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 of the skills needed raise emotionally intelligent children?
Awareness, empathy, compassion, patience, validation and respect to name a few, are valuable and necessary attributes, and are skills that teach children how to maneuver and manage their emotions while in relationship with others. Research has shown that children exhibiting these skills are more likely to succeed in the world more so than a child with a high IQ and good academic record.
With all of these attributes, as with values and emotions, it helps to talk with children about them, as well as, model them. Dialogue teaches children how to put words to their internal emotional world and that is empowering. It’s also important for healthy development. Modeling the behavior shows the child tangible actions associated with the concept, which they can then try out in their behavior. This is important since children’s brains are still developing.
A note about the learning process in children: parents often say, “I kept having to repeat myself” Believe it or not, that a normal part of development in children. A repetition of concepts is one way we learn. But if you’re child still just doesn’t seem to be getting it, it might be the way it’s being presented. Each child learns differently. Some children learn by seeing (visually), some by hearing (auditory) and some learn kinesthetically (both). Try out different ways to explain something. It’s the difference between watching a video about a sport vs. reading about it vs. trying it out. Take the challenge and find out how best your child learns!
1. Awareness about emotions. It’s bringing a consciousness and a presence to the emotional experience of the child (and sometimes for parents 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 emotions. It is not an attempt to deflect, dismiss or control a child’s feelings, or creates an outcome.
2. Compassion defined as “a deep feeling of sympathy”. A necessary skill is for the adult to be able to tap into the emotions of the child. A parent needs to be emotionally available to model compassion. Saying things like “I’m sorry to hear that is happening”. Or “I’m so happy for you”. Or “that sounds like you are excited about that trip” can be invitations to discuss what is happening. One goal is to define in words what the experience is they are feeling. Another goal is simply to be present and engaged, with an open mind and heart towards your child and their experience. 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 be saying, or our desire to fix it, or our attempt to suppress the feelings of judgment or intolerance at that moment. Buddhist theory teaches that we must first have compassion for ourselves before we can have it for others. So be patient and kind to both of you!)
3. 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 “that sounds like such a great time you had”. Responses like these (without a parental fix at the end of the statement) offer a feeling of unconditional support to your child. That is a quality in 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 understand what it feels like and be able to differentiate it from other internal experiences they have, like compassion, sadness or apathy.
4. Patience: If you are naturally calm and patient, you are lucky because sometimes this is hard thing to muster when working with a child. 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 like to wait, while experiencing calmness and excitement. Calmness is a critical tool when working to harness emotions. Calmness and emotional regulation also go together. Emotional regulation 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 while providing structure -not only to the situation but to their internal emotional world. By experiencing this, children can then internalize that and learn how to use these qualities as a skill. Children also feel safe when adults are calm. As a result, they are more open to learn, and can learn how to regulate their emotions, and be patient with others, yeh!
5. Validation: When a child is really heard, understood and supported, their view of themself 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. 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. Children need to hear that who they are as human beings is ok. It’s critical to healthy development.
The best way to explain what respect is is to show a 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 name a respectful action when your child acts in a thoughtful way. An example is the art of apologizing. An apology is actually an act of respect when done sincerely. It is another important skill set to incorporate into their identity. Apologizing helps children learn what is them (ego) and what is “other” (other people outside of themselves). 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.
The development of a child clearly is a complex process. Incorporating traits such as these, 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 person 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 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.
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. 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 also models really great listening skills, which teaches your child how to listen. They et the experience internally of what it feels like to speak their truth, to say what they really want to say without someone taking over their emotional 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.
National Association for the Education of Young Children: Building Social and Emotional Skills at Home
The Gottman Institute: Fostering Emotionally Intelligent Children, Families and Communities[PDF]
by John Gottman
Touchpoints by T Berry Brazelton, M.D.
The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, Symbiosis and Individuation by Margaret S. Mahler, M.D.
Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ by Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.