Emotional Intelligence in Kids
As a parent, you make sure your kids are safe, well fed, go to school and have more opportunities than you ever had at their age. But, there’s another part of parenting that’s perhaps the most challenging – helping them learn about the “human heart.” In this case, it’s not about the physical anatomy, but the emotional anatomy.
At their core, emotions communicate information about what it is we’re needing or wanting in a given moment, and even who we are as a person. When we come into this world, we have the full range of emotions already programmed. Unfortunately, we’re not given a playbook on how to handle them. And if we’re honest, even as adults we could really use that book sometimes. For us, it’s not too late to learn how to develop emotional intelligence. And whether it’s our own responses, or our kids’, if we learn how to listen to and express our emotions in skillful ways, they’ll help us navigate life much more successfully.
That can be a scary prospect for some people. Parents want their children to be happy and think it’s not good for them to deal with distressing emotions. Other times, parents may have unconscious stereotypes about emotions, such as “boys are tough and don’t cry” or “girls don’t get angry.”
So how do we find a balance between trying to shelter kids from the heartaches of life and leaving them to “tough it out?” By putting your coaching hat on, and creating your own playbook.
Be a Mirror
Emotions serve a purpose, but kids don’t know what to do with them. And depending on their age, may not even be able to understand what it is they’re feeling. When you see a young child overwhelmed with emotion, it can be a very intense moment. It’s almost like a sensory overload. Even older children may be prone to throw something, for example, and not know quite why. As a coach, you can help children recognize emotions as “information” rather than something to be ignored.
Look for your child’s non-verbal cues that she or he is frustrated, sad, scared, happy, etc. See what your child is experiencing, and then mirror that back by saying something like, “I see you’re angry your sister took your toy,” or “I hear you say you’re disappointed you can’t stay at the park longer,” or “You just threw your toy, you must be angry.”
This helps validate the child’s experience and acknowledge that it’s okay to have that emotion. It also helps label the emotion and gives them a name for what they’re feeling. Just remember, this works better on a small scale. If your child is in the middle of a tantrum, waiting until things calm down can help you both be more successful.
When you pay attention, you can also start to notice emotions as they’re building up. When that happens saying something like, “I see you’re tensing up. You’re getting angry, aren’t you?” can help demonstrate that you see what’s going on and it even helps with the parent-child bond. It shows that you see and understand what’s going on with them.
Emotions don’t last very long. When your child is experiencing an emotion, allow him or her to just experience it. Sit quietly by him or her, hold hands, allow for space to talk about what’s going on. Putting words to emotional experiences allows feelings to dissipate. And when he or she does finally talk, offer empathy. “That does sound really tough,” for example, or “I’ve felt that same way, too” can go a long way to helping kids understand that what they’re feeling is normal and they’re not alone.
That said, it’s still important to maintain limits. Actions like hitting, biting, yelling or name calling are never acceptable.
When parents are uncomfortable with their own emotions there can be a tendency to dismiss feelings – “don’t cry,” “get over it” – or they try to problem solve right away to make the child happy again. But when that happens, it can lead kids to think it’s not acceptable to show or experience emotion. Kids can feel pressure to be cheerful or happy. Parents can even inadvertently punish kids for having certain emotions. When that happens, kids can shutdown emotionally and over time that’s when they might turn to things like food, drinking or drugs to be a salve.
Emotions don’t go away, so they can’t just be dismissed. Which leads to the last step.
Be a Coach
While it can be tempting to try and resolve the situation, give them space to come up with their own ideas. Instead of saying, “This is what I think you should do,” try, “That sounds challenging. What do you think you’re going to do, say, etc.?” When parents offer unwanted advice, kids are less eager to hear it and less open to sharing. Letting kids have the opportunity to figure out the situation also helps build confidence.
At each age there will be different issues that come up. Little kids it’s about learning limits, while middle school may be more about navigating relationships, and for teenagers it can be learning to experience independence.
Helping kids develop skills to manage all of their emotions also helps develop confidence and trust in themselves and your relationship. Teenagers sometimes don’t trust their parents and stop talking. When that happens, emotions can get bottled up but will still come out in other ways, like fighting, shutting down or acting out.
It’s been said many times before, but kids these days really do have a lot to navigate – academic pressure, sports competition, relationships, peer pressure – and the magnification of social media can make it that much worse. When kids learn they can express their emotions and learn to handle them in positive ways, they will have the skills to keep their heart open. They will then often grow to become more loving, empathetic and able to engage with those around them in positive ways.