How would you define happy? And how would you define sad or anxious? We all know what emotions are, until we are asked to define them in ways our kids can understand. Emotions are complex things. Yet helping our kids become emotionally intelligent requires us to help them learn to understand different emotions so that they can be better able to deal with those emotions in a socially acceptable manner.
We now know that emotions drive behavior, and that tears, tummy aches or headaches, or resistance to school may hide difficult-to-express feelings such as anxiety. Many researchers and psychologists now agree that when we teach kids about emotions from the earliest age, we give them important tools that help them navigate emotions. Studies by specialists like John Gottman, PhD, have shown that kids thrive when they are taught to identify their emotions and to treat those emotions as normal. Put differently, when we teach our kids that emotions are normal, we make it easier for them to express emotions and reduce instances of meltdowns or other “inappropriate” ways of expressing emotions.
After years of expecting kids to “toughen up”, there is now indisputable proof that a child’s emotional state has a great impact on his social and psychological state. James Gross, PhD, one of the leading researchers on emotion regulation, believes that one can learn to regulate his or her emotions. His studies have shown that we can learn to alter the emotions we experience, when they are experienced and how they are experienced. Many other researchers agree that increasing children’s awareness of emotions can help them learn to express those emotions without turning to meltdowns or aggressiveness.
Here are a few tips to help foster your child’s emotional intelligence:
1. Embrace even the darkest emotions.
Emotions are not easy to define, especially for kids. A kid might know he’s feeling “something” but he won’t necessarily know what that “something” means. In other words, our kids cannot learn to identify their emotions if they don’t know what those emotions are.
Embracing emotions means helping your child understand that emotions are a normal part of life. It means using age-appropriate resources to talk to kid about emotions. It means taking advantage of everyday situations to help your kids better understand and name their emotions. Ask them to tell you about their happiest moment during that day. Ask them what made them sad.
But remember that becoming our children’s emotion coach begins by learning how to manage our own emotions first. When we embrace our emotions and talk to our kids about them, we show them how to manage their own emotions.
2. Help your child understand how emotions change the body.
We feel emotions in certain parts of our body. That’s why your kid will talk about a tummy ache, a headache or even throw up when faced with an anxiety-inducing situation. A relatively recent study found that we all experience the same bodily sensations in response to our emotions. Helping your child become more aware of how emotions manifest in her body — does she get sweaty palms, does her heart beat faster? Does she get butterflies in her tummy? Teaching your child to be aware of what triggers her emotions can make it easier to deal with difficult emotions before they get out of control.
3. Talk about where emotions come from.
Emotions are our way of reacting to external stimuli. Your child may be more anxious before participating in certain activities, or she may get a tummy ache always before her swimming lesson.
We are all born with a few emotions but we learn other secondary emotions from our environment. How we react to our kids emotions has an impact on their emotional intelligence. A child who is teased for displaying a certain emotion, say anger, may develop a secondary emotion such as shame every time she gets angry.
Talking about what triggers emotions is also important because it helps you show your child that you are there and that you can help her find a solution. When we help our kids understand what drives their emotions, we increase their awareness of what triggers their emotions and makes it easier for them to deal with emotion-provoking situations.
4. Give your child the tools to express emotions.
Providing your child with a safe environment to express emotions teaches him how to deal with those emotions by himself. There are multiple resources and techniques that provide practical tips to help children deal with strong emotions such as such anger and anxiety in socially acceptable ways.
The thing to remember with developing our kids’ emotional intelligence is that when we create a safe environment in which they can express their emotions, we give them the tools they need to manage those emotions by themselves.