Building your child’s emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence, it’s a term that’s thrown around a lot these days. It has even been identified as being more important than academic intelligence in predicting success in life. So what is emotional intelligence? It can be defined as a person’s ability to identify, evaluate, control and express their emotions, and it’s something that can be learnt!

The good news is that parents are their children’s most important teachers and role models, but that’s also the bad news! Parenting is a big responsibility, and sometimes our own upbringing did not prepare us to adequately equip our children with the skills they need to manage their emotions. However, by following a few simple steps, you can help improve your child’s ability to manage their emotions, and perhaps your own skills along the way too!

Here are four suggestions to help improve your child’s emotional intelligence:

1.Help your children recognise and name their own emotions.

Being able to name emotions is the first important step. Whether it be frustration, anger, disappointment or excitement, being able to name our emotions helps us start to take ownership of that emotion. Ask your child to describe what they are feeling, and where they feel it in their bodies. Do it often enough so they can recognise what it feels like when they are feeling a whole range of emotions. Naming emotions tends to defuse their charge and lessen their power over us. As Daniel Golman, the man who coined the term emotional intelligence wrote, we need to “name it to tame it”. Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them, helping us to better contain and manage even the most difficult emotions.

2.Talk about your own emotions with your children.

The best way to foster emotional intelligence is to demonstrate it yourself. Tell your children how you are feeling, and show them how you deal with your own emotions. If you don’t want your children to act out angrily, you need to consider what you are modelling when you are angry. Do you shout and have a short fuse? Then this will be the biggest lesson about anger that your children will learn. If you can express your feelings healthily to your child, letting them know that you get angry too, but that you can stay in control, then this will help them to learn to manage their anger appropriately too. If this is difficult for you, take a deep breath and count to ten, or consider getting some help and support, you might need to learn a few things about managing your own emotions too.

3.Encourage and allow your children to express their emotions

It can be a real challenge to remain calm in the face of our children’s emotional outbursts, particularly if they are directed at us. We all love it when our kids are happy, calm and loving, but let’s face it, who can be like that all the time? Allow your child to express their full range of emotions, including those hard to hear ones like anger, fear, sadness, worry and loneliness. Disapproving of your child’s fear or anger won’t stop them from having those feelings, and it may force them to repress them. Unfortunately, repressed feelings don’t just disappear, they are still there, trapped and looking for a way out. So start teaching your child that all emotions are normal and acceptable, it’s only how we express them that sometimes is not acceptable. Usually another emotion is hiding under anger, such as hurt, fear, loneliness, or feeling unloved or rejected. If your child is angry, try to think about what might be hiding under that emotion, and ask your child about that feeling:

“You seem upset this morning, I’m wondering if you’re worried about the test you are having at school today?”

Asking a simple question like that can help defuse your child’s anger and allow them to explore and express their deeper emotions. Then keep listening to your child as they talk about their feelings. You may not be able to fix the situation for them, but listening to them will help them feel understood and accepted by you and help them to let go of their feelings and move on.

4.Acknowledge and empathise with your child’s perspective.

Even if you can’t do anything about what has upset your child, empathise. Try to understand the situation from their perspective, put yourself in their shoes. Just being understood helps humans let go of troubling emotions. You may think your child’s emotional reaction is out of proportion to the situation, but remember that we all store up emotions and then let ourselves experience them once we feel safe. This may be why your child suddenly becomes upset or angry when they meet you after school; you are their safe place to let off steam. Recognise the importance of being that safe place for them and try to tolerate your own frustration or anxiety while your child downloads their emotion. Remember, they are still learning about managing their emotions, give them time and space to do this.

When we help equip our children with the tools they need to express their emotions appropriately, and give them a safe place to do this, they will better understand and manage their emotions as they get older. They are less likely to feel swamped by their feelings or repress them, and those skills of emotional intelligence may well set them up for success later in life.

by Tina Gratton

Primary School Psychologist