Raising an emotionally smart child
Dr Judith Leiba, Contributor
An important part of being a parent requires you helping your children to identify their feelings, helping your children to deal with their feelings and helping your children to express their feelings in a way that won't hurt themselves or others.
In this way, you will raise children to be emotionally smart or to have emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EI) is your ability to manage and understand emotions and relationships, your own, as well as others'.
1 It starts with you, the parent or caregiver.
Raising an emotionally smart child has to start with you, the parent or caregiver. You have to make a decision to start your journey on the road of emotional intelligence if you have never done that before. The wonderful thing about emotional intelligence is that you can start on the journey no matter how old or young you are and you can work on it every day for the rest of your life and still make significant gains. This is in contrast to academic intelligence, which is pretty much pre-determined by a number of factors and cannot be changed much by effort or work.
2 Help your child to identify feelings. Give them the words.
The first step in raising an emotionally smart child is to give him or her a vocabulary for his or her feelings. Children often feel strong emotions and feel powerless because they have no words to describe what they are feeling. By giving them words, we are allowing them to identify and recognise their emotions, and this goes a far way in assisting them to manage their emotions.
3 Acknowledge your child's feelings and teach them empathy.
Acknowledge your child's feelings even if you can't do anything about your child's upsets. When you empathise, you are letting him know that you can see it from his side, too. Just being understood helps humans let go of troubling emotions. If your child's upset seems out of proportion to the situation, remember that we all store up emotions and then let ourselves experience them once we find a safe haven. Then we're free to move on.
Empathising doesn't necessarily mean that you agree. He may have to do what you say, but he's entitled to his own perspective. We all know how good it feels to have our position acknowledged; somehow, it just makes it easier when we don't get our way.
Children develop empathy by experiencing it from others. In turn, we should encourage our children to empathise with others, for example, the disabled or the disadvantaged. This we can do by simply asking them, " How do you think so-and-so feels when the other children tease him?"
4 Teach your child how to manage his or her feelings.
Again, this step has to start with the example of the parent or caregiver. We cannot teach our children how to manage their anger if, for example, we are not doing a good job at managing our own anger. Do we fly off the handle, curse and scream at every annoyance or do we model self-restraint in the face of very trying circumstances?
Allow expression within limits. Little ones can't differentiate between their emotions and their 'selves'. They do not realise that emotions and feelings are things that will pass. "This, too, will pass", as many of our older heads will say.
As adults, we need to teach them that emotions are sometimes like waves of a sea that flow over us and will eventually go away. We want to teach them that they can express their emotions, as long as they do not harm themselves, harm others or damage property.
The message is: The full range of feelings is understandable and is a part of being a human being, BUT only some actions are acceptable. We can try to identify triggers that evoke anger, and also offer options when anger comes on, for example, anger busters.
By so doing, we are helping our children to problem solve and to prepare themselves to deal constructively with negative emotions.
Most recent research underscores the fact that teaching children self-control is even more important than teaching them to have high self-esteem. Self-control is a hallmark of emotionally smart children, who can also identify their feelings, empathise with others and are learning how to manage their feelings and their relationships with others.
Parents can find more comprehensive guidelines in Raising Emotionally Smart Children, a training manual produced by the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Unit of the Ministry of Health.
Dr. Judith Leiba is the Director of Child and Adolescent Health in the Ministry of Health; email: firstname.lastname@example.org