My two boys are as best of friends as siblings can be. And that involves fights over toys and place on mama’s lap and even who gets to go for a bath first. But in all the chaos, something beautiful happened last week. They were playing outside when my 3-year-old had a nasty fall. As I tended to him, I didn’t notice my older son slipping away quietly. Until he came back with his brother’s favourite fire engine toy truck and gave it to him lovingly, saying “Mama, he loves this toy, I think it’ll make him feel better”. Right there I knew, my 5-year-old was displaying emotional intelligence. I have been watching in quiet pride, the many ways he’s been showing empathy, using words to express his feelings and showing curiosity about what others are feeling. All good signs of emotional development.
As parents, we strive hard to set our children up for success. While there is plenty of focus and effort in ensuring children build on their physical and cognitive skills, emotional development may not share the same privilege. Yet, it is now becoming increasingly evident that Emotional Intelligence or EQ as it is sometimes called, is a key life skill that bears a substantial impact on a person’s success and adjustment in life.
What really makes an Emotionally Intelligent Child? One who can recognize and label their feelings or a child who can handle all feelings and emotions appropriately or one who doesn’t experience what we commonly label as negative emotions? Emotional Intelligence can be best described as having the necessary skills to manage and respond to emotions appropriately. To put it in simpler terms, it is being able to recognize emotions in oneself and people around you and knowing how to best respond to them.
Emotions are a core part of our development. Emotions are present at birth, with a baby’s social smile being one of the earliest signs. Research suggests that the first five years of life are crucial to emotional development, as children experience rapid growth and development in these years.
Good Emotional Intelligence can mean:
It is easy to see how a higher EQ in childhood can have a positive impact on adjustment and mean higher success in life, later on as well. Being able to keep calm in the midst of anger or staying hopeful while being bogged down by disappointments can only take you further in life.
You will probably read about this technique in every book on Emotional Intelligence because it truly is a powerful tool for emotional growth. Children experience a wide ride of emotions, without completely understanding what exactly they are feeling. As parents, we must guide them to recognize their feelings. When your child is lashing out because he cannot fix his puzzle, respond with “Oh, that is frustrating Sweetie”. When they are squealing out of pure joy on seeing their favorite ice cream, label the feeling for them “ You’re quite excited, aren’t you?”. Helping children label their emotions help them manage and communicate them better. The next time they feel disappointed, they can express their feeling by saying they are disappointed in place of expressing them through some behaviour.
2.Be their role model:
Like a lot of the skills our children learn, they also learn how to handle emotions from watching us. It is important we express and manage our emotions the best way we can. How we react when we face disappointments, frustrations and stress teach them what to do when they find themselves in similar situations. Taking a quick walk or playing some calming music when we feel challenged teaches our children a better way of dealing with those emotions, than if we yelled at everyone in sight and lashed out. We are human though, and our emotions can get the better of us. That’s when we apologize and show them how to make it right. And when they are wrong, do not force an apology, but model it for them.
3.Break the cycle:
Looking back at our own childhood, we might recognize that emotional growth may not always have been given the right importance. The most typical responses to any show of emotions, were to quickly suppress them. “ Boys don’t cry” “there’s no need to get angry over this” “ why are you so upset over nothing”, “ok, now get done with it”. Yet, unintentionally we might carry on these responses in reacting to our children. (Ever felt like you were turning into your mother?) While our parents did what they knew best, we now have the awareness that we can do differently. So when you catch yourself asking your children to suppress their emotions or make them feel guilty over what they are feeling, turn that around and help them express and manage those emotions in a healthy manner.
4.All emotions are acceptable:
When we talk of Emotionally Intelligence, we need to realize that all emotions are acceptable and needed. We cannot stop a child from feeling what they are feeling. It is a natural reaction to a situation. Experiencing emotions such as anger, jealousy, sadness is just as natural as experiencing happiness, joy or excitement. As parents, we are sometimes quite inclined to stop our children from expressing or experiencing certain emotions such as jealousy or being selfish. We might insist they share their toys or stop throwing a fit over not having toys their friends have, but this will only teach them to suppress their emotions. Letting them know that all emotions are acceptable and teaching them how to handle them is what we need to focus on.
5.Empathy is a game-changer:
Empathizing with your child goes a long way in building their child’s emotional skills. It is a great way to build trust, it’s good for their mental health and most of all teaches them to empathize with people around them. It’s easier to understand your child when they are happy and excited, but empathizing with them when they are angry and in the midst of a meltdown may not be as easy, yet it is necessary. Empathizing with your child's feelings doesn’t mean you agree with or are supporting their actions. It means being there for your child even when you don’t agree with their feelings or behaviour. I see you, I understand you and I’m here for you. Don’t dismiss or minimize their feelings. Yes, you don’t see why they can’t eat in the green bowl instead of the red, but the red bowl is a big deal in their small world. “ You really like that bowl and wish you could eat every meal in it huh, I too like having coffee only in my brown coffee mug”. Validating their feelings makes them feel heard and seen. Empathy takes practice, so fake it till you make it and you’ll see what wonders it can do.
These are just some ways of encouraging emotional development and growth. Managing emotions constructively and resolving conflicts appropriately can help your child make friends, adjust better across environments and encourage good mental health. There are plenty of books available that can guide you with techniques and everyday tips to raise an emotionally intelligent child, with books by Daniel Goleman and John Gottman that are quite popular. Equally helpful are many books written for children that help them understand and manage emotions. Start with what you can and it’ll soon become a way of life. Let’s strive to raise Emotionally Intelligent children prepared to take on the world.