Over the years, views of intelligence have expanded and psychologists now have a more comprehensive understanding of abilities and skills that contribute to personal success. In fact, numerous studies have identified a variety of factors beyond IQ that contribute to a child’s future success and effectiveness. These factors, often known as social and emotional intelligence (EQ), are actually a much better predictor of success than IQ or achievement scores.
Unfortunately, antiquated ideas of a singular, monolithic kind of intelligence persist and we continue to see an overemphasis on test scores and intellect. As a result, parents often overlook the importance of developing and boosting their child’s emotional intelligence.
Parents are encouraged to have awareness that unlike IQ, EQ can be taught and nurtured throughout childhood. In fact, childhood can be looked at as a critical window of opportunity to enhance emotional and social skills.
EQ is multifaceted and involves self-awareness, the ability to manage emotions, optimism, self-motivation, empathy, positive social skills and interpersonal problem solving. Parents who bolster these master skills are ultimately fostering success in their children and better equipping them to manage life’s challenges.
The following 10 strategies are recommended starting points to help parents enhance their child’s EQ and foster greater success in our youth. With increasing pressures and the rise of anxiety and depression, efforts to build a child’s inner preparedness have never been more pressing.
Emotional Intelligence Involves:
- Emotional Regulation
- Social Skills
1. Be an “Emotion Coach” for Your Child
Parental warmth, responsiveness and sensitivity go a long way when it comes to a child’s development of emotional regulation, a critical EQ skill that allows us to bounce back from setbacks. To improve EQ and emotional regulation, become an emotion coach for your child by helping children verbally label emotions and noticing lower-intensity emotions to avoid escalation to get your attention. According to Dr. John Gottman, the most important goal of emotion coaching is to communicate understanding and empathy. Gottman advises parents to take time to understand their child’s feelings before giving advice, trying to problem solve or setting limits. Take a perspective that all feelings and wishes are acceptable (although all behaviors are not). Avoid seeing difficult emotions as harmful to your child and instead see emotions as an opportunity to connect. Become more aware of how you handle your child’s anger or sadness to avoid unintentionally sending negative messages about feelings. Stay patient with difficult emotions rather than becoming overwhelmed and reactive. Dr. Gottman's research reveals the benefits of at least one emotion-coaching parent are children with better self-regulation, coping, impulse control, motivation, and healthier relationships.
2. Teach Optimism
As Dr. Martin Seligman suggests in his book, The Optimistic Child, bolstering optimism can be like a "psychological immunization" for your child. Optimistic thinking buffers against apathy, hopelessness and depression in the face of stressors. Optimism and hope can be learned (as can helplessness and despair). Model optimistic thinking to your child. Children will absorb it. Teach them from an early age to look for the good things each day. Keep in mind that optimism relates to how you explain your successes and failures. Optimists see failures as changeable whereas pessimists take blame for failure. Understand pessimism as thinking habits that can be broken. Be aware of your child’s explanatory style and help them explain problems that are specific and changeable. Additionally, for children between the age of 3-10, parents can create positive modeling stories where they create a story that addresses a child’s real life problem and include a hero with realistic thinking, feelings and active problem solving.
3. Promote Empathy & Kindness
The foundation of positive social skills is the ability to recognize emotions in others and respond with empathy. When we are more empathic, we are more attuned to social cues, have more capacity for intimate relationships, and are less aggressive. To improve empathy, teach the golden rule and make a point to reinforce prosocial behavior, such as caring, sharing and helping. Kindness is pre-programmed in children, but will decline if not nurtured. Set high expectations for considerate and responsible behavior with chores and responsibilities increasing with age. Teach random acts of kindness and journal acts of kindness as a family. Participate in community service and take time to show your kids you value character and kindness. Keep in mind that if you want your child to empathize with others, you will need to be empathetic with them. Similarly, if you want a kind, respectful child, you will need to treat them with kindness and respect.
4. Encourage Persistence
Being able to delay gratification and cope with difficult emotions while working towards a goal is key to raising a persistent, highly productive individual. In order to bolster your child’s grit and motivation, reward effort rather than just achievement. Reinforce hard work and process rather than reinforcing outcome, especially outcome with limited effort. Reinforce behaviors where your child is able to display patience, wait calmly and delay fun in order to complete a challenging task. Teach that success is often built on failure. Create a family mantra for times when your child might seem defeated, such as the Smith’s “never give up,” or “face our fears.” Reinforce good study habits and time management early on rather than only focusing on letter grades in elementary school. Hobbies are a unique way to teach the value of effort, as they provide a combination of work and play. Be aware that children are confident in their abilities until approximately age seven. Once children have a more realistic idea of what they can and can’t accomplish around 3rd grade, it will be especially important for them to understand that effort can compensate for ability, a mentality that is key to persisting in the face of difficulty. Anticipate this change when children are between 8-12 and promote the importance of effort during this critical development period.
5. Foster Positive Social Skills
Strong social abilities help us mobilize, inspire others and thrive in intimate relationships. Teaching manners, the easiest EQ skill a child can acquire, is an important starting point to positive social skills, not just because it is good form, but because children with great manners are often well-liked and have more positive social experiences. Teach your child about being polite, holding the door, writing thank you notes, etc. Promote acceptance of others and conversational skills, such as expressing interest. Try not to do all the talking for your child. Help them learn how to share information and ask questions. Help children incorporate conflict resolution skills into their social relationships by teaching them how to compromise (i.e. flipping a “compromise coin”) and to take a break or cool down when frustrated. Help children learn how to handle defeats, victories and competition. Encourage children to celebrate the success of friends and strive to be their “personal best” rather than encouraging them to be “the” best.
6. Build Social Resilience
Be prepared for peer rejection and help your child cope by building social resilience. Avoid a defeatist attitude where you promote a victimized mentality and overly focus on the social problem. Teach children the difference between being assertive and aggressive, explaining that assertiveness is standing up for yourself without hurting or disrespecting others. Role play assertive statements and help them find a firm voice and use strong nonverbal behavior in their delivery. Help children view antagonizing comments or teasing as "bait." Remind them not to take the bait and help them learn how to avoid getting hooked by remaining netural. Help them identify when they may need to speak up, ignore or get help from an adult. Teach them to shift their attitude and translate mean messages (i.e. put-downs are really about the other guy). More information about teaching your child to use their minds during challenging peer situations can be found here.
7. Teach Compassionate Self-Talk
The way we speak to ourselves and interpret events is directly related to how we feel and respond. Teach your child to pay attention to their self-talk and help them learn how to encourage and “coach” themselves during difficult situations or feelings. Children over six can learn to talk to themselves to improve their attention and performance. When children learn to use self-talk, they can remind themselves they will survive the experience and that the discomfort is temporary and won’t last forever. Teach children that bravery means doing things even when they are scared. Read about bravery and worries to normalize feelings and help children use “brave thoughts” (“I can handle this”) when facing fears. Additionally, help children gain more awareness about unhelpful, shaming thoughts and the costs of using self-critical, exaggerated thoughts (“I am horrible at everything”). It will be equally important that parents are not modeling extreme, highly critical language during limit setting or during periods of parental frustration. Spend time, during non-emotionally charged moments, explaining how self-critical thoughts are equivalent to bullying, except that in this case, they are bullying themselves. Teach the importance of catching these thoughts and replacing them with statements that are more accurate and self-compassionate (“I am having a hard time in math right now” or “I don’t understand this yet”) rather than extreme and exaggerated ("I will never get this. I am stupid"). Asking a child to think about how they would respond to a friend in a similar situation can facilitate a more compassionate attitude towards themselves. Rather than focusing on self-esteem that is tied to success and failure, emphasize the power of self-compassion as an effective path to happiness. Research, such as the work of Dr. Kristen Neff, strongly suggests that people who are more self-compassionate lead healthier, more productive lives than those who are self-critical. In a society where we are given messages that we must achieve everything and be extraordinary, your child’s self-compassion will be critical in how they recover from the inevitable setbacks ahead.
8. Avoid Judgmental Language
Although the way we interact with a child is highly important, a parent’s communication style is also key to successful parenting and EQ. Parents are highly recommended to use non-judgmental language and lodge complaints, rather than criticisms.Keep in mind that criticism (“You are so lazy”) is an attack on the offender, whereas a complaint is an attack on the child’s actions (“You forgot to take out the garbage again and we need to do something about this”). Be accurate when stating complaints and avoid using exaggerated statements (“You do this all the time”). Describe your child’s behavior instead of labeling your child or using harsh words. When we use critical, judgmental language (“You are so mean”), we send messages that the child is bad, rather than their choices. Additionally, using extreme, harsh language (“You never/always ...or What’s wrong with you?”) is setting them up to use harsh, extreme language with themselves and modeling reactivity, rather than tolerance for frustration. Make an effort to separate your child’s behavior from who they are as a person. Send messages that you love them at their core unconditionally, but are disappointed with their behavior or choice. Rather than labeling your child as good or bad (“You’re such a good girl”), reinforce or set limits on behavior (“You made great choices at the park today”). Dr. Gottman advises parents to avoid four behaviors toxic to all relationships, including parent-child and marital relationships: criticism (pointing out what is negative about your child, "You are so ..."), defensiveness (not taking responsibility or repairing when you make mistakes, reacting, instead of listening when your child states a complaint), contempt (sarcasm, hostile jabs, hitting below the belt, name-calling, condescension) and stonewalling (shutting down, no eye contact, limited verbal statements, punishing the child by not speaking to them). Parents who struggle with communication style and parental frustration should be aware of how important language is to successful parenting and EQ. Learning how to self-soothe and use less reactive communication is essential. Although we all make mistakes with our language from time to time, parents are encouraged to shoot for non-judgmental language and avoid the toxic behaviors a good chunk of the time. Be sure you don’t get lost in only discussing problems and challenges. Make an effort to catch your child being good. Express praise specifically and ensure your communication is not overly negative.
9. Have a Growth Mindset
After 30 years of studying children’s attitudes about failure, Dr. Carol Dweck coined the term “growth mindset” to explain an attitude where one believes they can improve and get smarter. In contrast to this attitude, individuals with a “fixed mindset” believe their abilities are unchangeable and, as a result, are far less likely to flourish. Studies show that our mindset has a lot to do with how we behave in the face of challenges, with individuals with a growth mindset rebounding and learning from their mistakes as opposed to becoming paralyzed. Dweck’s research also found that we can change mindsets from fixed to growth, and parents’ actions and language can have a significant impact on their child’s mindset. Parents are encouraged to promote a growth mindset by talking about the brain and teaching children that their brain can physically change with effort. Parents can use books and videos for kids and teens to discuss these important concepts. Children that understand that their brain can grow with effort display more effort and perform better in school. Additionally, teaching children that mistakes are learning opportunities is also important in fostering a growth mindset. Parents are encouraged to share positive stories where they struggled, took risks, made mistakes and learned from the process. Finally, the way we praise children significantly impacts their mindset. Parents should reinforce process rather than sending messages that accomplishments are related to innate traits. For example, rather than praising a child for being smart which promotes a fixed mindset, praise their hard work which sends a message that effort was part of their success. Learn more at Mindset Works and facilitate a growth mindset to increase your child’s motivation, achievement and ability to recover from mistakes.
10. Encourage Active Problem Solving
Emphasizing problem solving and solutions in the family can help decrease the development of learned helplessness and avoidance. Develop an atmosphere of problem solving in your home through regular family meetings and by asking your child what they think they should do about the problem. By age 8 or 9, children can weigh pros and cons. Rather than solving the problem for them, help children learn to brainstorm and critically think about the best solution to their challenge. Focus on solutions rather than dwelling on the problem after you have tried to understand their feelings and communicated empathy. With older children, be a consultant. Help them with a supportive framework but avoid interfering and coming up with the solution for them. Avoid automatic rescue at the first sign of trouble. Be aware of the costs of over-parenting or providing too much assistance, which includes lower ability to manage hardship and limited self-perception of competence.
Lastly, remember that there is no such thing as the ”perfect parent.” Although it is important to strive to be an effective parent, It is not necessary to do all of these strategies perfectly and constantly. Dr. Gottman recommends that we try to get it right at least 40% of the time. Given the stakes and pressures of today’s age, parents should aim to integrate EQ best practices into their parenting approach as much as they can, with efforts to repair and do better when they miss the mark. Parents are encouraged to reflect on the 10 ideas above and write out intentions or goals to work on over time. If you need additional help in any of these areas, seek support from a mental health professional. Keep in mind that quality (screen-free) time with your child is the building block of EQ and in the words of neuropsychologist, Dr. Daniel Siegel, the best predictor of your child’s well-being is you. You can find additional resources on well-being here.
Parenting & EQ Resources
Growth Mindset Video- Infobundl (2 minute video for adults and teens)
Growth Mindset Introduction: What is it, How it Works and Why It Matters- Trevor Ragan (8 minute video for adults and teens)
Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting- Gottman & Declaire
Websites & Articles
Inner Kids Mindful Living for the Whole Family http://www.innerkids.org/
Emotion Coaching-The Gottman Institute https://emotioncoaching.gottman.com/
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) www.casel.org
Random Acts Of Kindness www.actsofkindness.org
Mindset Works https://www.mindsetworks.com/default
Bullying and Middle School-Dr. Diana Divecha’s Developmental Science blog http://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2013/11/06/how-can-parents-help-prevent-bullying-in-middle-school-2
The Secret to Raising Smart Kids: Carol Dweck- https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-secret-to-raising-smart-kids1/
The Trouble with Bright Girls - Heidi Grant Halvorson
Worry Knot- Lessons, distractions and worry management
Things to Do In Tampa Bay-Tampa Bay Times
Resources for Kids & the Young at Heart
Bright Spots Feeling charts to help little minds with feeling identification
Sensory and Fidget Toys-Stress balls and calming fidgets that can help focus and keep busy bodies relaxed
Mindfulness Coloring Books-Emma Farrarons
Growing Mindful Cards- Willard and Abblett
How to Make a Glitter Mindfulness Jar-HeartMindKids Parent-Child Meditation Craft
Time Timer-Visual Timer
What-to-Do Guides for Kids-American Psychological Association, Magination Press Series on What To Do When: You Worry Too Much, Dread Your Bed, Mistakes Make you Quake, Your Temper Flares, You Grumble Too Much, You Feel Too Shy, You Don’t Want to Be Apart, It’s Not Fair, Your Brain Gets Stuck, Bad Habits Take Hold.
Bravery & Fears
Chester The Brave-Penn
The Kissing Hand-Penn
Invisible String-Karst & Stevenson
The Warrior Workbook: A guide for Conquering your Worry Monster-Peters, Reid, Davis
Growth Mindset & Resilience
Growth Mindset for Students-Episodes 1-5 (Intro video series for younger kids)
Big Life Journal for Kids- BigLifeJournal.com
Moody Cow Meditates-MacLean
Peaceful Piggy Meditation-MacLean
Nightlights: Stories For You To Read To Your Child To Encourage Calm, Confidence and Creativity- Petty, Dunbar, Somerville
Stop, Breathe and Think Kids-Meditation App for Kids