Remember the old admonishment, “Do what I say, not what I do.” This was the family motto in our home! Perhaps your parents said this to you at one time and, conceivably, you have even heard yourself say it to your children. I heard it often growing up, and it wasn’t helpful advice when the time came to parent my own children. Yet, it is true, that I learned more from how my parents behaved than I did from their lectures.
Raising emotionally aware children can be tedious, but so rewarding! If it is true that kids learn mostly from the behaviors parents’ model, then the degree to which you are emotionally aware is in direct relationship to the emotional awareness of your child. Thus, when it comes to raising emotionally aware children, the focus must begin with our own emotional health. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. Emotional intelligence is typically comprised of three things:
1. Emotional Awareness: identifying and authentically experiencing a range of feelings;
2. Emotional Reflection: harnessing emotions to problem-solve;
3. Emotional Regulation: managing emotions, in oneself, and observing others experiencing emotions.
Children possess the innate ability to feel their feelings authentically, but they do rely on grown-ups to provide guidance as they learn to navigate healthy emotional expression. It is important that parents continue to develop their own emotional intelligence so that they can effectively model these skills to children.
Here are some concrete skills to practice in order to help your child understand and manage their emotions:
Talk and listen. The cornerstone of emotional intelligence is the ability to name one’s own feelings and recognize them in others. Discuss feelings as they arise organically and also discuss what they are observing in others. Authentic responses can manifest simply by knowing what feelings we are dealing with.
Respect and reflect. For example, if your child says she feels angry, reflect it back to them. “I can see you are frustrated.” Do not lecture or explain how they should feel. Everyone’s feelings and reactions are different and valid. Children learn self-doubt, and question their experience, when their feelings are minimized or invalidated.
Read and play. Stories provide wonderful opportunities for children to identify feelings and practice problem-solving. Choose books that illustrate a wide range of emotions on the feelings spectrum. Question your child about how they might handle an experience detailed in the story. Similarly, playtime is the simplest way for children to experience a wide range of emotions and to practice problem solving across a variety of different social scenarios. Use puppets, dolls or stuffed animals to act out situations your child can relate to.
Model and empathize. Strong emotions, especially in public, can test a parent’s patience and tolerance. It is at this moment that a child most needs compassion for the unresolved feelings and reassurance that “this too shall pass”. Children rely on their parents’ guidance to support them as they move through these difficult emotions. Plus, by keeping your cool, you are modeling directly how to manage strong emotions.
Years ago, I learned a saying that has been helpful in my role as a parent, “Let it begin with me.” Meaning: I take responsibility for my own welfare. If I can manage my own difficult emotions to handle sticky situations, I do not need to wait for you to handle it. Our kids need their parents to deepen their own emotional intelligence so that they can they model a full range of emotions, and healthy social responses, to their children.