What is emotional intelligence?
Your emotional IQ is your ability to handle your own feelings and be aware and respectful of those of other people.
If your child has a high emotional IQ, he’ll be better able to cope with his feelings, calm himself down, and understand and relate well to adults and other kids, according to psychologist John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His research shows that a child with a high “EIQ” is more likely to form strong friendships and succeed in school than others. He’s also better equipped to control negative impulses, even when things aren’t going his way. Experts now believe that emotional skills can be taught at an early age, when children are more flexible in their inner growth.
How can I teach emotional intelligence?
Use the moments when your children are at their most emotional as opportunities for this sort of teaching and for developing your bond with them. In their book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Gottman and coauthor Joan DeClaire encourage parents to use “emotion coaching” to teach children how to analyze their feelings and handle conflict, particularly when they’re angry, sad, or frustrated. Here are the five steps they recommend.
- Try to be aware of your child’s emotions. Kids don’t always tell you what’s going on in their lives. If your child seems sad or upset for no obvious reason, it’s wise to look at the big picture and think about what might be troubling him. Has he moved to a new school? Did you and your spouse have a bitter argument within earshot of the child? Young children often give clues to what they’re thinking during fantasy play. Gottman recounts that his daughter said to him while playing with her doll, “Barbie is really scared when you get mad.” He says that in the important conversation that followed, “I assured Barbie (and my daughter) that I didn’t mean to scare her and that just because I get angry, that doesn’t mean I don’t love her.” A child’s fearful reaction may also be a clue that you sound too loud, scary, and unpredictable, giving you the opportunity to apologize for not handling your anger better and assuring her that you’ll try to talk more softly and control your anger better in the future.
- Look at negative emotions as opportunities for intimacy and teaching. You can use all your child’s feelings, negative as well as positive, in teaching him how to deal constructively with his emotions. Some parents, hoping to help their children avoid suffering, will make dismissive comments (“That guinea pig was getting old anyway”). What the child may learn, though, is that his feelings aren’t seen as important. Rather than minimizing your child’s feelings, try to listen and sympathize, even if it makes you anxious or uncomfortable (“It’s hard when a pet dies, isn’t it?”).
- Listen with empathy. Listen carefully to your child, then mirror back to him what he has said, naming the emotions for him. Gottman gives the example of a boy who’s dejected because his next-door neighbors have refused to play with him. If his father responds by telling him to be a big kid and just forget about it, his son will most likely think that he is a big baby and deserves not to have any friends. It would be better, Gottman says, for the father to open the discussion by saying simply, “I bet that hurt your feelings.” His son will feel relieved that his father understands what he is feeling and doesn’t think the emotions are out of place. It also gives him an opportunity to talk about the situation and think about what he might do to change things.
Listening to your child doesn’t mean solving the problem for him, dismissing it, or joking him out of a bad mood. Use examples from your own life to show him you understand what he’s said (“I used to feel bad when my neighbor wanted to play with the big kids instead of me.”) This tells the child that he is not alone in feeling the sting of rejection, and that those feelings can be dealt with.
Help your child find words to express his emotions. Children often have trouble describing what they feel. You can help your child develop an emotional vocabulary by giving him labels for his feelings. If he’s mad, you might say, “You feel angry about that, don’t you?” or at other times, “That must have been a disappointment,” or “Did that make you feel shy?” You can also let him know that it’s natural to have conflicting emotions about something — for instance, he may be both excited and scared during his first week at school.
- Set limits while you teach problem-solving. Part of helping your child to solve problems is establishing clear limits on his behavior, then guiding him toward a solution. For example, you can say, “I know you’re angry at your little sister, but you can’t hit her. What could you do instead?” Give him a set of options to choose from. Anger management specialist Lynne Namka advises telling your child to first check his tummy, jaw, and fists to see if they’re tight, breathe deeply “to blow the mad out,” and to feel good about getting his control. Then, Namka says, help your child use a strong voice to talk his anger out, beginning with something like, “I feel mad when you _____________.” Children should know that it’s okay to be angry, as long as they don’t hurt other people for that reason.
Your child might also want to talk to you about why he’s angry, draw pictures about what makes him angry, or act out the story of his “mads” with toys.
Other tips for promoting EIQ:
- Use plenty of praise to promote behaviors you’d like to see more often.
- Try to respect your child’s choices, unless they would endanger safety or health. Honor small requests that you may not agree with; this will help your child make decisions on his own.
- Read books together. Many parents stop reading to their children once they learn to read on their own. But the stories your child is reading give you more to talk about, and you can draw on them to bring home emotional teaching.
- Encourage your child to play sports or get involved in after-school activities. Both of these help them relate to others.
What should I avoid when teaching emotional intelligence?
- Avoid engaging in behavior you don’t want your child to imitate. It’s important not be verbally harsh when you’re angry. Try saying, “It upsets me when you do X,” rather than “You drive me crazy” or “How can you be so dumb?” That way, your child understands that the problem is his behavior, not who he is. Be careful to avoid mean or sarcastic remarks and excessive criticism, which chip away at a child’s self-confidence.
- At this stage, children often show their independence by being disrespectful and sassy. Don’t take the remarks personally, but do set limits and enforce them, and always tell your kids when they hurt your feelings.
- Avoid siding with “the enemy.” When teachers or other authority figures are insensitive, children often seek sympathy from their parents. Be sure to find out what happened before you make judgments.
Are there times when I shouldn’t be an emotion coach?
Yes. Here are some of those times:
- When you don’t have time. Children listen better when you’re not under time pressure, in danger of constant interruption, or taking calls on a cell phone. Try to engage your kids while doing chores such as washing dishes, cooking, or doing the laundry.
- When other people are close enough to hear your conversation. It’s hard to coach a misbehaving child in front of relatives, friends, or a teacher. Talking in front of a sibling should be avoided, since focusing on one child’s feelings may upset the other. Tell your child you plan to discuss the issue at another time, then make sure to follow up.
- When you’re too upset or tired to listen. Take a break to revitalize yourself.
- When you think your child is being manipulative. If he is whining and crying to get his way, it’s probably not the best time for coaching. Try to postpone talking until your child is calm and can listen without distractions.
How else can I develop my child’s EIQ?
Enroll your child in a conflict-resolution class for kids. Such courses teach children to work through conflicts with other people in a nonviolent manner. In the wake of recent school shootings, many schools have adopted “emotional literacy” classes as part of their curriculum. Contact your local school superintendent or counselor’s office to see what’s available.
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Bantam Books, 2006.
The Web site http://www.freespirit.com, hosted by Free Spirit Publishing, a publisher of nonfiction self-help resources for kids, teachers, and parents. The site includes questions by kids and answers by experts about issues such as privacy, teasing, and dealing with bullies.
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman, Simon & Schuster, 1998
Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Bantam Books, 1996
Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, T. Berry Brazelton, Da Capo Press. 2002.