We now know that children’s ability to manage their emotions affects their behavior and their learning outcomes. We also know that environments in which they feel safe to express their emotions and to build their emotional intelligence help promote greater academic, social and psychological outcomes.
All the available research on the development of children’s emotional intelligence suggests that failing to take your child’s emotions into account can have disastrous consequences on her well-being, and this negative impact can go well beyond the childhood years.
Emotionally intelligent children are more school-ready, display less impulsive behavior and show more focus and concentration. A child who has developed emotional intelligence skills is also more likely to be successful on the social front. For instance, she is more likely to make and keep friends or to ask for help when faced with difficult situations.
Why parenting with emotional intelligence in mind is good for your child
Being aware of how emotions influence your child’s behavior makes it easier to understand “inappropriate behavior”. It also makes it easier to anticipate, manage and ease difficult and challenging emotion-provoking situations.
The good news is that incorporating relatively easy practices into your parenting strategy can help strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence. Fostering her emotional intelligence means, first and foremost, providing an environment in which she feels safe enough to express her emotions. It means understanding that much of the behavior she displays is driven by her emotions. In other words, your child’s emotions influence her behavior.
Emotionally intelligent parenting therefore means helping your child understand the impact of her emotions and helping her learn to manage big emotions in ways that reduce their impact on her social, academic and psychological wellbeing. It means paying attention to how you communicate with your child about emotions.
Some parenting strategies can hinder the development of your child’s emotional intelligence.
Here are five things that emotionally intelligent parents don’t do.
1) Emotionally intelligent parents do not hide their emotions
One of the easiest and most effective ways to strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence is to let her see how you manage your own emotions. We now know that how we react to our emotions influences how our children learn to react to their own emotions. For example, science has shown that when we invalidate our children’s emotions, they are more likely to develop psychological issues in adolescence and even in adulthood. This could look like:
- An inability to tell how they are feeling
- Use of avoidance techniques to avoid difficult situations
- A tendency to hide emotions because of a fear of being ridiculed, misunderstood, or criticized
- Constant quest for approval from others
We also know that anxious parents are more likely to pass on their anxiety to their children. In other words, highly anxious parents are more likely to raise children prone to anxiety-related disorders, and this is largely explained by how these parents react to difficult situations. This means that by reacting to an anxious situation inappropriately, you model behavior that teaches your child to react to anxiety-provoking situations inappropriately. How you react to emotion-provoking situations teaches your child how to react to such situations.
Here are three easy tips to parent with emotional intelligence
- Show your child that anxiety is a normal emotion that can be managed. This will show her that she is not alone and will make it easier for her to deal with anxiety-provoking situations.
- Talk to your child about your emotions. Even saying something simple like “I was anxious when I missed my bus because I didn’t want to get to work late” or “I’m feeling anxious because I have an important presentation tomorrow” helps teach her that everyone has emotions. Let her hear you express your anger, sorrow or anxiety.
- Let her know that emotions are normal but better still, show her how you manage those emotions in an appropriate way. For example, you could say something like “I was nervous about getting to work late so I called my boss and let her know I would be a little late”. Tying emotion-provoking situations to specific measures helps show her that emotions can be managed.
2) Emotionally intelligent parents do not ignore their child’s triggers
We now know that specific events or situations drive specific behavior. Major or even seemingly trivial events can elicit emotional responses from your child. But we also know that understanding your child’s triggers makes it easier to manage difficult situations. Being attentive to these triggers is important because it is always easier to deal with emotion-driven behavior before it gets out of hand.
One effective way to identify your child’s triggers is to keep an emotions diary. By observing him and noting down when he displays specific behavior, you can easily identify common patterns and adopt an effective strategy to deal more effectively with specific situations. Tools such as The Emotions Kit also propose age-appropriate resources designed to give you the tools you need to communicate with your child about emotions.
3) Emotionally intelligent parents do not take their children’s emotion-driven behavior personally
While it can be difficult to deal with your child’s tantrums and meltdowns, it helps to remember that her behavior is rarely about you. It is rarely an attempt to undermine your authority. Children’s emotion-driven behavior often expresses an attempt to deal with strong emotions.
Understanding that your child’s behavior is driven by emotions can make it easier to deal more appropriately with specific behavior. But in the heat of the moment, it is easy to take that behavior personally. Here are a few tips that can help when your child is having a meltdown:
- Hit your pause button. A pause button can be mental or physical, and it can allow you to break away from the situation and therefore deal with it more calmly. This might mean adopting specific strategies such as “counting to 10, taking 10 sips of water, or briefly leaving the room. Taking a pause can help you look at difficult situations more objectively.
- Connect with your child. While connecting with your child can feel difficult during a meltdown, it can also prove powerful in helping her calm down. A hug, or even a simple touch/hand on the shoulder, can help calm you both down.
4) Emotionally intelligent parents do not invalidate their children’s emotions
There are so many ways parents can unconsciously invalidate their children’s emotions. Invalidating emotions means teaching your child that his emotions do not count. It means teaching him to feel ashamed when he displays certain emotions.
Invalidating your child’s emotions teaches him to suppress those emotions, and there’s proof that suppressing emotions has a negative impact on children’s ability to form good relationships, even in adulthood.
Regardless of whether or not you think of your child’s emotions as appropriate, they are all acceptable and valid. But that does not mean that all emotion-driven behavior is acceptable. Raising an emotionally intelligent child also means helping your child understand that:
- It is possible to react to difficult emotion-provoking situations in acceptable ways
- Different contexts require different rules and he needs to adapt his behavior depending on his context
- He is responsible for how he reacts to his emotions
5) Emotionally intelligent parents do not shield their children from difficult situations
When you shield your child from difficult or emotion-provoking situations, you prevent her from learning how to deal effectively with such situations.
In one study, researchers found that children exposed to conflict were more emotionally intelligent than those who were not, because conflict provides an opportunity for children to encounter and work around difficult situations. They also found that speaking to your child about her emotions and those of others helps strengthen her emotional intelligence.
Exposing your child to difficult situations gives her the tools she needs to deal with such situations, but it is important to tread carefully if you are dealing with a highly anxious child. This could mean gradually exposing her to emotion-provoking situations, accompanying her to difficult events before progressively reducing the time you spend with her at such events, or talking about what to expect when dealing with new situations.
When we show children that emotions are normal and manageable, they eventually learn to manage those emotions by themselves.
An earlier version of this piece was published on ParentMap