Teaching Emotional Intelligence
Six months ago a newspaper columnist and a sociologist met outside their daughters’ kindergarten classroom and started talking about things vital to any parent: their families, their careers, and their desires to raise happy kids. Today their conversation is still going strong. Kelly Corrigan (the columnist) and Christine Carter McLaughlin (the sociologist) are posting their ongoing dialogue here on Greater Good’s website, covering scientific research on children and happiness–and discussing how it all applies to life inside and outside of Room 15. This conversation continues last week’s conversation about social connections.
Kelly: My daughter can read my face like an emotion monitor — the pre-explosion lip tightening, the shocked hand-over-mouth, the frustrated teeth-grinding. Does that mean she is a prodigy of emotional literacy?
Carter: She just may be — the ability to read body language and facial expressions is a big part of emotional intelligence. Emotionally literate children are good at reading social cues, which in turn helps them form strong social bonds.
How is she at managing her own emotions? That’s the other big part of emotional intelligence. John Gottman’s research shows that children who can regulate their emotions are better at soothing themselves when they are upset, which means that they experience negative emotions for a shorter period of time. They have fewer infectious illnesses and are better at focusing their attention (a skill needed to find flow). Such children understand and relate to people better, and form stronger friendships.
Kelly: I encourage my kids to be outgoing, to share and be fair. Sometimes I feel like I’m making progress, other times it seems like I’ve never encouraged them to make eye contact, take turns, or be inclusive.
Carter: Those are good habits to teach kids, but I’m really talking more about the emotional fundamentals rather than ettiquette. Emotional intelligence is rooted in the parent-child bond. Researchers have paid a great deal of attention to how secure attachments with parents contribute to social competence. Infants and toddlers who are securely attached to their mothers or their daytime caregivers are more mature and positive in their interactions with others. Children who have secure attachments with BOTH their mothers and their caregivers are the most socially skilled of all.
Kelly: So the name of the game is a strong bond. I try to achieve that by listening to my girls, delighting in them, and showing affection. Is that gonna get me there?
Carter: You’re on the right track. Bonds are made when parents are consistent, dependable, and sensitive to children’s intentions and needs. When parents and caregivers pay close attention and respond to the emotional cues expressed by their children, children learn to regulate their emotions better.
Beyond the bond, parents need to “emotion coach” children by offering them empathy and helping them cope with negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. Parents who are effective emotion coaches are more than just aware of their children’s emotions. They actually consider their children’s outbursts as opportunities to connect with and teach them.
Kelly: Hmm. I can’t say the words “golden opportunity” popped into my head this morning when Claire decided she didn’t want to wear her raincoat.
Carter: I hear you. I find it incredibly hard to control my emotions when my kids are melting down, even though I fully understand how important it is to do so. But the true masters are able listen to their children empathetically, helping to explore and validate their feelings.
And they don’t stop there. First they help their children verbally label the emotions they are feeling, and then they set limits (e.g, in my house: “it is NOT okay to hit your sister”) while helping them problem solve (“if you feel angry, what else can you do besides hitting?”).
Kelly: Oh dear. That sounds exhausting, simple but exhausting. I have never been known for great patience.
Carter: Changing our habits is exhausting, but once you’ve got emotion-coaching down it is probably far LESS exhausting than losing your cool. Just think:
Option A: Scream and yell and otherwise escalate emotions.
Option B: Really listen and try to understand what is happening with your kids.
Often for me, that is enough to get me on the emotion coaching path – I hate for my kids to be feeling badly, and I know I can help them start to feel better by helping them understand what they are feeling, to help them understand that there are limits in our household (which makes them feel secure), and to facilitate their problem solving.
Kelly: So there’s losing your cool, which I need to work on, and then there’s the matter of expectations. It’s hard for me to gauge whether my expectations are reasonable. I would hate to think I am putting too much pressure on my kids. I heard a speaker recently, Madeline Levine, and she struck fear in my heart.
Carter: Let’s save a discussion about pressure and The Price of Privelege for next week.
Reprinted with the permission of the Greater Good Science Center.
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