6 Little Ways to Help Kids Be More Emotionally Intelligent

In a time when stress is at an all-time high, it's more important than ever for kids to learn how to deal with their emotions. Here are six expert tips parents can use to help them.

Young girl smiling, holding white sheet up
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Whether students are returning to school in person, or doing so through distance learning, the new school year is looking very different for most families. Navigating Zoom lessons or trying to socially distance in radically re-configured school buildings, we are being challenged like never before.

Of course, parents are in the thick of all this upheaval, juggling the simultaneous roles of caregiver, employee, and now teacher's assistant. Needless to say, we're all on edge. Some of us may even feel we are at the breaking point.

But how can we persevere? How can we help our children build the resilience needed to get to the other side not only sane and healthy, but perhaps even mentally and emotionally stronger than before this all began? It starts with nurturing emotional intelligence—our ability to become aware of, control, and express emotions. That's something we need now more than ever. Empathy, compassion, and self-awareness can help each of us better align our actions with our intentions and values.

Unfortunately, parents aren't always deliberate about talking to their children about emotional intelligence—what it is and why it is helpful. Research shows that young people with high EQ (which stands for emotional quotient and is synonymous with emotional intelligence) earn better grades, stay in school, and make healthier choices. In other words, there are real, practical benefits of developing emotional intelligence in our children.

But EQ doesn't just happen on its own. Cultivating emotional intelligence in our children requires us to be intentional, honest, and available. The good news is that it's not rocket science, but it does require a road map. The following are six suggestions to help get you there:

Create a Family Charter

Before you begin your quest to become a more emotionally intelligent family, make sure everyone is on the same page as to why, and what success looks like. In other words, create a family charter that defines how you want the family to feel, and how you will constructively address conflicts, both between one another and with the outside world. Having that buy-in from the outset will help to smooth the path forward and create joint accountability. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has created a sample family charter that can be a great starting point.

Take Meta Moments

When the world feels frantic, chaotic, and spinning out of control, one of the healthiest responses we can teach our kids is to take a meta moment. That is to simply stop, take a deep breath, acknowledge what is being felt, and visualize the best response to deal with the situation. We are all at risk of being emotionally hijacked these days by the constant onslaught of stressful situations around us. Teaching our kids to take meta moments at times of great turmoil and uncertainty can help not only them, but the whole family, be more resilient. Yale has also produced a graphical explanation of meta moments that can be shared with children.

Model Emotional Intelligence

As much as we might explain what emotional intelligence is and why it is so important, nothing can teach our children the true impact of EQ better than modeling it ourselves. Demonstrate on a daily basis the power of empathy, compassion, and self-awareness. When children see firsthand someone behaving with genuine emotional intelligence, they are much more likely to mimic and benefit from that behavior themselves.

Celebrate Your Kid's Emotional Intelligence

When a child begins to demonstrate emotional intelligence, reward and celebrate that behavior. Positive reinforcement is far more powerful than expending energy on reprimanding negative behavior. Just as you might celebrate an athletic or academic achievement, recognize EQ milestones. Let your kids know how proud you are of them when they demonstrate acts of kindness, show empathy for others, or simply exhibit a heightened sense of self-awareness.

Be OK With Your Own Feelings

It is important that kids understand that being emotionally intelligent does not mean dismissing or denying negative emotions. Having a high EQ does not mean you don't feel angst or anger or sadness. It means you know how to recognize those emotions and process them in a healthy, constructive manner. Children need to know it's OK to feel what they are feeling, but we can also teach them that there are better ways to respond to these negative feelings than lashing out. Children should understand that their parents and the rest of the family are there to help them talk through their feelings and that they can lean on you when they are feeling sad or stressed. Developing a family charter can help facilitate that sharing.

Reflect and Revisit

Finally, check in periodically to see how you are doing as a family in becoming more emotionally intelligent. Revisit the family charter and recognize progress, as well as those areas where you can do better. Make this a positive experience and call out moments of EQ. Give examples that can be replicated in the future. Keep the momentum going.

Also, a simple way to remember the components of being more emotionally intelligent can be found in the "ruler method," which stands for recognizing emotions in self and others,understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, labeling emotions accurately, expressing emotions appropriately, and regulating emotions effectively.

The hard reality is that many of our kids are hurting right now. Their worlds have been turned upside down, and they are doing their best to meet the demands of school and family and life. When kids come home, they often feel the need to let off steam. Their families can get the brunt of that because home is where kids typically feel safest. What they need are the tools and know-how to manage their emotions and build the resiliency that will serve them well their entire lives. That's what emotional intelligence can do. The beautiful thing is that as we teach our kids about EQ, we become more emotionally intelligent ourselves.

Alicia Del Real is president of the Center for Advanced Emotional Intelligence, an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm that works with senior leaders to enhance their leadership capabilities and build thriving, sustainable organizations.

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