Knowing how to regulate our emotions includes being able to tolerate difficult feelings such as disappointment; understanding how to reach out for social support when we need it; and knowing how to react appropriately in various social situations. These skills can lead to better behavior on the playground, better focus in the classroom and the ability to resolve conflicts in constructive ways.
Parents are critical in developing and modeling these skills for their children, but many adults were never taught the basics of emotional intelligence. Instead, they may have inherited a legacy of unhealthy coping strategies, such as yelling, suppression or avoidance, and now they are at risk of passing those emotional patterns down to their children, says psychologist Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Brackett says thinking about our emotions doesn’t mean obsessing over every mood or slight. Rather, it means you have the tools to get through difficult moments, to learn from them and to move beyond them in healthy ways. The good news, he says, is these skills can be taught, and it’s never too late to learn them.
In Brackett’s new book, “Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves and Our Society Thrive,” he outlines the RULER approach (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions), a strategy developed by researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. This method has been implemented at more than 2,000 schools and has helped thousands of families identify their emotions and respond to those feelings in healthy, productive ways. Here he breaks down five steps parents can take to practice these skills at home.
Recognize emotions. Emotional intelligence begins by learning how to accurately recognize emotions in ourselves and others. Let’s say you’re picking your son up from school and you notice he is pouting and his energy is low, says Brackett. Just noticing that he’s in this emotional state — and being aware of how you’re reacting to it — is the first step. Brackett and his colleague Robin Stern have developed a Mood Meter App that includes hundreds of “feelings” words and strategies to help kids and adults recognize emotions and cope with them in healthy ways.
Understand the source. Next, try to get to the underlying cause of the emotion without jumping to assumptions, says Brackett. Like a detective, ask questions that go deeper than what’s being said: “Why do you think you felt that way?” Listen for clues and look for common patterns. For example, if a child is complaining that something is unfair, then he is likely feeling anger. If a child is struggling with unmet expectations, then she is likely dealing with disappointment.
Label them accurately. Brackett says neuroscience supports the notion that “if you can name it, you can tame it.” Possessing a nuanced and specific vocabulary around emotions, what researchers call “emotional granularity,” has been found to be its own form of regulation. Prompt children to move beyond simple labels like sad or mad. Are they annoyed, disappointed or frustrated instead? Being able to accurately describe how we are feeling is an important way to get our needs met, says Brackett.
Express them. There’s a bias in our society toward displaying positive emotions and suppressing negative ones. Ask yourself if you’re regularly expressing a full range of emotions, even tough ones like frustration and guilt, in front of your children, says Brackett. When parents are honest about their feelings (within reason), it gives children permission to express their emotions freely, too.
Regulate responses. Emotion regulation is the most challenging of the five steps and the most cognitively demanding. For parents of young children, Brackett suggests introducing “positive self-talk” as a useful coping strategy in difficult moments. For example, when feeling frustrated, a parent might say out loud, “Daddy can do this! First, I’m going to take a breath to calm down.” For teens, teaching them how to reframe negative situations through a more positive lens can be a helpful strategy (“Maybe she was short with you because she’s stressed out about the tryouts?”).
As parents know, it’s not what we say but what we do that matters most. Even mild-mannered adults can struggle to keep emotions in check when they are tired or overwhelmed. When emotions are running high, Brackett suggests parents take a “meta-moment.” That involves hitting the pause button, taking a breath to slow down our fight-or-flight response, and then asking: How would my “best self” respond in this situation? In other words, how would an ideal parent — one who is kind, warm and patient — respond right now? A useful exercise for defining your best self is to fast-forward 20 years and think about how you want your kids to remember you, says Brackett. Then ask yourself if you’re earning that reputation at home.
“Responding through the lens of our best self helps us to choose more helpful strategies,” says Brackett. In fact, he adds: “Just thinking about our reputations can prompt us to behave in better ways than we might otherwise.”
Best-self exercises work for kids too. Children can think of adjectives or even an image of who their best self is in the classroom, on the playground or with their siblings, and then parents can remind them of that when needed. Of course, it’s impossible to be our best selves all the time, but it’s something we can aspire to.