Emotional intelligence is a term that is cropping up more and more. It refers to an individual's ability to recognize emotions. It includes their own emotions as well as those of others. It also means that an individual is able to label feelings appropriately. Emotionally intelligent people are able to use the information they gather to guide both thinking and behavior. This allows them to manage/adjust emotions in order to achieve their goals. Articles such as this one highlight the many advantages afforded to those who possess emotional intelligence. So, just how does one learn emotional intelligence?
The answer is that we most often learn from our primary caregivers.
Parents and other primary caregivers hold the key to the development of emotional intelligence in children.
You already know that the brains of children are constantly developing. This means, that before the age of around 26, an individual's brain is one big work in progress and parents/primary caregivers such as teachers are the closest thing a child has to sculptors for their brain. Through interactions with and observations of their parents & teachers, children gather information that change their brain structures and make a lasting impact on how they interact with the world around them.
As a child and family therapist, most of my work with children is spent helping them to identify their feelings and teaching them how to manage their feelings in ways that are productive to their goals in life. I often work with parents to help enhance and translate the work done in a 60 minute therapy session to their real life as they are encountering the very challenges that brought me into the picture.
I have found that there are two general principles that help to really foster emotional intelligence in children.
Two Ways to Help Foster Emotional Intelligence in Your Child:
Most parents are really good at this without really realizing it. I love bringing it to light because parenting is hard and all parents who are working hard to give their children the best deserve to be praised! Nevertheless, the foundation for all emotional intelligence as well as a generally healthy life is the relationship that the child has with the caregiver. A loving relationship in which the child feels understood, safe, heard, and cared for sets the basis for budding emotional intelligence. Chances are that if you're reading this you are doing an amazing job at this already!
2. Help Your Child Identify His/Her Feelings-
Emotional upset and volatility are what I like to call teachable moments. Teachable moments are those critical moments when the skills that are essential to the child achieving their goals can be acquired and reinforced in the moment. This solidifies learning and helps to create those brain pathways that will eventually lead to emotionally intelligent behavior.
When a child is having a difficult time it can be stressful for parents and caregivers. Parents have shared with me that a shift in their perspective when their child is having a difficult time directly contributes to their ability to help in the moment. The most helpful things that children and parents have found in moments of emotional upset or volatility are engrained in phrases that help to foster emotional intelligence by assisting the child to name the feeling they are having. Saying things like "It seems like you might be frustrated" and validating said feeling like "It is normal to feel frustrated when X happens" can make a world of a difference to a child who is experiencing jumbled up emotions.
Also, this lets the child know that it is okay to feel their emotions, that it is important to put a label on them, and that they are being heard and validated.This approach also helps the child identify their emotions more quickly the next time they happen. As a result, the impact will be shorter, and the amount of emotional upset and volatility they feel will be less.
Keep in mind, that practice makes better when it comes to gaining control of our emotions. So, don't expect huge change instead, recognize and celebrate the small changes that cue you in to your child's progress!
Pinnacle Co-Founder Dahyana P. Schlosser, M.Ed. is a Child and Family Therapist and tireless advocate for Children's Mental Health. Her passion for helping others serves at the core of her perspective on problems and innovative solutions.