Your 3-year-old is crying because you poured milk into her blue cup instead of her pink cup. Your 10-year-old struck out three times at the big game and comes home angry and sullen. Your 16-year-old is upset because she didn’t score as high as she hoped on an important test. What do you do when your child’s emotions run high? When he’s angry? Wants something she can’t have? Feels disappointed?
Over the past decade or so, research has shown that a child’s emotional quotient (EQ) is just as — if not more — important as IQ for his or her success. A child with a high EQ relates and communicates comfortably with people, copes well with feelings, and can form lasting friendships. It is up to us as parents to raise emotionally intelligent children, which means teaching them responsibility, cooperation, empathy and how to understand and deal with their feelings appropriately. Children need these skills to cope with everyday issues. So where do we start?
Get to know your child.
The first step is to get to know who your child actually is— not who you want him to be. This is hard for parents because we all want to believe that our child is perfect. But we’ve got to consider the good, the bad and even the ugly to get the full picture. The goal is to figure out how your child thinks, feels and reacts in certain situations. Important questions to ask are:
• What is my child good at?
• In what areas does my child struggle?
• How does my child cope with frustration, anger, etc.?
• How does my child interact with friends, teachers, teammates, peers, etc.?
Allow your child to experience negative emotions.
As much as we love and want to protect our children, we must allow them to experience and deal with negative situations. In fact, meltdowns are excellent opportunities to teach your child how to cope with frustration, anger and other negative emotions. Remember, feeding or buying a toy for your child to stop the crying causes more damage. These are substitutes we often use to staunch an emotional problem, but they only avert a crucial learning opportunity and inhibit growth.
Increase your child’s emotional literacy.
Children sometimes mistakenly say that they are “mad” or “sad” because they lack the vocabulary to describe a specific emotion. Maybe they feel scared, disappointed, overwhelmed or squelched and just don’t know how to express it. Parents can set an example by using more specific words — not just happy or sad — to describe feelings and encouraging their children to do the same. Make a chart of specific words that describe emotions to which you and your child can refer to accurately identify their feelings.
In the midst of a tantrum or outburst, ask your child to talk about the struggles she is experiencing. Ask what would make the situation better and how you can help. Show that you care and that you want to understand. When your child does handle a conflict well, give praise for the specific success, and remind him to use that tactic again in the future.
Teach your child to be respectful.
Kids will be kids, but parents need to hold their children accountable for their actions and teach them basic social skills. We are not born with manners; it is the parents’ job to teach their children how to behave and be respectful of other people’s feelings.
Emotionally intelligent children say, “I’m sorry” and “Excuse me.” Help your child to read body language by pointing out simple customs like putting a jacket on to indicate that you are just about to leave. Parents can also help children be respectful by encouraging them to look at things from another point of view. Ask them to describe how characters of a book or film might feel and if they’ve ever felt that way.
Validate your child’s feelings.
Sometimes all you can do is acknowledge your child’s feelings and be a model of empathy and understanding. In those situations, the best thing to do is just to hug your child and say, “I really feel badly that you’re feeling sad right now.”
WENDY KAUFMAN is a life-balance specialist with over 19 years of experience. She is the founder and president of Balancing Life’s Issues, Inc. (BLI), a national executive training company whose clients include IBM, Bank of America and The New York Times. To keep balance in her own life, Wendy lives in Westchester County with her husband and three children, two stepchildren, a dog, two cats and a rat.