Developing emotional intelligence in children

15 October 2018

Developing emotional intelligence in children

  • Positive Parenting
by Michael Grose

Ever told a child to calm down only to see their emotions escalate instead? Kids, like adults, need to recognise their feelings before they can regulate their emotional state, and that’s not easy. Emotional recognition is a complex process that takes practice. Even when we are good at it we don’t always get it right. Learning to recognise your feelings is a continuous process that’s best started when young, before the ups and downs of adolescence show up.

When your child fusses and fumes about some wrong-doing or hurt they’ve experienced, clear your mind and hear them out. Avoid trying to fix the situation; just show them compassion and understanding. There is no better feeling then being understood.

Recently while riding on a tram I overheard a conversation between two girls in their late teens. Referring to an exam she was about to take, one girl simply said, “I feel crap!” She repeated this on a number of occasions with no variation on vocabulary.

Her friend on the other hand said, “I was so anxious when I got up this morning, I felt sick! I went for a walk and felt better. My little brother kept bugging me about how this was my last exam and I’d better not stuff it up. That just made me feel even more nervous, he was soooo annoying. I’m not feeling too bad now…just a little worried, but also kind of excited. This is going to be my last exam! Whoa!”

One girl gave a running commentary on her moods that morning, including their causes and the subtle shifts. The other girl couldn’t get past a vague response to sum up her emotional state. The second girl is clearly better equipped to manage her moods than the first, if indeed what I heard is a true representation of their emotional intelligence.

And what a head-start she’s been given by the parents and teachers who helped her build her emotional smarts. They’ve given her the tools for building successful relationships, for maximising her earning potential (I kid you not) and behaving like a champ, not a chump when competing in sports or any other high performance activities. There’s no doubt that emotions matter.

So where do we start exploring this unfamiliar emotional landscape, this new frontier of parenting?

Here are five tips to help you explore this brave new world.

Listen without judgment

When your child fusses and fumes about some wrong-doing or hurt they’ve experienced, clear your mind and hear them out. Avoid trying to fix the situation; just show them compassion and understanding. There is no better feeling then being understood.

Contain, rather than manage, their feelings

Children’s behaviour is often tangled up in their upsets and disappointments. It can be hard to separate their actions from their feelings. Sometimes as a loving, caring adult, you just have to absorb their frustrations, and give them the time and space to vent and soothe their own souls. We don’t have to process their emotions for them.

Know that emotions can be pleasant and unpleasant

We often place value judgements on emotions by portraying some emotions as good or positive (happy, motivated, energised) while some are bad or negative (sad, worried, sullen). Avoid passing judgements like these. Recognise that emotions span a whole range of pleasant and unpleasant feelings, and that all emotions are acceptable. But certain behaviours (such as hurting someone when you are angry) are unacceptable.

Build a vocabulary around emotions

Just as feelings have words, there are names and terms for emotionally intelligent parenting methods. For instance, I-messages* are a type of communication used by parents and adults who take an emotions-first approach.
 It’s worth taking the time to understand some of these concepts and terms and letting them inform your parenting approach.

Help your kids recognise, then regulate emotions

Emotional intelligence is best learned when it becomes part of your family’s culture, or way of doing things. When it becomes part of your family’s cultural DNA then emotional intelligence will be passed down from generation to generation. You’ll know it’s had generational impact when your children credit you as the person who taught them the skills of emotional intelligence. How cool is that?!

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Michael Grose

Michael Grose, founder of Parenting Ideas, is one of Australia’s leading parenting educators. He’s the author of 10 books for parents including Thriving! and the best-selling Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It, and his latest release Spoonfed Generation: How to raise independent children.