High emotional intelligence translates to success across the board—in children academically and in adults professionally.
How to Help Elementary School Students
Cultivate friend-making skills. Pre-K to second-grade children are beginning to create genuine friendships, but they’re new to creating friendships, Miller says. “Children need a lot of help in figuring out how to be a good friend and to have friends,” she says. “At the beginning of the school year, you can practice making introductions if they’re nervous about not knowing other kids, and you can do that with stuffed animals or action figures that they play with: Hi, I want to introduce you to Betsy Bear. It’s nice to meet you, this is so-and-so.”
Demonstrate empathy. “In elementary school, friends become increasingly important. Elementary school-aged children learn to identify and become attuned to peers’ facial expressions and perspectives. So parents can support their children by helping them learn how to understand others’ feelings, and to empathize with them, creating the basis for becoming a true friend,” Lee says.
In the home, where emotions are okay to talk about and explore, Lee recommends parents try to model empathy by saying, I wonder how your friend’s doing. She looked a little sad when she was here the other day—have you noticed that? or Gosh, I remember his parents are separated. I wonder if there is anything we can do to show our love and support for him? “Helping your child learn to develop an empathic frame for their experience can really mean a lot for a child during those elementary school years,” Lee says.
Practice self-management techniques. Third- through sixth-graders start to encounter more complicated social problems, such as bullying. So, Miller says, their self-management skills become really important. To help your child become a responsible decision-maker, discern what her values are, and act responsibly in social environments, Miller suggests practicing these scenarios with your child at home: how to deal when she is picked on, help her practice ways to respond to bullies whether she is the one being bullied or witnessing it, what to do when her friend is being bullied, when to disengage and not be an audience giving the bully power.
Kids at this age can also become very performance oriented, worried about how teachers and peers are judging them, whether it’s sports or academic. Because of this pressure, Miller says kids need really good coping skills. Talk to your child about dealing with frustration, persisting toward a goal when the outcome isn’t perfect immediately, and dealing with feelings of embarrassment or humiliation in front of peers when he doesn’t first succeed.
RELATED: How to Confront 'Bully-ism'
How to Help Middle School Students
Explore morals and ethics. In middle school, kids’ moral and ethical development begins, and awareness starts to shift from “me and my accomplishments to an awareness of one’s membership in a larger community and humanity,” Lee says. “So parents exploring those topics with their middle-schoolers helps support their efforts to develop this larger vision and to formulate their own values.”
Talk and listen. “I think a critical aspect of being a middle-school parent is keeping the lines of communication open,” Miller says. At this age, kids are in the throes of puberty, and part of it is parental pushback and pushing boundaries. So talk about those boundaries and discuss why they are important, she says. “Kids are learning and caring more about social justice as it relates to the world and as it relates to them, and so they want to know why.”
When you are open with your child, she will come to you on her own time. You may not talk about little issues, “but when the big issues come up, they come to you, not somebody else,” Miller adds.
How to Help High Schoolers
Give your teen space to create an identity. “High-schoolers are really working hard at creating their own identity and independence, so sometimes they’re going to need more alone time and time with their friends and away from you. I think it’s a tough time to create independence when you are still dependent in a household,” Miller says; so allow your teen space to develop his self-identity.
Miller also suggests telling your teen stories from her childhood when she demonstrated strength and perseverance. “I think it’s really helpful because at the time when social pressure is at it’s height and they’re trying to figure out who they’re going to be in all of it, you want them to feel strong and feel like they can stand their ground if they need to,” she says.
While giving your teen space to cultivate independence, stay connected to him and keep the relationship strong. “Parents can support their high-schooler’s development by thoughtfully thinking issues through with them, by encouraging the ability of their teen to think critically in their decision-making. If we can recognize that this is a time when kids naturally begin to differentiate themselves from other adults, often including their parents, then we can avoid taking it personally and arguing,” Lee advises. “This is a healthy development—a necessary part of formulating their own identities.”
As with most life skills, parents are their children’s first and main teachers. So to help your child build her emotional and social skills, you have to demonstrate and build these skills yourself. As Miller says, “Every human being can continue to hone their social and emotional competence.”
Main image: Being able to discern others’ feelings and acting based on that information is part of emotional intelligence, so experts suggest parents begin clearly demonstrating empathy around elementary school-aged children to help them learn what it means to be a good friend.