Raising Emotionally Healthy Children

Parents spend a lot of time, energy, and resources on promoting their children’s cognitive and physical development. Rightfully so, as these are very important elements in a child’s development, as are meeting milestones.
What we don’t talk about as often is making sure that children are growing in their emotional intelligence (EI), too. Just like we want children to be smart, have strong healthy bodies, and meet milestones related to their growth and development, we must also focus on helping children develop their EI and become emotionally healthy people.

What can parents do to promote the EI of their children? Start young, first of all. When children are infants they rely on non-verbal communication to tell us how they feel. They cry, have tantrums, get loud and big with their feelings. They are uninhibited, because they haven’t learned from society, from peers, from family members that they need to squash down their feelings in order to conform, appease the adults, not rock the boat. They just instinctively know that they need cry and make it clear to the adults that they are upset. But what happens to babies whose cries are ignored? They do learn to squash it down, in a way; babies who cry and do not receive attention or a response from a caregiver stop crying. They learn quickly that their cries don’t get the response they need; this is a major problem because it leads to attachment disorders and the inability to connect and bond with others– especially caregivers. In this phase of development, parents need to be attentive to baby’s cries and non-verbal cues.

As toddlers, before developing language skills, children continue to rely on non-verbal communication to tell their grown-ups how they feel. Although, now, they’ve got a little more physical strength and autonomy over their bodies. It may come in the form of hitting, throwing, falling down and rolling on the floor. Chances are, if you are parenting or have parented a toddler, I name it, you’ve seen it! In these moments, it’s so tempting for parents to put their child in time-out, scold or discipline this ‘acting out’ behavior, or chose to ignore the ‘acting out’ behavior. I put ‘acting out’ in quotations, because although it’s often seen this way, what children are doing in these moments is really not an attempt to be defiant or embarrass you in Target. It’s an attempt to communicate feelings as best as they can. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. Imagine you’ve had a terrible day, you’re exhausted, and you just feel so angry. Now imagine that not only can you not speak, but you also don’t even have words to put to what you’re feeling. Frustrating, right? Your little one is probably feeling that way too. They’ve got the ability to feel all the big feelings adults do, but without the vocabulary or ability to say it. All they can do is use non-verbal!

In these moments, as parents, what can you do? First things first, you must check-in with your own feelings and regulate your own emotions. If you are meeting their anger with anger, it won’t do much to de-escalate the situation. Check-in with yourself: am I feeling angry, shame, fear, hunger, exhaustion? Acknowledge your own feelings first, do what you need to do to regulate them (deep breaths, quick grounding exercise, etc.) before you can address your little one’s feelings. As parents, it is crucial for you to be emotionally intelligent if you’re going to model and teach it to your children.

Next, give space for big feelings. You’ve raged before. You’ve sobbed and heaved until you can barely breathe. You’ve been exhausted to the point of collapsing. Give your kid permission to feel the same. This might look like sitting down on their level and just being a calm presence, giving a hug when/if they’re ready, or providing them with a comforting hand on the arm or favorite toy. But the key is to accept the emotions, and to INVITE your children to show them. Remember, if we punish kids for feeling big emotions, they WILL learn to stuff it down.

Another crucial element to raising emotionally intelligent children is modeling EI. Be open and vocal about your feelings. It’s okay for you to verbalize what you’re feeling. You don’t have to be stoic and emotionless as a parent. Of course, maintain appropriate boundaries about what you share with your children, but be willing to say if you’re sad, mad, worried, happy, etc. This helps your children learn that in your home, you talk about how you feel and it’s met with empathy and understanding.

When children can’t verbalize what they’re feeling, it’s also helpful to give names to their feelings. For example, when another child takes a toy away from yours and they get mad, you can say “It made you mad when ‘so and so’ took the toy from you, didn’t it?” Or, “You’re sad that Daddy has to go to work. I’m sad too.” This helps children in two ways: first, it communicates to them that their feelings are welcomed and that you understand them. Second, it helps kids learn the vocabulary and names of feelings that they otherwise might not know. So, again, it’s important for parents to also be educated on the different feelings and to tune in and pick up on how their children are feelings. This, as you may imagine, requires EI.

Older children who can talk and form complete sentences can hopefully start to name their feelings, perhaps with a bit of help and guidance. Now that they’re older, parents can start helping children connect their feelings to their bodies by asking, “Where do you feel the anger in your body? Does it make your hands hot, or your tummy feel tight?” Another aspect of EI is recognizing that our feelings don’t exist just in our brains; rather, they are a part of our physical self and manifest in different bodily sensations.

Grade school children, who developmentally can follow a line of cause and effect, can start to identify how their emotions affect their behavior and can start to develop ideas about healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions. If your child gets angry and breaks something they really love, without judgment or shaming them, parents can help walk them down the line of cause and effect. Children can start to understand how their behaviors have consequences, and this can be used to empower them to start using healthy coping strategies. Teaching kids (even very young children) how to do deep belly breathing is a great place to start. It’s also a good idea to help your children identify a variety of coping skills to deal with worry, sadness, anger, fear. At this age, the crucial element of teaching and modeling EI, is that parents are also using coping skills to regulate their own emotions.

To summarize, from a very young age, children start observing and picking up on cues from their parents about what is and isn’t welcomed or accepted in the home. They can either learn that “negative” feelings are punished or ignored or stuffed away in a box, or they can learn that those feelings are normal and human and that we don’t have to hide them from the people who love us. It’s so important to note that children who learn that there’s no space for their feelings will struggle to talk about their feelings as adults. Children who are forced to stuff down the bad stuff, will struggle to be vulnerable as adults. Children who do not learn healthy coping skills will likely develop unhealthy coping mechanisms as adults. When you consider the development of your children in regards to their academics, growth, motor skills, and language skills, please don’t forget to equally consider their emotional intelligence and take steps to help them develop this way. You’re helping them have more chances for success in their work, relationships, and with their own children in the future.

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