Emotional Intelligence

Here's how to help your child learn to control difficult emotions and be sensitive to the feelings of others.


+ enlarge image Emphasize sensitivity to your kids.

Parents and educators concerned about shaping kids into successful adults know it's important that little Johnny can read, that he not be a couch potato, and that he be given ample opportunities to develop self-esteem.

In the past few years, though, another educational concept has made its way into the spotlight: cultivating an "emotional intelligence quotient" -- or EQ.

John D. Mayer, a researcher and associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, and Peter Salovey, a Yale University psychology professor, coined the term "emotional intelligence" in 1990 after exploring the relationships between cognitive brain functions (such as memory, reasoning, judgment, and abstract thought) and affect (including emotions, moods, and feelings of fatigue or energy).

They describe emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize how you and those around you are feeling, as well as the ability to generate, understand, and regulate emotions.

Once labeled, the concept of emotional intelligence spread rapidly. In 1995, Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and writer for The New York Times, expanded on the Mayer-Salovey theory, claiming that the art of understanding and managing human emotions "can matter more than IQ" in determining whether a person leads a successful life. Goleman's book, Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books, 1995), spent a year on the New York Times Bestseller List and drew accolades from psychologists elated that human passions were finally being given due respect.

Wildly Exaggerated?

But is emotional intelligence really more important than IQ? Such claims are "wildly exaggerated," Mayer says. Still, he feels it makes sense that emotional intelligence has an important role in parenting, sustaining intimate relationships, and establishing friendships. And because of EQ's importance, teaching children to handle emotions more effectively is gaining enormous popularity.

For example, at Search Institute in Minneapolis, helping children to develop personal strengths is a major part of the philosophy. Peter L. Benson, institute president, says society has put too much focus on measuring IQ, and has not concentrated enough on encouraging "internal assets." These assets include caring, motivation to achieve, commitment to equality and social justice, integrity, honesty, responsibility, restraint, planning and decision-making abilities, self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and a positive view of personal future.

"It's just as important that we raise people who have strong social competencies," says Benson, author of All Kids Are Our Kids (Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1997) and What Kids Need to Succeed (Free Spirit Publishing, 1998). Of course, all could be learned in adulthood, he says. "But it's ten times easier and a lot less expensive to do it early, as communities."

By the time a person reaches adulthood, emotional habits are fairly well set, agrees author Goleman. To change, an adult must unlearn, then relearn, behavior -- often with the help of a therapist.

+ enlarge image Help your child learn to handle positive and negative emotions.

Emotional intelligence works along with personality styles or traits, Mayer says. People can be emotionally intelligent whether they are extroverts or introverts, warm or aloof, emotional or calm. It's the development of such attributes as conflict-solving skills, self-motivation, or impulse control that proponents agree can contribute much to a child's ultimate success.

"I hardly ever think of success in that traditional sense of career achievement," Benson says. "When we're talking about children and teenagers, we talk first about success being able to thrive, to demonstrate positive forms of behavior in a complex society, learning how to be a giver, a server of others in the community, knowing how to be a leader, and knowing how to take care of your own health."

Success also involves staying centered on a positive path to avoid "risk behavior" -- violence; drug abuse; and too-early sex, alcohol use, and tobacco use.

The first opportunity for shaping emotional intelligence is in the earliest years, Goleman says. Hundreds of studies show that the way parents treat their children in general -- whether with warmth and nurturing or with harsh discipline -- deeply affects a child's emotional life.

But parents and teachers can also intentionally guide children to develop emotional skills. Adults can teach empathy, Goleman says, by simply expressing their own feelings frequently, pointing out another person's feelings, and encouraging the child to share his or her feelings.

Children develop optimistic outlooks when they observe their parents' optimism, adds Lawrence E. Shapiro, author of How to Raise a Child with a High EQ: A Parents' Guide to Emotional Intelligence (HarperCollins, 1998). Shapiro, who frequently uses creative games to teach, suggests the "Stay Calm" game to develop anger control. While one child concentrates on playing pick-up sticks, another child is allowed to tease him in any way he likes, as long as he doesn't actually touch him. Each player gets one point for picking up each stick, and two points for showing no reaction to the teasing.

To build problem-solving techniques, Shapiro makes a deck of 20 or more index cards, each describing a real-life problem relevant to the players (such as what to do when your sister takes your things or how to handle an upcoming difficult test).

The children are allowed to write an "X" or an "O" on a tic-tac-toe diagram each time they offer an appropriate solution to a problem.

The curriculum of social skills used by Father Flanagan's Boys' Home in Boys Town, Nebraska, has been successful for 20 years, according to Tom Dowd and Jeff Tierney, authors of Teaching Social Skills to Youth: A Curriculum for Child-Care Providers (Boys Town Press, 1997). Their simple and pragmatic approach can also be used by parents. For example, if your son or daughter has a problem accepting criticism from a teacher or after-school work boss, or shows a lack of sportsmanship, or is dealing with grief issues, you can walk through the following steps to help him or her develop emotional intelligence.

How to accept criticism or a consequence:

1. Look at the person criticizing you, to show you are paying attention (but don't stare or make faces).

2. Say "OK" (but not sarcastically) and nod your head to show you understand what the other person is saying.

3. Don't argue; remember that the person who is giving criticism is only trying to help.

How to appropriately accept winning (a more advanced social skill):

1. Look at the person or members of the team who lost.

2. Remain pleasant but do not be overly happy or celebratory. (Save that for later, in private.)

3. Congratulate the other person or team for a good game and for trying.

4. Don't boast about winning.

How to express grief (a complex part of emotional intelligence):

1. Find an appropriate person to talk to.

2. Discuss your feelings of grief.

3. Feel free to cry or release hurt feelings as needed.

4. Ask for advice, if needed, or consider seeking professional assistance.

"With emotional intelligence, people are really scared that they have it or they don't have it, and that's a shame because it doesn't work that way," Mayer says. "Most people have enough emotional intelligence to maneuver, and more importantly, everybody can learn."

Here are some ideas for encouraging the development of the following internal assets in children.

  • Helping people. Regularly spend family time helping others. Volunteer at local shelters or nursing homes. Show care for your neighbors.
  • Global concern. Talk to your children about world disasters and countries where people are suffering, and discuss ways for your family to help.
  • Empathy. Model mutual respect in the family. Do not tolerate insults, put-downs, name-calling, or bullying from any family member. Talk about how selfish or hurtful choices and behaviors affect other people.
  • Sexual restraint. Make your family's expectations clear. Share with kids your personal values about why it's important for teenagers not to be sexually active. Teach and model appropriate ways to show affection.
  • Decision-making skills. Include your kids in family decisions that affect them. Give them a chance to talk, listen to them respectfully, and consider their feelings and opinions. Allow for mistakes; don't blow up at a poor decision. Instead, help kids learn from their errors.
  • Friendship-making skills. If your kids have few or no friends, try to find out why. Seek opportunities for your child to make friends through groups that include both younger and older kids, hobby clubs, or service organizations. Encourage kids to invite their friends to your home.
  • Planning skills. Give your children daily planners or date books and demonstrate how to use them. Ask them to tell you when they receive long-term assignments, and show them how to plan ahead so they're not overwhelmed at the last minute.
  • Self-esteem. Celebrate each child's uniqueness. Find something special to value and affirm. Express your love regularly and often. Treat your children with respect. Listen without interrupting; talk without yelling.
  • Hope. Inspire hope by being hopeful. Don't dismiss your children's dreams as naive or unrealistic. Instead, share their enthusiasm. Eliminate pessimistic phrases from your family vocabulary. Replace "It won't work" with "Why not try it?"
  • Assertiveness skills. Teach your kids the difference between assertiveness (positive and affirming), aggression (negative and demanding), and passivity, which induces vulnerability. Point out examples of these behaviors in movies and TV programs. Teach kids to stick up for themselves instead of going along with the crowd.
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