Emotional Intelligence as Tween Oxygen: "My Toddler is Baaaaack!"

volcanoOne of the first gifts I received as a parent was the book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting by John Gottmann. One of my husband’s computer clients gave it to me. My husband Chris thought it looked interesting and we both wondered about the words between the covers.

I never read the book. In fact, I passed it along to a friend because the last thing I wanted to do as a new parent was read parenting books. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to not be touched. I wanted to read fiction that took me up and out of the physically taxing years of early mothering.

My first born child’s treacherous toddler moods sent me to a parenting class led by Elizabeth Crary, titled after her popular book Dealing with Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When things Don’t Go Their Way. I’m sure I never finished reading the book, but the class sessions were my first brush with emotional intelligence, which just begs to be capitalized. I didn’t know I was becoming familiar with this big phrase, I just knew that I was supposed to empathize with my child, and she needed to learn how to name her emotions. No, my lovely daughter was not going to stop screaming, but it would help her to know that she was jealous of her sister, disappointed that I had less time for her, and sad enough to ask me if we could trade in her new sister at the hospital.

But this is all in the blessed past. Or is it? Have you ever heard that you get your toddler back? People have said to me that whatever your child is like as a toddler is what she will be like as a tween and teen.

My toddler is baaaaaaackkkk!

My girl is 11. My girl is a delight, except when she is not. And then I can see the 3-year-old that woke up at 2 a.m. and sobbed and writhed for 45 minutes as we sat in the kitchen together, until she fell asleep because of her exhausting outpouring of emotions.

Where is my oxygen mask? It’s in that book I gave to a friend. My oxygen mask is actually a thing: it is emotional intelligence. I have begun reading about this topic with great abandon. Right now I am 40 percent into the tome on the topic by Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. And I am racing through the chapter entitled “Emotional Flourishing” in Wise-Minded Parenting: 7 Essential for Raising Successful Tweens & Teens. I sent the link to the New York Times article “Emotional Intelligence: Can It Be Taught” to our school principal.

My brain is so flooded with information I keep sharing with my tween that we have started to joke about the topic. We are going to make shirts that say “Emotional Intelligence.” We make up with funny phrases for the back of the T-shirt such as: “Did you know it takes a full 20 minutes to calm down?”

As I talk with my girl before bedtime, we pretend we are going to paint calm-down tools on her bedroom walls: Eat! Breathe! Say I Am Awesome!
We are forever making conversations lighter by talking about the self-help books I have bought her, mostly from the American Girl Care & Keeping of You series. My tween rolls her eyes at me during one of our frequent car chats and says, “All the self-help books say, 'Did you know you are not the only one to feel this way? You are not alone!'"

This is where I have to say I felt alone this summer. The tween emotional roller coaster was not something I was expecting. School vacation can be an isolating season; there wasn’t a lot of room for talking to parents who had been through this already, or to parents who suddenly woke up to a new version of their child and wondered just what was going on.

I should have snuck into my daughter’s room and borrowed her self-help books. When I finally started running into other parents right before school begin, I began mentioning how summer had been interesting thanks to my 11-year-old girl. One mom immediately embraced me and said, “I remember that. I kept thinking, what happened? We didn’t raise our daughter to act like this!”

Ahh, there is my oxygen mask. I felt like I could take a deep breath again. That very day I began my intensive emotional intelligence reading. It floored me that there was all this research about how to teach people how to cope with stress and deal with their emotions. Ironically, I co-wrote a self-help book years ago. I have been working on how to deal with my own emotions for an entire lifetime. I know if my mom read these books she would lament that this incredibly helpful information wasn’t available to her when I was a tween. Heck, I only learned how to use a mantra with real effectiveness four years ago. Imagine if my sixth grade teacher had taught the entire classroom how to breathe deeply, how to use a positive affirmation, how to take a full 20 minutes to calm down after rage has filled my body?

Our kids are lucky, lucky, lucky. Whenever I worry that my girl will struggle with depression the way I did in high school, I think a few very helpful things. One, this is totally out of my control. She may indeed learn all about what it is like to suffer from depression. Two, my mom helped me find help and I can help my own girl find help, too, if need be. Three, we have emotional intelligence tools. We are all surrounded by information that can teach all of us how to cope with stress and deal more effectively with our emotions. Four, I am not the only one teaching her about emotional intelligence. Her school uses two programs: Second Step and Habits of Mind. Her Girl Scout Troop is working through a book called Amaze, which is all about building relationship skills and strategies.

As a parent of a newly-minted tween, I am grateful to know our children can reap the benefits of emotional intelligence research. And I’m also glad to report that I finally figured out who I lent that John Gottman book to . . .  one of my best friends reports I gave it to her in 2002. Should I need to read one more book on emotional intelligence, it sits on her bookshelf just a few blocks away.

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