to wait, while experiencing calmness, and other emotions like anger or excitement. Calmness is a critical tool when learning to harness emotions. That means a calm mind and calm body. And a parent’s calmness and emotional control can help model and teach children emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the ability to manage emotions and feelings. And it cannot happen without some ability to be mindful and calm oneself. Modeling patience is a vital step in the child’s development; as they see and hear someone else calmly put into words their experience, not only do they experience the adult providing an emotional container (so to speak) but also context to their internal emotional world. By experiencing this, children can then learn how to use these qualities as a skill. Children also feel safe when adults are calm. As a result, they are more receptive to feedback, and can learn how to regulate their emotions, and be patient with others. Yeh!
- Provide Validation. And often. When a child is really heard, understood and supported, their views about themselves and the world around them are validated. It’s not just about a child’s developing ego; it’s also about their identity formation. The message they should be receiving is that they are enough just the way they are, even if they don’t get straight A’s. Or make not-so-good choices. And if they do get great grades, there is still so much more to who they are which is all good stuff! These types of conversations are also about parents having an opportunity to tell their children that they are important, loved, unique and have something of value to offer the world. Research shows that the ratio is 5:1, that is 5 compliments and supportive statements to every negative one. Children need to hear that who they are as human beings is ok. This is critical to healthy development.
- Teach Respect. The best way to teach what respect is act respectfully towards your child. This is respect for oneself and respect for others. Respect can be modeled in dialogue and behavior. How do you respect yourself? How do you respect your child? Talk with your child about who you respect and why. Or verbally acknowledge a respectful action when your child acts in a thoughtful way. That will give your child a desire to get more positive feedback from you. An example of this is the art of apologizing. An apology is actually an act of respect when done sincerely. It is another important skill to incorporate into their identity. Apologizing helps children learn what is them (ego) and what is “other” (other people outside of themselves) and teaches them to think of others. This will help them make a distinction about what things they should or should not say or do, which is directly related to moral development and choices they will make down the road. When there is respect in a family, it’s also much easier to teach empathy, forgiveness and compassion.
The development of a child clearly is a complex process. The teaching and the learning are in the everyday actions parents have with their children. The details. Incorporating traits such as these listed above, not only can empower you as a parent but help children learn what values and morals are, so they will, not only be more likely to make good decisions, but also like themselves.
*A note about yelling: Studies show that when someone yells and gets upset emotionally, often what is being said gets lost. Instead what the adult or child being yelled at remembers is the other person’s anger towards them and the fear they experienced at that moment. For a child, it creates stress in the child, making it hard for the child to learn, feel safe and regulate their emotions. This, not only, can affect memory, behavior and academic performance but also creates negative emotions like fear, hostility, self-loathing and defiance.
Bottom line: if you want your children to develop emotionally healthy habits, and be emotionally healthy, model the behavior you want to see. This is one of the hardest lessons for us as parents, but you can do it! And keep trying!
Parent exercise: How are your listening skills?
Take 15 minutes and sit down with your child, or go for a walk and listen – to them. Speak as little as possible. The goal is to listen with an open mind and in a space of non-judgment modeling the skills listed above. Ask open-ended questions, get really interested in what they are saying and let them talk.
This exercise gives the parent the opportunity to model really great listening skills, which teaches children how to listen. They get the experience internally of what it feels like to speak their truth, to say what they really want to say without someone taking over the conversation, their emotions or thoughts in that moment. Good listening gives them the experience to truly be who they are and be free of judgment or ridicule. This is a necessary experience for children to develop confidence and a strong identity. It’s also an incredibly respectful and loving way to be with your child.
This post was originally published on Excellentia International Academy’s blog.
Touchpoints, T Berry Brazelton, M.D.
The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, Symbiosis and Individuation, Margaret S. Mahler, M.D.
Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph.D. and Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.