We now know that emotions are sensations within the body that enable us to deal with the different emotion-provoking situations that we encounter: Fear helps us to tread more carefully or to avoid certain situations, anxiety draws attention to what needs to be done and can make you work harder to pass that interview or exam, and anger can provide self-insight.
Emotions have an amazing power to shape lives, and they largely affect your child’s behavior and how he relates to his environment. Science says that children who have learned to express their emotions appropriately find it easier to make and keep friends. An emotionally intelligent child is also more likely to deal effectively with difficult emotion-provoking situations. If your child has a difficult time managing big emotions such as anger and anxiety, he is also likely to display behavior such as frequent and intense tantrums or even aggressive behavior. We now know that the inability to effectively manage one’s big emotions is often mistaken for inappropriate behavior.
Children with strong emotional intelligence skills are also more school-ready, meaning that they display skills such as focus and concentration and an ability to resist distractions. A child who has developed emotional intelligence is also more likely to have lower levels of impulsivity, listen to and follow instructions; or ask for help when he is unsure of what is expected of him.
All signs point to the increasing importance of nurturing your child’s emotional intelligence. Although it is now clear that emotional intelligence is relevant for kids’ social, academic, and psychological wellbeing, many parents still struggle with how they can raise emotionally intelligent kids or how they can improve emotional intelligence in their children.
Here are four things you should know about emotions to start developing your child’s emotional intelligence from today.
4 things that can help parents improve emotional intelligence in their children
1) There are primary and secondary emotions
Emotions can generally be divided into primary and secondary emotions. While there are several primary emotions, the most common ones are fear, happiness, sadness and anger. Primary emotions are usually strong emotions that are clearly visible on your child’s face or can be easily identified through his reactions (shaking, violent behavior, raised voice, crying, etc).
Primary emotions are the most common emotions because they are easily elicited and are direct reactions to specific situations. They help us react to common situations most people encounter (death in a family, being yelled at, monster fears, death of a pet, etc.).
Secondary emotions are emotions your child learns from the people with whom he spends the most time (primarily family or daycare professionals, teachers, etc). They are emotions he develops based on how those around him react to how he expresses his primary emotions.
For example, if you ridicule your child because he fears the family dog, he could start to feel shame every time he expresses fear. If your child fears responding in class because he feels he will be looked down upon, secondary emotions such as guilt, resentment and frustration could arise every time he is unable to respond appropriately to a question or instruction.
How this information can help you build emotional intelligence in your child
As a parent, being aware of how you react to your child’s primary emotions is a decisive factor in the development of his emotional intelligence. If you hug your child when he is sad, he learns to associate sadness (negative) with hugs (positive) and this can help him adopt an appropriate way to deal with his sadness. In other words, every time your child feels sad, he will know that asking for a hug will make him feel better. On the contrary, yelling at him every time he shows his fears could lead to the development of other emotions such as worry, guilt and shame and prevent him from adopting appropriate approaches to deal with difficult emotions.
2) On average, emotions last for 90 seconds!
In her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientistʼs Personal Journey, Dr Jill Bolte Taylor says that clinically, all emotions last 90 seconds on average. Now, if you have kids, I’m sure you’re shaking your head and saying, “No way, my kids’ emotions last way longer than one minute and a half”, and you’re absolutely right: the feelings generated by strong emotions persist indefinitely. But here’s the thing: the issue is not really about how long emotions last but about how you child reacts to them within a 90-second window after the trigger. In other words, that 90-second window determines whether she will go into a more frenzied emotional state or whether she will manage to calm down.
How to strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence
Knowing about the 90-second rule is important but it is not what really matters in raising emotionally intelligent kids. What does is knowing that the faster you intervene when your child is in an emotion-provoking situation or when she is struggling to manage big emotions, the more you increase her chances of finding calm.
The problem is, not all interventions work. Trying to reason with a child who is in the midst of a tantrum will only stress you both out. But a hug or even a simple touch can help – it shows your child that you are there.
Ultimately, raising an emotionally intelligent child is about progressively providing her with tools to help her react appropriately to emotional triggers, by herself, as quickly as possible.
3) We all experience the same primary emotions
Everyone, everywhere, experiences the same primary emotions. Even those parents who seem to have “perfect kids all the time” must deal with their children’s emotional reactions from time to time.
How this information can help you develop your child’s emotional intelligence
It is normal to feel discouraged and helpless when you seem unable to manage your child’s tantrums and other emotion-driven behavior, but what you need to remember is that all children experience big emotions.
Helping your child identify different emotions is an important step in raising his emotional intelligence. The good news is that it is relatively easy to do so, because emotions are everywhere – in his favorite TV show, in his books, and even in the people around him.
Talking about your own emotions is also an easy way to help him learn that emotions are normal and that everyone experiences them. For example, you can say something like “I was anxious today because I had an important interview”.
That said, speaking about what you did to manage your anxiety (I was really anxious about my interview today so I listened to my favorite songs to calm down) is also important because it helps show your child that emotions are not only normal, they are also manageable.
It is much easier to develop your child’s emotional intelligence when he has learned to identify his emotions and what triggers them, and when he has identified several tools he can use to cope with difficult situations. The Emotions Kit proposes numerous age-appropriate resources to teach young children to identify different emotions in themselves and others, learn to better identify their triggers, and reflect on appropriate ways in which they can deal with big emotions.
4) Validating emotions helps free children from negative emotions
Emotional invalidation is quite common practice. It implies showing your child that her experiences are not important and that her feelings do not matter. Emotional invalidation involves minimizing your child’s emotions. Common ways in which we invalidate our kids’ emotions include saying things such as:
- Stop crying like a baby
- Boys don’t cry
- Big boys/girls don’t cry
- I’ll give you something to cry about
- Stop being dramatic
- That didn’t hurt
- You’re too emotional
Refusing to validate your child’s emotions is dangerous because it makes her believe that suppressing them is normal. There is also scientific evidence that emotional invalidation in childhood can lead to psychological distress in adulthood. For instance, one study that analyzed 127 participants found that parental styles that included psychological abuse, inappropriate punishments, minimization or the downplaying of children’s emotions were likely to lead to severe emotional inhibition in adulthood (uncertainty about one’s feelings and emotions, feelings of worthless, an inability to deal with one’s emotions, etc.)
How validating your child’s emotions can help strengthen her emotional intelligence
Your failure to understand your child’s emotions does not make them any less valid. It is important for her to know that all emotions are valid. An easy way to validate her emotions is to find the words to show her that you understand how she is feeling:
- “I know you’re upset…
- Let’s talk about it…
- Tell me how I can help
- What can you do (we do) to make you feel better?
- I can see you’re sad because you didn’t get…
- I’d be sad too if….”
The thing to remember is that the more you validate your child’s emotions and treat them as normal, the higher the chances of fostering her emotional intelligence.
An earlier version of this piece was published on ParentMap