Emotions can be so unpredictable and tricky for adults to understand at times, so what is emotional intelligence and how do we nurture this in our children?
Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ is best known as the father of emotional intelligence, or EQ. Put simply, these are the qualities that Goleman considers to be the keys to EQ.
Qualities of Emotional Intelligence
- Awareness of feeling states
- Being able to motivate oneself
- Persistence in the face of frustration
- Impulse control
- Delayed gratification
- Regulation of one’s moods
- Keeping distress from swamping one’s ability to think
- Ability to accurately empathise
– Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. UK: Bloomsbury Publising
I am sure you can see that these qualities would be wonderful for our children to have before they leave home, however I am also sure you know adults who struggle with many of these things. We only have to look at road rage, trolls online, impatient people in coffee shops – to name a few.
One of the main reasons it takes most of childhood to develop these capacities is that the executive function of the human brain is not complete until the mid-20s. This prefrontal cortex needs to be matured and developed for a person to manage the capacities that Goleman lists for a person to have EQ.
The science of child development can now explain why it is important for children to struggle emotionally and that meltdowns and tantrums are all developmentally normal, and a pathway to building emotional competence! No really, they are developmentally normal and indeed a great learning opportunity.
I totally recommend the work of Dr Stuart Shanker, Dr Vanessa Lapointe and Dr Mona Delahooke if you are looking for a better understanding of how to nurture and support your precious little ones during the emotionally turbulent early years.
Let’s not punish emotion
Many parenting practices are still based on behaviourism, which means that we see emotionally volatile moments as a form of bad behaviour that needs to be stopped, punished or seen as problematic. Underneath big ugly feelings are unmet needs or a cluster of unmet needs – or an unsolved problem a child is experiencing – and one of the earliest ways a parent can nurture EQ is to help children discover the unmet need and meet it.
Parents are doing this all the time – ensuring their little ones are not hungry, thirsty, exhausted, feeling disconnected or overwhelmed. Sometimes we do it well and other times we miss it despite our best efforts and intentions!
The toddler years are often a volatile time of incredible learning as our little ones stretch and grow, explore the world, develop their sensory processing and language, and live from a completely egocentric place!
So many parents feel they are doing a lousy job during this unpredictable and often chaotic window, however being a safe and predictable person in their life is the key thing to remember as their little brains grow exponentially.
Gifting children a person who can be a safe base, no matter what happens, is the key to them growing up to being a safe base within themselves.
Building empathy, compassion for others and the awareness of being fair and kind can all be cultivated by reading lots of appropriate picture books. Obviously, adult modelling is another huge influence in the shaping of these emotional capacities within your children. ‘Be the adult you want your children to grow up to be!’
Dr Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight explored a similar list of essential skills that our children need to develop to become emotionally mature and capable. Many of these are similar to Goleman’s however he has included some new ones that I agree are very valuable.
- Regulating body
- Attuning to others
- Balancing emotions
- Being flexible in our responses
- Soothing fear
- Creating empathy
- Moral awareness
– Siegel, D.J. MD. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.
Nurturing competence and self-awareness
Nurturing a child’s capacity for insight, moral awareness and intuition can be incredibly important in shaping our children to become caring, confident adults one day. How on earth do you develop these things?
I have some great news for you! Children can develop these things in their childhood mainly through real-life experiences of playing with other children, preferably of multiple ages, in unstructured environments.
These opportunities allow them to immerse themselves in unpredictable real-life experiences in the company of others. Janet Lansbury and Teacher Tom are two of my favourite educators who talk about the innate capacity of toddlers and young children to develop these competencies without endless teaching by well-intentioned grown-ups.
We need to respect and encourage children’s capacity for self-discovery – because through their practical and physical exploration, children are developing an understanding of their inner world.
Children tend to take themselves to the edge of their fear quite comfortably without adult supervision and yes sometimes that edge can be frightening for their parents! These rich, real experiences cultivate self-awareness or the ability for children to be aware of their bodies, their senses, their emotions and the choices they make.
Please give your children lots of opportunities to fail! No, seriously, one of the most important things that can cause emotional distress in our children is how they manage failure. There is so much pressure on them to do well, whether in academics or sport, that failure seems to be something to be avoided at all costs.
As a former high school teacher I celebrated failure – a failed assessment showed where the gaps in learning were, what needed to be learned and that the student could fail while still being valued and accepted! I often prefaced handing out completed assessments with this message – “the grade on this assessment is just a number reflecting this one assessment. In no way is this a reflection on my relationship with you or your relationship with you. It is just a number on a piece of paper about one thing that is now done”.
Failure, losing and making poor choices are a consequence of being human. Please play endless games with your children so they can recognise the emotional cues around responding to failing and give them strategies to manage with.
My wonderful dad gave me a great strategy to deal with the fact I couldn’t run very fast as an eight-year-old. He told me that if it made me feel a bit yucky coming last, I could wave at the crowd. It really did make the loss feel better even though sometimes I waved so vigorously I fell over.
My dad’s other message to me was “I always want you to have a go, even if you have absolutely no chance of winning!” I have held that lesson deep within throughout my life.
I have long been a fan of teaching philosophy and mindfulness to children. Questioning and having conversations that encourage them to think deeper absolutely enhances their capacity to be more emotionally capable.
Becoming a really good listener for our children allows them to explore their thoughts and their emerging sense of self and, when done without judgement, it is incredibly important.
Young children are naturally mindful – have you ever taken a toddler for a walk or, more correctly, a dawdle and watched how they get fascinated over tiny things like a dead leaf. Yep that is mindfulness – being totally aware in the present moment.
Celebrate these moments rather than being frustrated by them and please avoid rushing your children – our hurried-up world and the pressure it creates is really unhelpful in developing a stable sense of security. Please check out some of my creative visualisations that I’ve created for children, teens and stressed parents.
As our children head off to school, they will gradually increase in their capacity to manage their own needs and be able to self-regulate. Sadly, schools have become incredibly stressful due to the massive pressure of accountability and endless testing. There is less playtime at recess and lunchtime, and more pressure to sit for longer in classrooms. These things can trigger stress and anxiety in children which has a tendency to shut down their capacity for self-awareness and self-regulation. Even sadder, children who struggle are often punished for struggling to cope!
My first book, written in 2003, Saving our Children from our Chaotic World: Teaching children the magic of silence and stillness came from my deep concern about the increased stressors on children. Constant stress inhibits the development of emotional intelligence on all levels.
How can you cultivate motivation in your kids as this is an important part of EQ? Again I have some good news for you as a parent.
If you want to cultivate authentic motivation in your children – without the need for extrinsic rewards – you firstly need to have a positive, realistic expectation that they are capable of doing things for themselves. Then, you need to allow them to do that often!
Continually building their life skills – builds competence and confidence, which cultivates the motivation to do more for themselves. Encouraging autonomy and freedom is another key aspect of developing motivation in your children. Gradually stepping back as they get older and allowing them more choices, more opportunities to stretch and grow, all help to raise that motivated child we wish for.
The third really important factor in cultivating motivation is connectedness and relationships. Surround children with positive healthy grown-ups who care for them and who can be the models of how to live a healthy life.
Expressing emotions responsibly
I meet many parents who worry that when they have emotionally volatile moments in their homes, it’s a sign they are failing in some way.
The research is quite strong that having emotionally challenging moments – even parental conflict – when handled well and resolved without abuse, is a powerful way of teaching your kids EQ.
I encourage families to have conversations before really stressful times – to forewarn the kids that they may struggle to be calm and centred.
If mum or dad have a major deadline at work or a project that needs finishing, it can be really helpful explaining to your children that this additional pressure may make you grumpy, more impatient and unavailable.
(Of course, if your working life is nothing but pressing deadlines and you’re finding the stress is regularly spilling into your home life, then you may need to set some firm boundaries around work and family, and maybe seek support to help you better manage your stress levels).
Similar conversations can happen within the family if you have students doing exams or even as we head towards the end of term and everyone gets a little more tired.
This is a realistic way to educate your children that our coping skills vary day to day due to changes in circumstances. Modelling genuine remorse for when we do lose our sh#& is also beneficial.
Having a healthy EQ does not make you a saint, however it makes you a person who owns their behaviour and the choices they make.
Being aware of how our behaviour impacts others – both positively and negatively – is a key attribute of a healthy EQ.
There are some key emotional states that children really need help to understand. It can also be helpful to teach children how to identify how certain emotions feel in their body. Early cues can help kids recognise and manage emotions better.
I have written a lot about the need for a change around the social conditioning for many of our boys so that they are able to express vulnerable feelings honestly rather than needing to resort to anger – which has traditionally been a more acceptable emotion for boys and men.
The good news is this is happening in our homes and our schools.
It can be helpful not to label emotions good or bad but rather that all emotions are valid and are part of being human.
The ones I feel are helpful to have conversations with your children about are;
- Feeling excluded/unloved.
Helping kids identify emotions accurately is important as is teaching them strategies to manage these emotional states without hurting themselves, others or the world around them. If you’re looking for some resources to help have these conversations I totally recommend Best Programs 4 Kids. They have some resources for children and parents that really help explore emotional and social learning, with some great strategies to work on at home.
Developing a healthy EQ is particularly challenging for neurodivergent children and early intervention can be beneficial. If you have a child with ASD or sensory processing disorder, I recommend the work of Allison Davies.
People who have a high EQ tend to manage relationships, work and even parenting more easily than those who don’t. However EQ does have a dark side. There are some people who have self-serving motivations who use emotional intelligence as a form of weapon to manipulate others.
Although they generally lack empathy, people with strong narcissistic tendencies can have very high EQ and without healthy boundaries, others can be hurt. The worst people who pose the greatest threat to our children and our teenagers are sexual predators who often have a high EQ and can be incredibly charming while they groom our children to trust them.
Getting quiet to hear your inner voice
Within every single one of us there is a higher self or an inner wise compass that quietly guides us. The busyness, endless distractions, overload of information and pressures of life in the 2020s all make it harder to hear our wise voice within.
The loud shouting voice of the ego mind is often a highly critical voice reminding us of the things we could do better, where we don’t make the grade, how we have failed, and making us second-guess our authentic selves.
As the mature adults in our homes, we need to prioritise behaviours and activities that allow us to hear the nudging of our wise compass. Create pockets of quietness, stillness and ‘beingness’. Maybe start the next time you reach for your phone to scroll, and instead pause, put it down, step outside and take some deep breaths. No seriously try it – to access your highest expression of yourself, you need to create the space for it to speak to you. And then teach your children that they have an inner ally always hiding quietly away, guiding them – something they can trust.
When it’s a struggle …
Hopefully you now have a greater understanding of how to give your children the gift of emotional intelligence.
If you struggle with this as a grown-up, I cannot recommend therapy enough because often the wounds from our childhood can create unhelpful thinking patterns that trigger irrational emotions, even as grown-ups.
Also some unexpressed emotions can remain trapped in our nervous system and releasing it can have enormous benefits emotionally and physically.
Remember to be realistic – growing emotional competence is strongly linked to the growth of the prefrontal cortex, and that does not finish until the mid-20s. There are lots of other factors that influence developing EQ – temperament, birth order, trauma, neuro diversity, special needs and sensory overload. Gosh it would be so much easier if we could gift it to our children in a neatly wrapped box wouldn’t it?