We all want our children to be successful. Regularly, I even hear people joke about their kiddo becoming the next President of the United States or the future CEO of the fill in the blank corporation (the operative word being “joke” because let’s get real—-some of those folks aren’t joking!!). And let us not forget about all of those not so subtle Facebook brags that we see (and that we post ourselves!!) about the complicated words our children can pronounce or about that super thick–waaaaay above his/her expected reading level—-chapter book our child breezed through in…..wait for it…… just—- ONE —–weekend!!! Simply amazing! And honestly, it is. I’m all about it. One of the greatest things we can do for our children is to truly believe that they hung the moon (and all of the stars….and the sun….and pretty much built the entire freaking universe!).
Consequently we want our children to be successful; someone that wonderful deserves to be happy after all! So we devote a lot of time to helping kids increase their book smarts. We start talking about test scores, grade point averages and even college applications in primary school! No one can argue that these things are important but how important are they really?
There are many factors that predict success and happiness in life. Let’s look at IQ (what we consider to be the traditional measure of intellect) and EQ (emotional intelligence….ie. someone’s ability to perceive, identify and regulate emotions in self and others). Research suggests that one of these factors is approximately TWICE as important as the other and it’s probably not the one that you’re thinking it is. That’s right, the importance of emotional intelligence is nearly double when it comes to predicting success and happiness. The best part about this is that EQ can be developed over time whereas IQ can only be slightly improved and typically remains constant through the lifespan.
Here are some ways that you can help your child develop his/her EQ:
• Become a feelings detective! Attempt to assist your child in identifying what he/she is feeling in the moment. “Your face is pretty red right now and your voice just got louder….are you feeling angry or frustrated right now?” “I see that there are tears coming from your eyes and your lips are turned down like this (mirror pouty lips to show them what you see)…are you feeling sad or maybe lonely?” “You are smiling so big right now and your jumping up and down! You look excited. Is that what you’re feeling?!”
• Increase feelings vocabulary. Try to teach your little ones lots of feelings words. Sad, happy and mad are a great start but try to include a vast array of feelings like confused, guilty, excited, lonely, worried, anxious, loved, hopeful, etc. The more words your child knows to describe how he/she is feeling, the better he/she will be able to cope.
• Practice appropriate feeling expression. How many times has your child demonstrated that he/she knows what sound a cow makes? Or how many times has he/she shown you that he/she can point to his/her eyes and nose? Probably more times than you can remember! While this game is pretty darn fun (and please don’t stop playing it because these practices are beneficial to children as well) they aren’t doing a whole lot to develop emotional intelligence. Try incorporating games where children guess the emotion you are displaying or have him/her show you what happy looks like or how his/her voice changes depending on what emotions he/she is experiencing. “Does your voice get louder or softer when you are feeling sad?”
• Teach your child that all feelings are important and okay. In the words of the super talented social scientist and writer, Brene Brown, “Feelings are not a la carte.“ People cannot and should not pick and choose which emotions they feel. It is okay to feel sad sometimes and even anger is okay when expressed appropriately. Teach your child the appropriate way to express ALL emotions, not just the ones we wish for him/her to experience. The best way you can achieve this is by modeling appropriate coping skills. “Mommy is feeling a little frustrated right now because traffic is very bad but that’s okay. Mommy can deal with some frustration because she knows it will pass eventually.”
• Explore calm down strategies. I like ice-cream as much as the next person but it’s probably not the most effective way to manage my feelings after a tough day (Dang it!!). When you’re feeling a difficult emotion, model effective ways of handling that emotion. “I am feeling worried right now because I have a big work deadline coming up. I think I will take some deep breaths and try to relax my body so that I will feel better.” You can help your child do the same thing when he/she is experiencing elevated emotions. “Let’s take some deep breaths together and then we will slowly count to 10. I bet you will feel better in no time at all!”
• Use teachable moments to foster empathy and insight. We often utilize basic behavior modification techniques when we discipline children. For example, the child engages in undesirable Behavior A so we enforce undesirable Punishment B. Over time the child no longer displays Behavior A merely because he/she has learned that this is the way to avoid Punishment B. While this technique can be helpful in eliminating unfavorable behaviors, it does not teach the child how his/her actions impact others. Tailor your consequences to include repair attempts. For example, if your child hits a playmate at school, have your child draw a picture of how he/she would feel if one of his/her friends hit him/her. You can then explore questions about why it is important to treat others with kindness, what we might do to make the playmate feel better, etc.