5 ways you can support your child’s emotional intelligence

written by Rosina McAlpine

5 ways you can support your child’s emotional intelligence

Credit: Ben White

If you have children, you know their emotional highs and lows are just a normal part of life. However, whether you have a toddler rolling around on the floor throwing a tantrum or an angry teenager screaming “I hate you!”, helping your children learn to manage their emotional outbursts or emotional intelligence is challenging.

People are emotional beings and so emotions play a huge part in our everyday lives. Take a moment to check in with yourself right now. Are you feeling relaxed, anxious, angry, cheerful or some other emotion? Now think about why you’re in this state? Have you had a good day and so you’re feeling quite content, or are you reading this article in a doctor’s waiting room, feeling anxious about hearing your test results?

Your emotions are responses to your life experiences. Since emotions affect how you see and interpret the world, as well as how you respond or behave in the world, emotions play a crucial role in your life. Let me illustrate with a few everyday examples. Have you noticed that when you’re feeling demotivated you find it really difficult to take action; when you’re feeling rushed for time you’re less tolerant of your children; if you’re feeling enraged you’re likely to say and do hurtful things and take your anger out on the people you love; and when you’re feeling fulfilled you’re more likely to be generous of heart?

Not only do your emotions affect the way you act in the world but they also impact on the way you see the world.

Not only do your emotions affect the way you act in the world but they also impact on the way you see the world. In a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, a group of depressed people was shown, in rapid succession, an equal number of two different photographs: one from a sad funeral scene and one from a happy feast scene. When the researchers asked the study participants which photograph was more prevalent, they responded, “The funeral scene.” That is, even though the people were shown an equal number of happy and sad photographs, the depressed people focused on the funeral scene, which reinforced their depression.

These research findings translate into our everyday lives. In general, people who are depressed focus on the negative aspects of life, which keeps them feeling depressed. The opposite is true for people who tend to have a more positive disposition. Happy people take more notice of the good things in life, which reinforces their happiness and sense of wellbeing. In this way, you can see that your emotions colour the way you perceive your life.

Given that your emotions play a significant role in how you see and interpret the world and how you act or behave in the world, have you considered how much you and your children know about your emotions, how much control you and your children have over your emotions or whether, in fact, your emotions control you?

Emotional predispositions

Think about the people in your life — your partner, friends, colleagues and children. You’d probably agree that, while each person is unique and will experience a variety of emotions throughout their day, they also have a tendency or predisposition towards a dominant way of being. Some people are generally happy and upbeat, while others are volatile and easily enraged. Then there are self-pitying, apathetic or fearful people. Where do your children fit into the spectrum of emotional tendencies? Are they easygoing, anxious or upset at the slightest thing not going their way?

An important question to answer is, how do people get so good at being a certain way? How does a certain emotional predisposition become an automatic way of being in the world? The answer, like everything else people become “good at” in life, is that they’ve simply practised it and practised it.

A simplified explanation of the processes at work in the mind and body in relation to the development of emotional predispositions follows. Let’s assume that a child has failed at something and has negative self-depreciating thoughts like, “I’m so stupid … I’m hopeless at everything.” We’ve all said that to ourselves at one time or another, right? Negative thoughts trigger the brain to release chemicals into the body and as a result of those chemicals the child now “feels” stupid and hopeless; the child’s thinking and feelings are aligned and this is known as a state of being.

The brain is always monitoring the body, so the brain notices that the body is feeling stupid and hopeless. This, in turn, can create more negative thoughts. That is, negative thoughts create negative emotions, which create more negative thoughts, which create more negative emotions, until the child is in a sustained state of being really depressed.

It is important to note that there’s nothing “wrong” with a child having a negative emotional reaction to life circumstances — it’s normal and even the happiest of children feel sad, angry or depressed at times. An emotional predisposition is not a result of one negative emotional incident but develops as a result of a series of reactions that occur within your body consistently over time, and these processes can go on for days, weeks, months or even years.

If a child keeps an angry emotional reaction going for hours or even days, it’s called a “mood”. In this case, you might hear a parent say, “Oh, my Johnnie is in a bad mood.” On the other hand, if Johnnie keeps an angry mood going for weeks, it’s called a “temperament”. In this case you might hear a parent say, “I just don’t know what’s happened to my Johnnie of late — he seems to be in a perpetual bad mood and tends to have an angry temperament.”

Helping your child recognise emotions in others can be as simple as asking a toddler to tell you what each of the characters in the book is feeling.

A temperament is a potentially harmful stage in the process of developing emotional predispositions, because if a child keeps this negative temperament running for months or years, it becomes an emotional predisposition or a personality trait. Now everyone says, “That Johnnie is just a volatile and angry kid!”

What this simplified process illustrates is that emotional predispositions or personality traits are created from persistent and well-practised emotional reactions based on the chemical continuity of the self-perpetuating thinking/feeling cycle. If parents are to help their children develop healthy emotional predispositions, they need to support their children to manage their negative emotional reactions.

Obviously, a positive emotional predisposition is beneficial for every person and this is what parents wish for their children. A positive emotional predisposition will help a child take advantage of life’s opportunities, be more resilient when times get tough and generally live a happy and productive life. In contrast, a child with an angry, apathetic or depressed emotional predisposition is more likely to focus on the negative aspects of life, miss opportunities and perpetuate the negative feelings in the same way the depressed people in the University of Pennsylvania study did.

The key is for parents to find ways to help their children develop emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence?

The term “emotional intelligence” was first introduced in 1990 by Peter Salovey and John D Mayer. It was further developed and popularised five years later through Daniel Goleman’s bestselling book Emotional intelligence. These researchers outlined five distinct but interrelated domains of emotional intelligence that help to explain the complex concept of emotional intelligence. The five aspects of emotional intelligence include knowing one’s emotions, managing emotions, recognising emotions in others, handling relationships, and motivating oneself.

It’s important to note that, while these five aspects are identified as separate aspects of emotional intelligence, they are interconnected. Here are some of the ways parents can support their child’s emotional intelligence.

1. Knowing one’s emotions

This aspect is about helping your child become aware of their emotions as they are happening. Whether your child is a toddler or a teenager, you can support their awareness of their emotions by helping them to name their feelings or naming them yourself. For example, when you observe your child is in an emotional state you can simply say, “You seem angry” or “I get the feeling you’re sad. Is that right?” or “I can see you are feeling something right now. What is it?”

Dr Joe Dispenza suggests that simply observing your children when they are experiencing emotional outbursts, without saying anything, can help them to become aware of themselves and their emotions. No two children are alike, even in the same family, so it’s important to be sensitive to what works for your child. Once children are aware of their emotions, the next step is to manage them in a positive way.

2. Managing emotions

This aspect of emotional intelligence is about handling and changing emotions. Here, a parent’s role is to help their child to shake off negative emotions and introduce positive emotions. No doubt you have strategies for managing your own emotions. It’s important to share these with your children so they can learn to manage their emotions. Playing games with young children is very supportive for helping them to develop emotional flexibility and to show them they have a choice about how they want to feel.

For example, invite your children to be angry giants and stomp around the house, then feather-light fairies laughing and flying around the house, then heavy, lazy trolls sitting down, too lazy and heavy to get up, and finally, end with something positive like funny clowns running around the house tickling and making everyone laugh. Following the emotional playtime, have a discussion with your child about how they were able to change their feelings by just choosing to think different thoughts and play with different emotions.

With older children you can share some of the ways to manage emotions, such as going for a walk in nature or a run to get the feel-good endorphins flowing, taking time out to sit quietly and listen to music, screaming into a pillow or even hitting it, deep-breathing techniques, meditating, journalling feelings or speaking with a family member or friend. Parents can share and practise these techniques so their child has a “tool bag” they can draw on to manage their emotions.

3. Recognising emotions in others

This aspect of emotional intelligence is about empathy and being aware of others’ needs. Parents tend to experience on a daily basis that, in general, children are quite self-centred. Sensitivity to others is a developmental milestone for children that requires support and guidance and comes about with maturity. Parents can help their children by using everyday life experiences to highlight opportunities for a child to recognise another’s emotions, especially in circumstances where your child’s actions have a positive or negative impact on another.

Helping your child recognise emotions in others can be as simple as asking a toddler to tell you what each of the characters in the book is feeling. Does their face and body language say they are sad, happy, annoyed or anxious? The more you practise this activity, the more your child can internalise and develop their ability to be aware of other people’s emotions. By increasing the different kinds of emotions your child observes, your child’s emotional vocabulary will increase.

For teens, it is supportive for parents to model the recognition of emotions in others. For example, “I noticed that your dad was really disappointed about not getting the job. Did you notice that? Perhaps we could do something nice together to cheer him up?” or “When I made this decision I considered your feelings as: you seemed really excited about going to this party/or you looked really angry about your friend not turning up today.” Being able to recognise different emotions in others is an important part of being able to navigate relationships successfully.

4. Handling relationships

This aspect of emotional intelligence is about interpersonal effectiveness and interacting with others. People are social beings and so being able to relate and interact with others is a key life skill that supports life success. Learning to work with others at school, at home, in the workplace and in life in general takes time and practice.

If you consider all the different relationships you have in your life and all of the different ways you “manage” them, you will see there is not one right way to be with everyone. Help your child learn to navigate the complexity of relationships by sharing your successes and failures and especially the insights you have gained from failures.

Take every opportunity to guide your child when life circumstances challenge their current level of understanding about interpersonal relationships. Does your child need to learn to be a better listener, use conflict management skills, be more assertive or more empathetic to others? Learning to interact effectively with others supports your child to have great friendships and supports their academic success, too.

5. Motivating oneself

This final aspect of emotional intelligence is about being able to get into the flow to achieve outstanding performance by working towards and achieving goals. What inspires you and how have you achieved your goals? Sharing your enthusiasm and processes for achieving your dreams can be both empowering and inspiring for your children.

Take the time to find out what inspires your children. What are they motivated to explore or master? Are your children working towards their dreams, or do they only have vague ideas that haven’t quite taken shape yet? Why not work on a project together to support your child to identify a realistic and achievable goal, determining the action steps needed to achieve the goal and then working on the project until it’s done? This helps your child feel like their goals matter and that they can achieve them.

Emotional intelligence develops in the same way as any other skill or knowledge: through instruction, trial and error, feedback and, most of all, practice though life experiences. Parents can use everyday life circumstances as an opportunity to coach and help their children develop each of the domains of emotional intelligence. The good news is that children develop these skills incrementally, over time, as is age-appropriate. So you, as a parent, can spend just a few minutes each day to role model and to help your child develop emotional intelligence.


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Rosina McAlpine

Dr Rosina McAlpine is a parenting expert, author, speaker and award-winning educator. Her practical, research-based Win Win Parenting programs support parents to raise happy, healthy and capable children using an approach based on empathy and life skills education rather than rewards, discipline or punishment. Workplace parenting programs are available at winwinparenting.com and drrosina.com.