Psychological research in fact shows that emotional intelligence may well be a much greater predictor of a happy and successful adult life than one’s traditional left brained intelligence scores. Which is just as well since, while one’s IQ is mostly an inherited genetic factor that can only be modified by 5 or 10 points during an average lifespan, emotional intelligence is a skill based on experiential social learning which can be improved upon significantly with the appropriate guidance and teachings. And this is exactly why this has become such a hot topic for the caregivers of our young, as it would seem that (as many other constructs in psychological development), emotional intelligence can be nurtured and enhanced with particular effectiveness during early childhood. As it is during this time that the emotional pathways within the brain (yes, we have emotions in our brain, just think Prozac and you will know what I am talking about) are still not fully set, giving great opportunity to set the stage right for increased social and emotional wellbeing in adulthood.
But what exactly is emotional intelligence? The phrase "emotional intelligence" was first used in a research setting by Yale psychologist Peter Salovey and John Mayer from the University of New Hampshire in the early 1990s to describe qualities such as understanding one's own feelings, empathy for the feelings of others and "the regulation of emotion in a way that enhances quality of living”. Translation? Emotional intelligence is our ability to know what we are feeling when we are feeling it, our ability to perceive and respond appropriately to other people’s feelings and our ability to deal with our emotions so that they do not destructively impact our lives. The emotional intelligence equivalent of a high IQ is that of a person that can navigate with ease within the often emotionally charged interactions with other human beings in a variety of settings. With friends and loved ones, but also with colleagues, co-workers, bosses, business partners, employees and clients.
The rising recognition of the importance of emotional intelligence for both personal wellbeing and financial and worldly success is ultimately an increased awareness of how most things in life are relationship based. We do not live in a vacuum. Even the most intelligent person needs to interact with others. And the language of interpersonal relationships is a language based on emotion. How many marriages break down due to an inability of spouses to appropriately handle and share their feelings of vulnerability, hurt or anger? How many business partnerships fail, not because of economical factors but because of an inability of the partners to compromise and get along? How many businesses could increase their productivity with just a little more effective emotional exchange between bosses and employees? With just a little thought it becomes plain as day why emotional intelligence is such a valuable asset in so many different areas of our lives.
Fortunately, as mentioned above, emotional intelligence is a learnable skill. For this reason, educators and psychologists are beginning to integrate the learning of E.I. skills within their educational programs. Even toddlers are being introduced to these new skills. CosmiKids (see the reference section for details), for example, have launched a play group program for 2-4 year old preschoolers named Tender Tykes, which aims to introduce Emotional Intelligence learning as early as possible. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, children of a very young age are still developing their brain and research suggests that this is an excellent time for introducing healthy emotional behavior patterns to one’s child. Introducing early healthy responses is a great way of increasing good prospects for natural healthy emotional development as the child grows older. The skills that are being taught to this age group are simple but effective. Here are examples of some of the skills that CosmiKids are introducing to their toddler groups that parents can easily begin to integrate at home with their own little ones:
Young children feel sad, angry or frustrated just like adults do. However they often do not understand what they are feeling and/ or do not know how to communicate what they are feeling to others. They simply do not have the words to explain how they feel in their brain’s databases yet. Negative behavior in young children often results from this difficulty in naming and communicating emotions (and to be fair to our young ones, I know several adults that still struggle with this one too!!). A child may throw a temper tantrum to communicate anger or hit another child simply to express frustration. Educators and parents can begin even at this early age to give children words to use, such as ‘frustrated’, ‘scared’, ‘angry’, and ‘nervous’ so that their kids can express and use their emotions in positive ways.
The best way to do this is to model the behavior for the child. Begin naming your own emotions, the ones of your child and of the people around him/her. You may say things like “Mummy is feeling angry today because the gas man took all her money ”. Or you may want to label your child’s emotions with sentences such as “ It seems that you are feeling sad about your friend leaving sweetie, let me give you a hug to make you feel better”. In a group situation, children can be told things like, “Jackie is unhappy because she fell down and hurt herself. What do you think we could do to help her feel ok?”. You get the idea. Basically, identify and name the feelings and emotions around your child, so he may begin to recognize and name the same emotions in him/herself and in others.
Soothing negative emotions
Emotions can be painful and often overwhelming for young children. They need help soothing when they are hurt or upset. If your child is hurt, it is a great opportunity for you to model validating his or her experience. Discouraging your little ones to feel their hurt, like some well meaning older generation parents used to do, with phrases such as “ Big boys don’t cry” or “ That cannot possibly hurt that bad!”, is no longer seen as a very sound child rearing practice. In fact, this old practice is responsible for creating many an emotionally disconnected adult. Validating and comforting a child feeling emotionally or physically hurt is a much healthier option. If your child is hurting, comfort your child and confirm that their pain is real. Sympathy and concern are healthy responses to emotional distress in children and adults alike. Begin early in offering this healthy behavior to your child and modeling it to him/her in your interactions with others.
Using Anger in a Positive Manner
Anger is a natural response to a violation of boundaries. Anger can be expressed however in both positive and destructive ways. When children get angry, it is a sign that they are uncomfortable with something that is happening to them. Children need help and guidance with 1- learning how to recognize that they are feeling angry of frustrated 2 - learning how to deal with those feelings in a positive and productive manner. As a parent, first help your child name their angry feelings. Then give your child the words to ask appropriately for what he/she wants. Sympathize with his or her frustration, and at the same time be clear with them that inappropriate or aggressive behavior will not result in them getting what they want. And remember to also model this behavior in your interaction with others, so that your child may witness you as a role model in this area. Tall order, I know. Who said parenting was easy.
Understanding and empathizing with others
When children are shown understanding and sympathy, they naturally learn to show that same sympathy and understanding to others. Knowing how to understand and be compassionate for other people’s feelings is an invaluable skill, probably one of the most important foundations for all interpersonal relationship. So talk to your child about your own feelings. Express and explain your emotions with sentences such as “I am happy because I spoke to grandma today.” Or “ I am sad because Aunt Wendy went home today” You can also help your child understand other’s emotions by teaching them how to respond to another child in distress, with phrases such as “ Louise is angry because she feels left out. Why don’t you ask her to join in the game?”
Controlling anxiety and nervousness
Children often face tremendous stress, leading to anxiety, insecurity and nervousness. Children need to learn that a specific problem is causing their anxiety and they need help figuring out what needs to be fixed. A trusting, caring relationship is vital to help a child feel secure and protected. Guide your child to understand what is causing the problem, and give him words to express his thoughts. Calming techniques, such as deep breathing and relaxing muscles, can be used to refocus her and help her deal with stressful situations.
As you can see, it is not difficult to practice these very simple emotional intelligence principles. In fact every interaction which involves emotion can provide you with a wealth of opportunity to practice healthy expression and handling of emotions and feelings with your child. I am sure you will find introducing these skills into your parent child relationship very rewarding not only for your children but also for yourselves, as even as adults we can certainly benefit from a refresher course in emotional intelligence skills.
Copyright 2008. Katie Gallanti. This article was first published on the in print issue of Inspired Parenting magazine www.inspiredparentingmagazine.com, in 2008.
CosmiKids, Inc. 18555 Ventura Blvd. Tarzana, CA 91356. www.cosmikids.org
Daniel Goleman (1996, 2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, Bantam Books.
Nancy Gibbs ( 1995). The EQ Factor: New brain research suggests that emotions, not IQ, may be the true measure of human intelligence. Time Reports: Understanding Psychology, Unit 5. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/classroom/psych/unit5_article1.html
John Mayer, Marc Brackett and Peter Salovey (2004). Emotional Intelligence: Key Readings on the Mayer and Salovey Model. Dude Publishing.