Parents worn down by the torrent of brainy books and blogs on child rearing may be tempted to focus on the most proven, pragmatic basics. But they shouldn’t shy away from the concept of emotional intelligence, even if it sounds a bit touchy-feely. Experts say enhancing “EQ” may be a fundamental way to boost a child’s happiness and success, and parents can do quite a bit to promote it.
Our emotional intelligence, as opposed to our intelligence quotient or IQ, is the ability to identify our feelings and emotional responses, regulate them, and empathize with others’ feelings, says Marc Brackett, the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the author of a new book on the subject.
He says we’ve long underestimated and ignored EQ, especially in kids, instead focusing on academic success and testing them to measure it. Meanwhile, their emotional skills and well-being have fallen by the wayside. But he and other advocates say building emotional intelligence is a straightforward way to enhance physical and mental health, memory, decision-making, relationships, creativity, grades and job performance. And he thinks we’re catching on. The skills are being taught in many schools, typically under the title of social-emotional learning, which broadens it to include things like decision-making and communications.
Betsy Dodson of Bethesda, Md., is the parent of a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old and says that parents wrongly assume that these skills are thoroughly taught in school and their kids are covered. She says the skills should be reinforced at home, even by something as simple as encouraging children to be helpful and respectful, and by praising that behavior.
“I always expected them to say ‘thank you’ to a server at a restaurant and write thank you cards to teachers each year and clean up toys at a friend’s house after a playdate. Being respectful and appropriate comes from understanding that those around you have needs, too, that you should consider when making decisions about how to act.”
Adults noticed, she says, and complimented her and her children, and she also saw that their “EQ” paid off with peers. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen.”
Here are some other ways parents can boost their child’s EQ.
Point it out. To help them understand EQ, parents should assess their child’s skills and help them understand what they need to work on. A child might misread situations and people, for instance, Brackett says, or have difficulty controlling emotions. Or they may have strengths in those areas that a parent can help them understand.
“Kids with high levels of emotional intelligence communicate more clearly, take turns and share, focus on resolving problems and understand other kids’ feelings,” says Sinead Smyth, a therapist at the East Bay Relationship Center in Alameda, Calif. Smyth is also affiliated with the Gottman Institute, an organization that studies — and works to support — relationships.
She says children with high EQs are better able to control inappropriate behavior and delay gratification, and they know when to seek help with a difficult social situation or emotional problem, and how to work through it. Parents can point out strengths and weaknesses in those areas, too.
In middle school, where social influence is powerful and emotions are erratic, EQ might be as simple as the ability to navigate each day calmly with resilience. But Erika Huck, the head of counseling at Pyle Middle School in Montgomery County, Md., says it’s important for kids to also show empathy.
“Part of adolescence is being self-centered and impulsive, but at this age they should regulate themselves and consider other points of view.”
In high school, kids become increasingly able to handle more complex social settings and make sometimes startling jumps in confidence and emotional maturity.
“As they mature, they should know and label what they’re feeling, tolerate difficult emotions, read social cues and cope better with the ups and downs of life,” Smyth says, noting that individual strengths and weaknesses will differ.
Explain it. Brackett says parents should gain some understanding of their own EQ and work to improve it. They need to be willing to describe their shortcomings with their children.
Smyth also notes that pointing out examples of high and low EQ in books or television shows is a good way to get young people to understand it. She works with a parent who guides their children to accurately identify and label negative feelings and their causes, then helps them find positive solutions.
Empathy is critical and sometimes difficult to explain, Brackett says, but children can learn to be aware of others’ feelings. If a child has a conflict, a parent can ask them to consider how it made the other child feel, even considering body language and facial expressions.
Show your stuff. “Be a good role model,” Brackett says. “If you are telling your kid to take a breath when they are angry, but you aren’t regulating your own emotions with them, you won’t be very effective.” He suggests that parents point out when they themselves have acted improperly or were angry or sad, and how they handled it, including examples from interactions with the child.
“A parent might not talk about how they were bullied as a kid because it would show they were weak,” Brackett says. “Feeling sad is seen as weak. But life is replete with those feelings and a child should understand that.”
Huck suggests parents work with children on a service project to emphasize empathy in a new and perhaps challenging atmosphere, and give them a chance to see others, including their parents, collaborate.
Apply it in daily life. Using teachable moments may be the best way to help young people identify, label and understand emotions and heighten their EQ, Brackett says.
“If a child comes home from school in an angry mood, it is all too tempting to ask them why,” he adds. “They will then give a surly, uninformative response, which will trigger an equally defensive and unsympathetic reaction. In no time, both parties will be yelling at one another.”
Instead, Brackett says, a parent should calmly ask their child what happened and encourage the child to explain how they are feeling. Be patient and persistent, but give them space if they need it.
“Once you know whether it’s frustration or disappointment or anger, and the reason for that feeling, you can figure out how to support them,” he says. “Getting to the specificity of a feeling provides an opportunity. And once students learn how to identify, name and regulate their feelings, they become better, happier students.”
Teach them to keep their feelings in check. The Gottman Institute emphasizes that emotional regulation is important and children need to take responsibility for it.
“With the best of intentions, we don’t want our kids to feel sad or upset, and can be quick to jump in and offer advice. That implies they can’t figure it out themselves,” Smyth says. “Instead, be an ally, listen, empathize, communicate confidence in your child's ability to deal with the situation. Offer help brainstorming.”
She says we may believe our own parents were dismissive of feelings or critical and disapproving of negative emotion, so we overcompensate.
“We give them lots of acceptance and empathy when they feel sad or upset, believing this will teach them to manage their emotions,” Smyth says. “That’s only part of what they need. Kids that have high EQ have been given problem-solving guidance and faced limits with behavior, and developed resilience and tolerance as a result.”
James Paterson is a freelance writer and illustrator and a former school counselor. You can find more of his work at otherperplexity.com.