As much as we want our children to be happy, confident and productive, we tend to concentrate on intellectual milestones rather than emotional growth. Intellectual growth is easier to measure and compare – but research suggests that success in life and work relies more heavily on our emotional intelligence (EQ) rather than our intellectual intelligence (IQ). A 2012 study found that EQ is 80% responsible for success while IQ is only 20% responsible. Emotional intelligence is defined as “the ability to perceive and express, assimilate emotion in thought, understanding the prism of emotions and adjust ourselves and other emotions.”
So how do we nurture emotional intelligence in our children?
Acknowledge the purpose of emotions
Our emotions are a natural instinctive reaction to the world around us – not just happiness, but also fear, anger, frustration and sadness, among others. We need to learn how to acknowledge our genuine feelings, learn how to express them appropriately and find a solution to any problems or obstacles they represent.
Yet as adults, we tend to mask “inappropriate” emotions for the sake of being polite, and we can fall into the trap of coaching our children to do the same – saying things like: “Don’t cry!” instead of acknowledging “You are feeling sad right now.”
A healthier strategy is to respect a child’s emotional responses, even when they seem out of proportion to the triggering incident, which could seem quite trivial from an adult perspective. Children need to know how to identify their own emotions, so they can build a series of strategies to manage these emotions productively. They also need to know that their emotions are valid. When you label the emotion and give it a context (“Are you feeling sad because Grandma has gone home again? We had a good time while Grandma stayed here, didn’t we?”) you are showing your child how to express their feelings, which is the preliminary step towards solving the key issue.
Encourage emotional self-regulation
Learning to regulate and manage your own emotions is an essential element of EQ. When you, as the parent, start out by acknowledging and labeling your child’s emotions – “I understand that you are angry right now…” the next step is to help your child find appropriate ways to express this emotion and manage the issue at hand.
There are two general methods of emotional regulation – either respond to the emotion itself, or the more proactive method of responding to the issue that triggered the emotion. For example, a child who is frightened by a popping balloon could regulate the emotion by avoiding balloons altogether. The child does not want to be frightened again, but this avoidance strategy could extend far beyond the original incident, as the child will be nervous at birthday parties or any other occasion where balloons are on display. Alternately the child could respond to the issue, by expressing their emotion – “That was scary! I don’t like it when they pop” – and from there start rationalizing that balloons don’t always pop and they are fun to play with. By acknowledging and confronting the issue, the child can develop some perspective so the popping of a balloon is something that happens sometimes, and while it can be a shock, it is not necessarily so frightening any more.
Emotions are valid, but not all emotional responses are acceptable or healthy. Self-control is another important element of emotional intelligence and self-regulation, where a child has to learn that just because they feel an emotion, they don’t need to act upon it. All emotions have their own primitive type of energy – sadness will slow you down so you can process the source of the emotion, while anger triggers a flare of aggressive energy that drives you to take action. A child with strong communication skills and well-developed self-control will be able to process these emotions and channel the energy appropriately, while a child who cannot exercise self-control will be sidetracked by this new energy source, unable to concentrate or interact socially while this emotion is in control.
The key to managing emotions is to find healthy productive solutions to the problems that trigger these emotions. Impatient to play with the truck your brother is holding? Ask your brother for a turn, rather than snatching the truck. Missing Grandma? Draw her a picture and send it to her through the mail. Feeling anxious? Relax your shoulders and breathe in deeply through your nose and then out through your mouth