As parents, we want to raise our kids to be well-equipped for adulthood and add as many tools to their toolkit as they can carry. We are eager to help them grow into physical, mental, intellectual, spiritual and emotional maturity.
But how can we raise children with emotional intelligence? What tools can we use and when are they useful?
Adults demonstrate emotional intelligence when they are empathetic. When they are attuned to nonverbal clues about how others are feeling. When they refuse to react to an insult. When they can discuss highly volatile subjects with a calm understanding of the bigger picture. These EQ skills are valuable assets to every interpersonal connection they have in both the workplace and home life.
While adults can assess themselves by taking an emotional intelligence test, kids approach their emerging emotional intelligence in small steps as they grow physically. Emotions for kids are a daily reality and can be frightening. Emotions can feel out of control, and kids feel limited in ways to disperse the tension they create.
As in all things worth learning, coping with our emotions takes practice, practice, practice.
“I feel…” Learning self-awareness
We are all a bundle of reactions when we’re born. Children are at the mercy of the world around them. As our brain is not done growing until around 25 years of age, kids are also at the mercy of a slowly developing self-awareness that cannot be physically rushed.
One of the first tools you can give your child is the vocabulary for what he is feeling. Learning to recognize and identify emotions helps diffuse their effect. Point out what is happening verbally until your child can do it, too. Naming a scary thing draws it out as a third entity and reduces its power.
When a strong emotion is triggered in the daily routine of older children, suggest a time out and breathe three deep breaths together. Clear the space to bring emotions down into something manageable that can be observed. A moment of reflection together is good practice for both of you, especially when parenting. Ask each other questions until you can identify the emotion and the reason behind it.
“You must be…” Learning how to be aware of others
Helping your child become aware of how others feel can only be reached at the appropriate developmental stage. The concept of “other” happens when your complacent nine-month-old suddenly refuses to let anyone other than his mother hold him. It’s not personal. A brain connection formed. The infant just realized that he is not, in actual fact, a physical part of his mother.
This new information is understandably terrifying.
As the child’s brain grows, new connections make it possible to become aware of how others are feeling. The concept of sharing and taking turns is likely to provoke a tantrum in a toddler, but school-age children can do both and relish cooperative play.
Older children can learn to notice others’ nonverbal cues like facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice. They eventually discover that people might say things and not mean them for a million nuanced reasons that take years to unravel.
One good tool for sorting it all out is the reminder to simply ask. Using the vocabulary for emotional intelligence, your child can approach the emotions of others and ask for clarity. Asking with a view to understanding will keep assumptions at bay and save many a faltering childhood friendship.
When your child learns how to value others’ feelings and can communicate calmly in the face of another’s distress, they are exercising their emotional intelligence.
“Maybe we can…” Learning emotional control
Kids must learn how to control their physical bodies before they can control their emotional reactions. Emotion is almost always expressed physically in children, which is how a mother can know what the child thinks or feels before he does.
This mother magic extends to other gaps in a child’s development, and the sneaky child will leave evidence that is glaringly obvious to adults. But there’s no hiding emotions and kids don’t bother trying. Their emotions are out there for everyone to see, and only maturity and practice will grant them self-control in the emotional arena.
Raise your children to know the difference between the words “react” and “respond.” One is fast and thoughtless, the other is slow and thoughtful. It requires the physical ability to pause when emotions begin to grow out of control and make a conscious decision to de-escalate or move away.
Knowing they have a choice is key to the practice, otherwise, if left unchallenged by this idea, the child grows up thinking that emotions dictate their behavior and they are victims of circumstance. Emotionally intelligent people know they can control themselves—not what is happening around them—and can make conscious decisions to care for themselves and others.
They can practice “responding” (or simply remove themselves physically) until an emotionally stable environment is reached.
“I understand.” Learning empathy
Once a child can name, regulate, and observe emotions in others, they are able to understand and work with empathy: the ability to relate to the emotional experiences of others.
Those who score high in emotional intelligence are able to be affected by another’s suffering and, instead of letting it trigger a reaction, they respond by trying to help them feel better. They are good at collaborating, problem-solving, and unifying a diverse group of people.
An easy and safe way to expose your child to the emotional experiences of others is to read fiction together. Age-appropriate and emotionally appropriate fiction can walk your child through a myriad of situations that allow them to experience life from other points of view. The feelings of others, healthy or otherwise, and their choices, reactions, and consequences are good conversation starters.
Another way to raise empathetic kids is to let them have a pet. Pets are immediately approachable and kids are faster to become emotionally involved. When children are invested in the decisions to make the pet feel loved and cared for, they learn how to be nurturing adults.
“I will be okay.” Learning how well-being affects your EQ
Developing children are growing in all areas at once. Everything from the environment to hormones can upset, stall, or even prevent growth, so the best thing you can do to raise your children with emotional intelligence is to teach them emotional self-care.
When your child feels good about his days and himself, he will recover faster when things don’t go his way and be resilient when hit with unexpected emotional storms.
Practicing empathy for themselves fosters well-being. Depending on the child, it might be easier to be kind, patient, and understanding with others than with themselves, but it’s just as important.
Remind your child that they always have a choice. Emotions have only the power we give them and we can decide if they serve us or not. They are a place we visit regularly as humans, but we do not have to live there.
By nurturing their self-awareness, teaching them to be aware of others, guiding them in emotional control, and fostering empathy, we can help our children cultivate emotional intelligence. Ultimately, we can raise emotionally intelligent children who are equipped to thrive in the complex world of adulthood.