Emotional intelligence in children



Emotional intelligence in chilren are modelled by the adult caregiverEmotional intelligence is an important part of empathy and communication in our world. It is also an important part of being a parent so that we can assist our children to grow into mature, empowered adults.

Dr Jeanne Segal, co-creator of HelpGuide.org and author of The Language of Emotional Intelligence, says that there are ways to know if your children are developing normally in terms of emotional intelligence. Dr Segal has been a psychotherapist for almost 40 years, assisting her clients to bring about social and emotional change. She says children younger than three with secure attachments to family are able to comfort themselves when upset, don’t cry as much or get upset quickly, smile a lot, make more eye contact and communicate sounds more easily.

In order to foster this type of relationship and assist in the development of a child’s emotional intelligence, Dr Segal says parents need to be present with their children and communicate with them so the child can also learn to communicate better. This means paying attention and turning off the phone and the television to spend quality time with them. It is important for children to bond with at least one caregiver who is adept in building a non-verbal language with the child and this adds to their emotional intelligence in later years.

This person kids bond with does not necessarily have to be a parent. Sometimes children will form a major bond with someone who is caring for them other than the parent. This could be a babysitter or grandparents and it is this bond which affects them positively, mentally and emotionally, and impacts on their feelings regarding security. The person who spends the most time with the child in nonverbal attachment is the one who they will bond with the easiest and this relationship brings about cohesion in their brain.

Dr Segal goes on to say that sometimes children will cry because they feel threatened regarding their safety due to a lack of emotional intelligence at such a young age, but that the parent does not interpret this well as they have not learned yet how to interpret the child’s unspoken language. This creates tension in the mother or father and, further to this, tension in the child. Dr Segal says that stress will cause the carer’s awareness to shut down and the level of stress in a parent or babysitter is of concern. “When you are highly stressed, you go into automatic flight or fight mode. When highly stressed a caretaker isn’t able to think clearly or pick up on nonverbal cues. It can be dangerous. The child should always be the first priority.” She goes on to warn this is why when choosing a babysitter or someone to look after your child it should be someone with a relaxed personality to be able to build that link of communication with the child.

Dr Segal says that people sometimes confuse stress with emotion, which makes emotion seem like a bad reaction. Everyone has a level of stress which can either motivate them or cause them emotional exhaustion. If stress is motivating it makes you come alive and alert but when it is out of balance it’s a negative feeling of threat and anxiousness. Reactions to stress differ depending on situation and personality and could cause people to be angry, agitated or withdrawn from those around you.

Dr Segal says this looks like an emotional reaction but it’s really just a reflex and usually stays until the stressful situation is over. Remember that emotion is not static and we can experience a number of emotions at once. We can be angry and frightened, for example when a parent fears for their child’s safety because they are out late at night. In one flash, that anger and fear can turn to joy when the child returns home. It is your emotional intelligence that determines how you react to the situation.

Emotional intelligence is accessed from the mid-brain, says Dr Segal, and that in some ways it is more important than the frontal cortex where the emotions actually function. Emotional intelligence means you are in touch with what your middle brain is saying to you and that you are able to make decisions which are neither over emotional nor too cold. It’s about being in touch with instinct and trusting that instinct. She continues to stress that the parent or prime caregiver needs to have emotional intelligence in order to teach it to the child.

This means being aware of how you feel, act and interact, and that you use those feelings to communicate with others. It becomes a two-way street of empathy and compassion between the two people involved so that the communication goes beyond the words. As busy parents, we can find this difficult amid the juggle of work, running the house and bringing up the kids. If we are to grow emotionally, we need to slow down and monitor our reactions and why we react the way we do. It’s a process of knowing ourselves and being in touch with our feelings.

If you feel you would benefit from developing your emotional intelligence there are many options available. Google the internet for books like Dr Segal’s but don’t rely on books alone. There are many well-trained therapists out there who can help you learn the skills to build up your emotional intelligence quite quickly by teaching you new ways to look at your issues, change your perspective and monitor how you are cognitively responding to life.  

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Jenetta Haim runs Stressfree Management at 36 Gipps Road, Greystanes, and specialises in assisting your health and lifestyle in all areas by developing programs on either a corporate or personal level to suit your needs. Jenetta has just published a book called Stress-Free Health Management, A Natural Solution for Your Health available from your favourite bookstore or online. For more information and to get in touch, visit her website.