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4 Ways to Foster a Child’s Emotional Intelligence

How to help them flex that emotional-intelligence muscle

Published on: April 24, 2020

mom hugging her son

Thanks to modern science, we now know that emotions are sensations within the body that help us deal with different situations. For example, fear drives us to be more careful or to avoid certain situations; anxiety draws attention to what needs to be done and can make us work harder to nail that interview or exam; and anger can provide insight into ourselves.

Emotions have an amazing power to shape lives, and they strongly affect your child’s behavior and how he relates to his environment. Science says that children who have learned to express their emotions appropriately find it easier to make and keep friends and to deal with difficult, emotion-provoking situations. Emotionally intelligent kids have also been found to be more ready for school, meaning that they display skills such as an ability to resist distractions and stay focused, lower impulsivity, and an ability to listen to and follow instructions or ask for help when they are unsure of what is expected of them.

All signs point to the increasing importance of emotional intelligence in children’s social, academic and psychological well-being, yet for many parents and educators, the best ways to help our children develop emotional intelligence remain unclear. Here are four things to know about emotions that will point the way.

There are primary and secondary emotions.

There are several primary emotions, but the most common primary emotions are fear, happiness, sadness and anger. Primary emotions are strong and can be easily identified on your child’s face or through his reactions (shaking, kicking or hitting, raising his voice, crying, etc.). Primary emotions are the most common emotions because they are easily elicited and are direct reactions to a situation or trigger. They help us react to common situations encountered by most people (death in a family, being yelled at, fear of monsters, death of a pet, etc.).

Secondary emotions are emotions your child learns from the people with whom he spends the most time (primarily family members, day-care professionals and teachers). They are emotions he develops based on how those around him react to how he expresses his primary emotions. For example, if you ridicule your child because he is afraid of the family dog, he could start to feel shame every time he expresses fear.

What this means for you: As a parent, being aware of how you react to your child’s primary emotions determines the development of his emotional intelligence. If you hug your child when he is sad, he learns to associate sadness (a negative feeling) with hugs (a positive and comforting experience), and this can help him adopt an appropriate way to deal with his sadness. In other words, every time your child feels sad, he will know that asking for a hug will make him feel better. In contrast, yelling at him every time he shows his fears could lead to the development of other emotions, such as worry, guilt and shame, and prevent him from adopting appropriate approaches to deal with difficult emotions.

On average, emotions last for 90 seconds.

In her book, “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey,” Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., says that, clinically speaking, all emotions last 90 seconds on average. Now, if you have kids, I’m sure you’re shaking your head and thinking, “No way! My kid’s emotions last way longer than that,” and you’re absolutely right: The feelings generated by strong emotions persist indefinitely. But here’s the thing: The issue is not really about how long emotions last, but about how your child reacts to them within a 90-second window after the trigger. That 90-second window determines whether she will go into a more frenzied emotional state or whether she will find calm.

What this means for you: Helping your child deal effectively with strong emotions is not actually about respecting the 90-second rule. In fact, it’s about engaging your child as soon as she starts showing strong emotions, which will give you a better chance of helping her find calm.

The problem is, not all interventions work. Trying to reason with a child who is in the grip of a tantrum will only stress you both out. But a hug or even a simple touch can help — it shows your child that you are there. Ultimately, raising an emotionally intelligent child is about continually providing her with tools to help her learn to react appropriately to emotional triggers, by herself, as quickly as possible.

Everyone experiences the same primary emotions.

Every single one of us experiences the same primary emotions. And even those parents who seem to have perfect kids must deal with their children’s tricky emotions from time to time.

What this means for you: It’s easy to feel discouraged and helpless when it seems impossible to manage your child’s tantrums and other emotion-driven behavior, but what you need to remember is that all children experience big emotions. That said, when your child has learned to identify his emotions and what triggers them, and when he has identified several tools he can use to cope and self-soothe in difficult situations, it is much easier to develop his emotional intelligence.

Validating emotions helps free us from negative emotions.

Emotional invalidation implies and involves minimizing others’ emotions and experiences, and unfortunately, it is a very common practice. Refusing to validate your child’s emotions is dangerous because doing so may make her believe that suppressing them is normal.

What this means for you: All emotions are valid. Your failure to understand your child’s emotions does not make those feelings any less valid. Validating her emotions means finding the words to let her know that you understand and care about how she’s feeling: “I know you’re upset. I can see you’re sad because you didn’t get [fill in the blank]. I’d be sad, too.”

The thing to remember is that your child can only feel emotionally safe when her emotions are validated.

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