Effie Papadopoulou - Psychologist

Raising Emotionally Intelligent children

Often I engage in conversations with other mums on ‘hot’ subjects such as punishment, attachment parenting, modern versus good old-fashioned ideas, and perceptions on educating and nurturing children. It saddens me that in this day and age, there are still many parents who think that ‘hitting’ their children is the only way to teach them. Others are totally oblivious to basic concepts such as empathy, effective communication or Emotional Intelligence.

There are even young parents, nowadays, who are strongly against showing too much affection to their children, who believe that too much cuddling is bad, that too much kissing is bad and that attending to their child’s needs when they arise is bad.

Many engage in heated discussions so that they can justify emotionally and physically abusing their children, even if they didn’t really see it that way, and use different, reasonable words to describe yelling at and hitting their children.

“In our adult-centric society, parents want ‘easy’ children; children that don’t cry a lot, sleep on their own without any problems, who don’t seek constant attention and cuddling. They want to have their own personal time to pursue their dreams, to go on holiday while their children stay with their grandparents even when they are very little. They don’t want them to be fussy eaters and don’t pay attention to the emotional intelligence deprivation of their children as long as they physically grow up.”

Take for example this story; try imagining how life would look like through the eyes of your children.  How would it be like growing up in your household and what emotions and feelings would you have as a child when having to deal with you and your husband/partner? Take just a few minutes to try and live life through your children’s eyes and you might just discover the importance of empathy.

What is Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

Being a parent is, indeed, stressful. None of us have all the right answers, none of us know the perfect solution to every single situation. We learn as we go along; parenting is all about evolving, a journey of personal growth, of learning to forgive ourselves. We shouldn’t go for perfect, we should go for love. Positive parenting is all about placing Emotional Intelligence, love, and empathy into everything we do, say, share, or teach our children.

Emotional intelligence is “the ability to identify your own emotions and the emotions of others.” (Psychology Today). Emotional intelligence consists of four primary skills, which apply to both emotionally intelligent children and adults: the ability to effectively identify, reason with, understand and manage emotions.  It may seem easier than it sounds. In fact, identifying feelings and sympathies with others doesn’t come naturally at all for many people.

According to John Gottman, there are five stages in the procedure of applying Emotional Intelligence to our daily interactions with our children. Parents who do,

  1. Are aware of their children’s feelings;
  2. View feelings and emotions as an opportunity to bond and learn;
  3. Actively listen,  show empathy and recognize their child’s negative feelings;
  4. Help their child to find words in order to understand his/her feelings;
  5. Draw boundaries and at the same time try to find effective solutions to the specific problem.

How do Emotionally Intelligent children differ?

There have been extensive studies and thorough research that give us a clear indication of the numerous benefits of E.I. Parents who systematically follow the concepts and strategies of Emotional Intelligence, and how those benefits help their children achieve higher goals and develop internal tuition and emotional maturity. These children do better at school, are capable of having long-lasting and better quality friendships, and are less likely to get involved in violent episodes either at school or out of it.

When both parents follow the concepts of Emotional Intelligence through everything they do, they will help their children develop healthy emotional bonds and attitudes. Like all children, of course, they will also experience unwanted feelings of sadness, disappointment, loss and fear under specific circumstances. They will also, however, possess the necessary tools to deal with those negative feelings more effectively, they will be able to relax and calm themselves and they will find ways to move on and deal with unpleasant emotions.

Emotional Intelligence has been also shown to protect children against the bad consequences of a divorce.

Deciding to get a divorce could be one of the most emotionally and psychologically damaging experiences your children have to live through. Staying together and fighting constantly is no better. The harmful effects are of the same magnitude. When children are daily exposed to their parents’ resentment for each other, the outcome can be equally catastrophic.

More importantly, parents should always remember that divorce is not what emotionally destroys the children; the bad and harmful communication between the parents before and after the divorce is. Only through emotional intelligence and awareness can the children learn to handle such situations without receiving damaging results.

John Gottman’s extensive research showed that parental conflicts, fights, and uncivilized divorces severely affect their children’s abilities to create friendships, their general health, have a negative impact on their school performance, and lead to unsociable and violent behaviors.

He discovered, however, that when parents followed an Emotional Intelligence approach, something different and quite amazing happened – their children seemed to be ‘protected’ against all the usual negative effects of a bad divorce. Applying Emotional Intelligence to how they communicated, parents were able to have emotionally healthy and stable communication between them and continued to offer emotional support, unconditional love and understanding to their children before, during, and after the divorce.

Emotionally Intelligent dad

Rightfully, a lot of attention has been given to the outcome that motherly affection has on the developmental and mental maturity of her children. However, recent research places an emphasis on the importance of the dad in the whole process of emotional health. Emotionally Intelligent dads have a positive impact on their children’s life attitude. By being aware of their children’s emotions they can guide them effectively through problem solving and interpersonal relationship techniques.

Emotionally distant fathers lack empathy and communication skills, are either judgmental or simply not present in their children’s lives. The children of emotionally distant fathers usually exhibit all the unfavorable results of a distant parent, but even more intensely than the norm, since research has shown that a father’s input, either good or bad, is more acute in a child’s life.

It’s a common notion in today’s society that men are supposed to be hard, to show no emotions to be strong, and avoid the expression of soft attitudes. They usually tend to hide their true feelings compared to women who openly express them through verbal, or bodily language. They seem to be more in control and less and cautious. The truth is, though, that men are more than capable to identify their emotions, recognizing them, and responding to their children’s emotions. Fathers who find this new role of emotional education hard, need only to let go and trust their instincts. It is a process of learning for both themselves and their children, and the results far outweigh any fears.

Applying  Emotional Intelligence

Family conflicts are part of every family’s reality; so are the harsh words we sometimes exchange with our loved ones, fights, disagreements, and feelings of sadness or stress within our family home. It is very important, though, to understand that while nothing can magically take away all the problems, all members of the family will feel respected, listened to, and safer by applying empathy and Emotional Intelligence. All problems can indeed have a solution, and the feeling of relief that comes from that knowledge is priceless.

Many parents are scared to show their bad sides or their negative feelings. They end up hiding them in fear of damaging their children if they allow them to see how sad or angry they feel at times. By doing that, though, they achieve the opposite result: they raise children who are even less capable to handle their own negative feelings. They haven’t been taught how to express adverse emotions without being rude, violent, or abusive.

Your child’s E.I. begins with his/her relationship with you. How can you lay a solid foundation for that relationship to thrive?

Respond to your baby’s needsEmotional Intelligence starts from birth, so trust your instincts when it comes to your infant. There is always a reason for a baby’s cries. Your child needs to feel safe and secure, to learn that their primary caregivers will respond to needs and alarms alike. Such practice will greatly affect a child’s mental maturity and emotional development. Moreover, positive touch, immediate response, and communication have been proven to be the principal requirements for empathy development in a child. The ability to self-soothe and manage anxiety later in life originates in having been reliably soothed as an infant.

Stay calm. Children learn by mimicking; if you practically demonstrate that you can manage your own anxiety and stress, they will follow your lead. If you hide your real feelings instead, you’ll only confuse your child. It is ok to feel displeased sometimes, it is ok to feel disappointed or sad. Show your child that you can have all those feelings without losing control, screaming, or shouting.

Mind your language. Avoid verbally harsh reactions or words you might regret later. When you feel like things are getting too much for you to handle, leave the room, and give yourself some time out. After you calm down, return to the conversation and apologize to your children for any inappropriate behavior or words on your part. Instead of telling your child “, you drive me crazy”, say “it upsets me when you do that” so he/she knows that his behavior is the problem, and not them. Also, avoid severe criticism and specific phrases that might sound positive, but actually function as behavior deterrents.

Accept and validate your child’s emotions. Children react to situations for a reason. How well will react to them can be taught and you play the most important role in that? By putting your child down when he/she acts ‘inappropriately’, will only lower his/her self-confidence. Instead of saying: ‘there is no reason for you to cry or get upset’ when your child doesn’t get what he wants try saying: ‘I understand that you want to go to the park right now but it is raining. Should we try to go after it stops?’ Acknowledge the way they feel, try to see the problem from their point of view, and treat every tantrum is an important feeling that needs to be expressed.

Every tantrum can be used as a teaching toolParents need to understand the importance of effective communication, of just talking to their children. Talking to your children through emotions works the same way as it does to adults. Before every doctor’s appointment or museum visit and outing, talk to your children. Explain what will happen in the place you’re visiting. If they feel scared to talk about a similar experience you had as a child and how you dealt with it. Find ways for your child to fully comprehend what you are saying, what is going to happen, and why it is important to go to that place.

Empathically listen. The significance of active listening cannot be stressed enough. Pay close attention to your children when they express their feelings. Encourage them to share those feelings, whether they are positive or negative. Afterward, reflect on what was shared, and ask more information as to why they feel that way.

If for example there are feelings of jealousy towards the newest member of the family, or loneliness, then acknowledge those feelings and say: “you are right, mum has been very busy with the baby lately”. Reassure your children that you still love them and that you will try to fix the situation so they don’t feel that way anymore.

Don’t forget to offer comfort through that period, explain that all feelings and emotions are normal and need to be expressed. ‘Accepting his feelings and reflecting them does not mean you agree with them or endorse them.  You’re showing him you understand.’ (Dr. Laura Markham)

Don’t let your own feelings get out of hand. You should absolutely avoid hitting your children or yelling at them. When you do so, the fault is yours for not being able to intervene in an effective way before either of these two actions where necessary. When you ask too many times for your children to do something, and they don’t listen, then change the way you communicate the task. Don’t just keep repeating yourself with no results. Get up, go to your child, and help them understand what it is you are asking. When you can’t get through verbally, then a more involved approach is needed.

Dr. Laura Markham emphasizes that: “whether it’s picking up a tired toddler who’s dawdling or insisting that your fourteen-year-old help carries in the groceries, you make it clear you won’t reconsider, but you do it while you’re still calm. You maintain a peaceful tone in your house, and you teach them something useful about how to manage themselves.  If you end up screaming, they just feel picked on.  They learn nothing useful and much that is harmful about how to handle their own feelings when they watch you indulge yours at their expense.”

Conflicts can be used as a tool to teach problem-solving. Children need to know that it is ok to get angry, as long as they don’t hurt other people as a result of their anger. When your child engages in arguments with a sibling, or even you, guide them through what they are feeling. Explain that you understand that they are upset. Stress that under no circumstances are they allowed to harm anyone. Together, look for alternative ways to deal with anger, and if necessary teach them methods of relaxation and calming down.

Respect your child’s feelings.  When your child expresses negative feelings about a relative, you should listen to what they have to say, and find ways to deal with it their complaint. For example, if your children tell you that they don’t want to hug or kiss a relative, then teach them to shake hands instead. When they tell you that they feel uncomfortable with a specific teacher at school, investigate and take it seriously. We must affirm children’s ability to trust their own feelings and help them identify discomfort and distress. Let them make their own decision about how they feel towards situations and people, and only intervene to help them deal with it.

Emotional Intelligence teaches children to recognize an emotion, to identify the associated feelings, and to be able to show empathy towards others. Parents are asked to reward their children, and not punish them, to emphasize their actions and not their character, to motivate them and not to put them down. Showing empathy, kindness, love, and nurturing are the only ways to raise emotionally healthy children and not by humiliating, punishing, hitting, or abusing them.

Emotional Intelligence DOES require a great level of commitment, effort, and patience. It is not an easy job but the most important one. Let’s all raise people’s awareness of emotional health and how to raise the positive leaders of tomorrow.

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