Being able to communicate and relate to others is called Emotional Intelligence (EI) and it is a critical set of skills that help us get along with other people. These skills include; being able to identify your own feelings and manage them appropriate, being able to recognise the feelings being experienced by other people as well as changing or adapting how you engage with those people (based on the emotion identified). Children who have high levels of EI are better at being able to cope with distress and overwhelm, have higher quality relationships and in general have higher wellbeing. This means they are able to communicate their needs better and as parents we see less tantrums, or challenging behaviours that usually arise when our kids can’t share what they need or how they are feeling.
So, how can I raise an emotionally intelligent child?
1. Don’t rush their feelings or try to avoid them
As parents its natural to want to help our children, and its tough when we see them hurting so sometimes, we can accidentally jump into solution mode, or rush to fix things for them. However, every feeling has a purpose and we need to pay close attention to our feelings as they give us cues about our needs and physical and emotional safety. When we avoid or rush feelings when can accidentally invalidate the feelings, or our children can learn not so healthy behaviours to avoid certain emotions. This can also leave them feeling numb or overly reactive and highly emotional. Helping your child to manage (rather than avoid) their feelings not only helps them to understand and accept their feelings, but it can also give you a chance to create a strong emotional bond with your child when you support and acknowledge how they are feeling.
2. Give them the tools
During periods of calm (not during the middle of an emotional moment) help your child build up a toolchest of coping strategies. If you practice during moments when they aren’t overwhelmed it will be easier for them to recall and implement these ideas when they really need them. You can practice things like calm breathing, rate their feelings, helping them name their feelings, coming up with strategies in advance to deal with different kinds of feelings. For example; help your child’s name a few different emotions and then create a chart or some kind of visual reminder of how they could manage that feeling. If you named anger, you might ask your child what helps them to feel calm and relaxed and then help them record their answers, you can also make suggestions like; having some along time, getting a hug, squeezing some play dough, doing some star jumps etc.
We are our children’s first teachers; they are always watching and learn directly from seeing the way we interact and respond to the world. So, think about how you react when you get angry, or feel sad. Each of these experiences are learning opportunities to potentially share with your child. Just be mindful that I am not saying you should put any responsibility onto your child for how you feel or making you feel better, nor should you always share the exact reasons behind your emotions (it’s not necessarily developmentally appropriate to share this level of detail). But you can absolutely model how you deal with negative emotions. For example, name your feelings. It seems super simple, but it can feel awkward initially. Essentially just identify what you are feeling throughout they day, so if something doesn’t go your way you might say “I feel disappointed”, or if you tip something over and accidentally make a mess you might say “I feel a bit frustrated right now”. You can also help them see how you will cope with these feelings and narrate your strategies. “I'm feeling a bit frustrated I knocked that vase over. Before I clean it up, I'm going to have a few calm breaths to try and help me feel a bit calmer.” Your child will see you owning, accepting and managing your feelings and will pick up that this is how they too should deal with big and uncomfortable feelings.
4. Play emotional literacy games
Sounds fancy, but you don’t need to buy any resources and do anything complicated. Emotional literacy is just about giving them the right words to express themselves. So, games might include pulling exaggerated emotional faces and get your child to guess what you are feeling, and also ask them how they know it. And vice versa get them to make faces and see if you can guess. You can also extend on this game by asking to come up with a story about why you are feeling this way. You will really see an improvement in not only their emotional literacy as well as their empathy as you are not only teaching them about feelings, but getting them to connect and consider how others might be feeling and why. You can also watch tv with them or read a book and just ask a heap of questions about the characters feelings. For example, a character might be left out of game, and you could ask them how that character might feel and why? And how did they know the character was having that feeling. You could also develop a feelings wheel or list of different emotions and get your child to rate them in order of intensity. For example, anger can range from irritated too furious. Giving them lots of words can help them better express themselves.
Having a high level of emotional intelligence won’t fix every issue your child will face, nor will it stop every tantrum or meltdown. However, the emotional support you provide your child, as well as the opportunities to develop their emotional awareness and tools to manage their emotions will not only help build a stronger parent-child relationship and also a set of skills that will benefit their overall emotional health and wellbeing.
Joan D., & Gottman, J (1997). The Heart of Parenting: How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York: Simon & Schuster.