Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children

by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to know one’s own inner world and be fully comfortable with it. It is also the ability to relate empathically to the inner world of other people. Emotional Intelligence (henceforth referred to as “E.Q.”) is a set of skills that leads to greater mental health, better academic and professional functioning, excellent social functioning, better physical health and more personal happiness. It is something that we’d like our children to have lots of.

How Do Children Acquire Emotional Intelligence?

As with other traits, E.Q. develops as a result of both hereditary and environmental factors. Some children are born with a head start – they are “emotionally gifted” from infancy. They are naturally tuned into their own emotions and the feelings of others. Other children are born with deficits or delays in this area – they seem uninterested in the world of people and feelings from their earliest days. Certain conditions such as social perception handicaps, oppositional defiant disorder, ADHD, and childhood depression, may cause a child to lag behind in the E.Q. skill set.

Nonetheless, an emotionally stimulating environment, like an intellectually stimulating environment, will help each child to reach his or her unique potential. It is up to parents and teachers to provide all children with the best emotional education possible. Although “emotional enrichment” may be helpful for those children with deficits, each and every child needs an adequate emotional curriculum.

What Is the Curriculum for Fostering Emotional Intelligence?

The more feeling-words. used by parents and educators, the more sensitive a child becomes to his inner reality. Most of us tend to use few emotion words in our dealings with children, and when we do, we often use the same few tired ones over and over. It is important that we move beyond “mad,” “sad,” “glad,” and “scared.” Shades of feeling are most helpful and can be used when describing our own feelings or the child’s feelings. Words like irritated, annoyed, frustrated, anxious, worried, terrified, alarmed, disappointed, hurt, insulted, embarrassed, uncomfortable, unsure, curious, interested, hopeful, concerned, shocked, elated, excited, enthusiastic, let down, abandoned, deserted, mellow, calm, peaceful, relaxed, bored, withdrawn, furious, enraged, frightened, panicked, and proud can be used DAILY to help provide an emotional education in the home or classroom. These are the regular feelings that children and their parents have in facing life, stimulated by everyday experiences, dreams and even novels. Identifying a youngster’s emotional reaction and feeding it back to him, helps him to develop high E.Q. His familiarity with the world of feelings allows him to connect accurately and sensitively with others. This helps him veer away from hurting other people’s feelings with words and further, permits him to do great kindness in his interpersonal transactions.

What Is Emotional Coaching?

Emotional coaching is the act of naming and accepting of an emotion. It is the acceptance of a feeling that “cures” or releases the feeling. Telling a child not to feel something, only causes the feelings to go “underground,” deeper into the subconscious where it can cause physical or mental harm. Parents and teachers must face and heal any fear they have of emotions in order to be able to accept a child’s feelings. Indeed, many adults are overwhelmed by a child’s loneliness, hurt, panic or rage. When adults themselves are panicked, their responses cannot be helpful. It may help to remember the maxim: feelings are just feelings; all feelings are acceptable but not all behaviour is acceptable. The acceptance of a feeling is a necessary prerequisite to modifying it. For instance, in helping a child to not feel so angry, it is first necessary to acknowledge and accept that he IS angry. Instructions on how to deal with that anger would follow.

Emotional coaching should always be used before any behavioral guidance is provided, because it prepares the child to receive information from the adult. Let’s say, for example, that a child is screaming and crying because he lost his pencil. The adult wants to teach the child that this is not a catastrophic event and does not call for such an uproar. Before delivering this information, the adult should provide emotional coaching. Simply telling the child, “Calm down. It’s not the end of the world,” can cause the child to cry even louder. Telling a feeling to go away only makes it dig its heals in deeper. Rather, the parent should begin his intervention with EMPATHICALLY naming the child’s feelings. Only when the child is calm, does the adult continue with his “lesson.” Thus the parent might be saying, “You’re so upset that you lost your pencil! You really want that pencil right now and it’s very frustrating that you can’t find it! This is aggravating isn’t it?” There should always be a “period” after a statement of feelings. Never use the word “but” which acts like a giant eraser to whatever preceded it. Saying, “I know you’re afraid of the water, but you have to go in” essentially translates to “I know you’re afraid, but I don’t care.” This will not be helpful. Instead, simply say, “I know you’re afraid. It’s hard for you to have to go in. The lesson starts soon, so let’s get ready.” In this way, both the reality of the child’s feelings and the reality of the situation are acknowledged.

Generally, the validation of the child’s emotional experience, causes the child to relax. ONLY when the child is restored to relative stability, should the parent continue, “If we don’t find that pencil immediately, we’ll use another one for now and continue to look later. We’ll survive.” Emotional coaching does not guarantee that a child will be happy. In fact, we do not want to demand happiness. Increased inner calm arrives eventually as we continue to help a child regulate his own distress by consistently accepting and naming his feelings throughout childhood. Emotional coaching is one of the tools that parents can use to help their children’s development.