When we’re stressed, anxious, or triggered, our brain and nervous system react immediately. Our amygdala sounds the alarm as our brains go into a psychological state of flight, fight, or freeze.
The ability to think, reason, and make rational decisions decreases. And our emotional grounded-ness goes right out the window. Add all this to a small child with big feelings, and you’ve got the recipe for an emotional firestorm—or as we parents know it, a tantrum of colossal proportions.
Emotional intelligence gives you the ability to respond rather than react. In order to teach this life-long skill to your kids, you need to first put it into practice for yourself.
Step one for parents is learning to cultivate self-awareness, or learning to recognize when you are reacting unconsciously, rather than consciously responding. When you’re able to make this differentiation, you then have the ability to choose what to do next—continue to react or respond from a place of awareness. That is emotional intelligence. If you can teach it to your kids, you are setting them up for a lifetime of benefits.
Children with higher emotional intelligence:
- Have less anxiety and depression
- Are more attentive and less hyperactive
- Do better academically
- Tend to have greater leadership skills
- Are likely to have quality relationships with others
- Are less aggressive and less likely to bully others
- Are less likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes
1. Express Emotions“If you can name it, you can tame it.” ~Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence
Expressing emotions thoughtfully requires you to first be aware that you’re having them in the first place. As an adult, think about how overwhelming your emotions can feel in the throws of an argument with a partner, how sad you may have felt at the loss of a pet, or the anxiety you may have felt preparing for a job interview. Now imagine how big those feelings of anger, sadness, or anxiety might feel to a child who lacks the life experience or emotional maturity to deal with them.
One of the best things you can do for a small child dealing with big feelings is to give them a vocabulary of words to help them describe their feelings. Invite your child to share his or her feelings with you. Suggest words like: “I’m feeling sad,” or “When this happens, I feel…” or “I don’t like when…”
As an adult, you can model this behavior for your child by using those words yourself to express when you’re frustrated, impatient, annoyed, and even overwhelmed. Invite your child to share their feelings with you. Happy emotions count, too—surprise, excitement, and joy are wonderful to share. Create a safe, non-judgmental space, and enjoy the authentic connection that will come from sharing feelings with one another.
2. Actively ListenHave you ever found yourself only half-listening to your child—responding with comments such as “hmmm…” or “really?” while silently continuing your own train of thought? It’s understandable—listening takes energy, intention, and attention. However, when we listen deeply to another person, we are communicating “I hear you and I care.”
Active listening requires you to be fully present with another person, so that you can understand what he/she is thinking and feeling. When a child shares something with you, help keep the door of communication open with comments that reflect empathy, compassion, and support, such as:
- I’m really interested…tell me more…
- Wow! What was that like for you?
- That must have been...(hard, easy, fun, exciting, etc.)
- I’m wondering if you might be feeling…(sad, lonely, hurt, angry, etc.)
3. Engage in Perspective-TakingMost of us approach our daily lives from our personal, or egocentric perspective, thinking about how this or that is affecting us. However, cultivating the ability to experience or imagine another person’s perspective—or an allocentric perspective, broadens our thinking, builds empathy and compassion, and reduces hurtful behavior towards others.
To help cultivate this skill in your child, consider some easy topics for practice. For example, while reading a story or watching a movie together, talk with your child about the characters. Explore how different characters might have been feeling, as well as what might have contributed to any conflict the characters experienced:
- I wonder how (character) might have been feeling when x happened. I was thinking he might have felt sad because … What do you think he was feeling?
- Gee, I was really surprised by …. or I wonder what might have caused (character) to act that way.
- What do you think might have been a good way to solve the disagreement they were having?
- If you were in the same situation, how would you have wanted (character) to have treated you? What would you have wanted him/her to say?
As children try on the perspectives of others, they often become more flexible in their thinking and less rigid in their positions. They can become more accepting and tolerant of others … and themselves.
We know that emotional intelligence is a path to self-esteem, loving and harmonious relationships, responsible decision-making, success in the workplace, and overall well-being.
As Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, stated,“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you aren’t able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”
By learning to express emotions, listen actively, and take multiple perspectives, your child will develop more positive, caring, respectful relationships with others, resolve conflicts more easily, and become less stressed and more confident and optimistic. When you cultivate social and emotional intelligence in children, you are fostering healthier, kinder communities and, ultimately, a more peaceful world.
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