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How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child

What is emotional intelligence? Being smart about emotions. Specifically,

  • Emotional self knowledge and self acceptance

  • Sensitivity to the cues of others

  • Empathy (which can be defined as the ability to see and feel something from the other’s point of view)

  • The ability to regulate one’s own anxiety and anger in order to talk about emotionally charged issues in a constructive way.

The result is more insight, more ability to manage one's emotions and behavior, and better relationships with other people, lifelong.

Managing anxiety in order to tackle a big project, managing anger to work through a marital conflict, managing fear to apply for a job -- the ability of a human being to manage his or her emotions in a healthy way will determine the quality of his life in a much more fundamental way than his IQ. In fact, psychologists have come to call this ability EQ, or Emotional Intelligence Quotient.

In one huge longitudinal British study, babies were followed through childhood and into adulthood for fifty years. Their success and happiness in life was strongly correlated to their emotional intelligence. The famous Harvard Study of Adult Development's most revelatory finding has been that close relationships, made possible by emotional intelligence, are one of the most important factors in lifelong happiness and health. Many other studies link emotional health to better physical health, more academic and employment success and happier marriages.

Your child’s EQ begins with her relationship with you. How can you lay a solid foundation?

1. Start with trust.

Hold your infant when she wants you and respond quickly to her cries.Hold your infant when she wants you and respond quickly to her cries.

High EQ starts in infancy with the baby's earliest interactions with caregivers, from which she develops feelings of security and trust.

2. Calm your own anxiety.

Almost a hundred years ago, psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan originated the idea that infants pick up anxiety from their parents. Recent research has confirmed that parents' touch, voices, and movements can either soothe a child or stimulate anxiety. Apparently, we're always radiating our mood and inner state, whether calm and content or frazzled and fractious, to the people around us! So it's worth it to use mindfulness practices to calm yourself and increase your sense of well-being when you're out of sorts. Your calm helps your baby and child build a calmer brain and nervous system.

3. Accept and acknowledge your child's emotions.

Not all behavior is acceptable, obviously. But all emotions are acceptable. You can (and should) limit your child's actions as necessary. That works best when you empathize with how they're feeling as you set those limits -- even their unhappiness about your limits! Teach kids that they can't choose their feelings any more then they can choose their arms and legs, but they can -- and must -- choose what to do with those feelings.

4. When in doubt, empathize.

Your empathy and acceptance helps your child accept her emotions, which is what allows her to resolve her feelings and move on. Your empathy teaches her that her emotional life is not dangerous, is not shameful, and in fact is universal and manageable. She learns that she is not alone. She learns that even the less pleasant parts of herself are acceptable, which means that she is wholly acceptable. And she learns to understand and accept herself.

5. Don't punish emotions, or try to distract him from his feelings.

And don't shame him when he gets hurt ("A little scratch like that doesn't hurt," "Big boys don't cry."). Acknowledge, empathize, let him show you what happened, give him a little time to process. Then he'll be ready to move on.

6. Repression doesn’t work.

Disapproving of her fear or anger won't stop her from having those feelings, but it may well force her to repress them.

Repressed feelings don't fade away, as feelings do that have been freely expressed. Repressed feelings are trapped and looking for a way out. Because they are not under conscious control, they pop out unmodulated, when a preschooler socks her sister or a seven year old has nightmares or an eleven year develops a nervous tic.

7. Emotion Coaching helps diffuse intense feelings.

Rage doesn't begin to dissipate until it feels heard. Accepting his feelings and reflecting them does not mean you agree with them or endorse them. You're showing him you understand. How? Listen. Acknowledge. Reflect.

"You sure are angry at your brother. Tell me about it.”

"You must be really disappointed."

"This day just isn't going the way you wanted, is it?"

8. Help your child learn to self-soothe.

We now know that babies develop the neural wiring to soothe themselves by first having someone else soothe them. From this they gain the experience of their physical and emotional needs as tolerable and manageable.

In fact, when we soothe a baby, their nervous system actually begins to lay the groundwork for self-calming later in life, meaning that babies' brains and nerves don't develop adequately unless they are held and soothed when they're upset.

Infants experience needs that aren't met as life threatening (as unsatiated hunger, or an absent caretaker, actually could be). Emotions swamp these babies. Without the soothing they need, their nervous systems don't lay down the pathways that would later allow them to soothe themselves. As toddlers they have a very hard time learning to self soothe or self regulate, because every feeling makes them anxious -– after all, it might lead to a catastrophe -– and escalates.

In later childhood their feelings of neediness, fear or anger can trigger sweeping anxiety or panic, leading these kids to act out because they can't tolerate their feelings or calm themselves down.

9. Help your child learn to problem solve.

Most of the time, when kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. This leaves an opening for problem solving. Sometimes, kids can do this themselves. Sometimes, they need your help to brainstorm. But resist the urge to handle the problem for them unless they ask you to; that gives your child the message that you don't have confidence in his ability to handle it himself.

10. Model emotional intelligence.

What they see you do is what they will do. Do you start snapping at people when you're under stress? Have minor tantrums when things go wrong? Can you stay calm during emotionally charged discussions? Do you empathize when feelings are expressed? So will they.

11. Handling anger constructively is one of the most important skills you can give your child.

When she’s angry, look under the anger for the hurt or fear that her anger is defending against. If you can avoid getting sucked into the battle, you can keep yourself calm and the situation safe. That's when your child will show you the hurt feelings or fears that are driving her bad behavior. Remember that your child will learn what you model. Use words, not force. Don’t let your own anger escalate. (Not so easy? Imagine how hard it is for your child, then. Remember, you're the role model.)

12. Intervene before your own feelings get out of hand.

Every time I find myself yelling at one of my children, I realize that the fault is mine. Not only that I am yelling, but that I didn't intervene in an effective way before yelling was necessary.

My five year old didn't turn off the computer when I asked, and now will be late to bed? Obviously, she needed me to help her do what was too hard for her to do alone -- exit the fun program and go brush her teeth. Then I find myself yelling at her, because it's the fourth time I've asked and it's twenty minutes later. Anytime you've asked that many times, you aren't being effective, and a different, more involved approach is necessary.

Whether it's picking up a tired toddler who's dawdling or insisting that your fourteen year old help carry in the groceries, you make it clear you won’t reconsider, but you do that while you're still calm. You maintain the peaceful tone in your house, and you teach them something useful about how to manage themselves.

If you end up screaming, they just feel picked on. They learn nothing useful and much that is harmful about how to handle their own feelings, when they watch you indulge yours at their expense.

13. Don't undermine your child's emotional self-knowledge.

Your child needs your encouragement to develop her own inner compass. Respect her feelings about others. If she feels uncomfortable letting Uncle Herman hug her, teach her to shake hands. When a preschooler refuses a repeat playdate with a playground acquaintance, listen to why, and try to assist her in problem solving, but by all means let her make the decisions about who she plays with. Affirm her ability to trust her own feelings, including discomfort she can't really identify. Children need to make their own decisions about what feels safe to them, from an early age.

14. Model talking about the hard things.

Your child may be challenged by a physical difference, an absent father, a learning disability, being adopted, your impending divorce, or his grandfather's alcoholism. Or he may simply find it difficult to tell you he is terrified of taking tests at school, or that his baseball coach screams all the time or the kids on the school bus tease him.

Every child has issues that he or she is afraid to discuss. And those are the issues where they most need your support and guidance. Of course, you first need to overcome your own discomfort with the issue. Start by not feeling guilty, and see “Talking with your kids: How to Have the Tough Conversations.”

You also need regular times when your child can bring up what’s bothering him. One great way is to have a few quiet minutes at bedtime after lights out, when you ask kids about their day. What was great? What was hard? It's amazing how the combination of dark and impending bedtime often stimulates reserved children to open up.

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