You've Got the ABC's Covered and the 123's Down. But Increasingly, research shows the importance of Emotional Intelligence--and you are the person best suited to teaching it.
After events like the shooting in Florida this week, parents want to know how they can protect their kids and at the same time they are fearful that their kid could turn into that angry and desperate young person. Especially if they feel like their young child is very sensitive or emotionally reactive or easily out of control, they worry about what they can be doing right now to assure that that is not their child as a teen. While there are no guarantees, emotional intelligence is the best tool we have.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is being able to recognize a wide range of nuanced emotions, and recognizing them, being able to regulate them and put them in perspective in a way that helps the individual move through life more easily.
In my long experience in working with children, emotional intelligence can absolutely be developed. The most important way in which it is developed is through interactions with thoughtful adults who are modeling and guiding kids in dealing with their feelings.
Here are some common behaviors of parents whose kids display emotional intelligence:
1. Parents use and teach their children a wide emotional vocabulary. They go beyond mad, sad and glad to angry, enraged, upset, irritated, annoyed, blue, mopey, grouchy, disappointed, hurt, excited, interested, pleased, ecstatic, jumping for joy, etc. They reinforce this vocabulary by pointing out the likely feelings of characters in books and movies they watch with their kids, and even in describing interactions with their own friends and colleagues.
2. Parents allow their children to have their feelings and they make guesses about what they are feeling and why. They say things like, "It seems like you're feeling mopey today. Is that because you are disappointed that your friend cancelled your playdate?" rather than saying things like, "I don't want to see you moping around just because your friend can't play!"
3. Parents empathize with their children's feelings and at the same time help them put them into perspective: They might say gently, "You are enraged because your brother ruined your picture when he knocked over the rinse water. [pause to allow the empathy to sink in] I totally get that. [pause] You were working really hard on that picture. [long pause before shifting] And at the same time, do you think your brother did it on purpose?" If the perception is not that the brother tipped the water on purpose, the parent helps the child shift away from anger to disappointment and even understanding.
4. In altercations with others, without taking sides, parents help their kids get to the core feelings. For example, If the perception is that the brother did tip the water on purpose, the parent proceeds with empathy and curiosity: "So, you think Brother wanted to ruin your picture? No wonder you are ready to blow your top! Not only did you lose a picture you care about, but it must really sting to think that your brother wants to hurt you so badly." Notice how the wording "you think" acknowledges the child's reality without saying whether the parent agrees or not. From here--again after a long pause to let the empathy sink in and maybe a hug for comfort-- a parent might ask, "I wonder if you can think of any reason why your brother might be so angry with you?" At this point a child might admit, "Well, I grabbed his truck from him before." If he says he can't think of any reason, the parent might suggest, "Shall we ask Brother if he was upset with you?" [Note, the parent says "if" not "why," as that would be an assumption about Brother's motivation.] At this point, seeing that the parent is calm and empathetic, Brother is more likely to speak his truth rather than deny his actions, so if he says it was an accident, it probably was. Otherwise, he will probably air his grievance and say, "Sister called me stupid because I didn't know red and yellow make orange." So now the parent turns to brother and responds with empathy and curiosity in turn so that each sibling feels seen and heard.
5. After all the feelings have been aired and acknowledged, parents teach their children to find win-win solutions. They ask questions like, "What needs to happen now to make this right?" At this point a child might ask for an apology or might move right to a solution like, "We need to mop up the water and dry the table and get dry paper."
6. Parents train their kids to stand in the other person's shoes (This is particularly effective for when the parent does not have access to the other person involved.) Let's say a child comes home grumbling about a classmate. After acknowledging his own child's feelings, rather than condemning the other child, the parent helps his child get curious: "Why do you think Jonny might have done that? [pause for answer] What other reason might he have done that?" A parent might prompt deeper thinking with a question like, "Do you think it is possible that something is going on at home that has Jonny worried or upset?" At this point, the child might remember that the teacher scolded Jonny for not having his homework or that Jonny's mom as been gone all week on a business trip. As long as the parent has fully acknowledged his child's resentments first, the child might now make the guess that Jonny was just lashing out about that, and it was nothing personal.
7. Even though it takes a lot of time to go through these steps, it is clear to tell as a teacher at school which parents have prioritized this kind of emotional education at home because their kids use those skills in their relationships at school.
IF YOU HAVE TROUBLE REGULATING YOUR OWN EMOTIONS, the task of teaching your kids emotional intelligence may help you extend empathy to yourself. That's the good news. On the other hand, kids are learning more by watching you than what you are saying. Using a coach to process your emotions on a weekly basis--to offload the worry and guilt of parenting so you can be fully present with your kids--is very effective. Curious? Let's talk! Find a time 15-minute slot HERE.