Today, in the world of smart phones and social media, one’s ability to focus and connect will be their greatest asset now and into the foreseeable future.
The surefire way to teach your children emotional intelligence (or the lack of it) is to model it for them. But in addition to our own behavior, we can use exercises to increase not only our children’s emotional intelligence, but our own.
Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Helping children increase their emotional intelligence through better self-awareness, self-esteem and by teaching them how to manage their emotional impulses not only leads to gains in behavioral improvement, but also enhances their academic achievement in school.
In an incredible comprehensive analysis of 668 studies on social and emotional learning programs at schools around the country, Dr. Roger Weissberg from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that students who participated in these programs:
- 50% increased their achievement scores
- 38% increased their GPAs
- 63% displayed more positive behaviors
- And, schools documented a 28% decrease in misbehavior (including a reduction of suspensions by 44%)
Now, imagine how could enhanced emotional intelligence could improve your home life? More peaceful dinners, family trips, but more importantly, happier children. Here are some tips and activities to harness and cultivate emotionally intelligent communication with your kiddos:
Emotional Expressiveness—Adept at sending social signals with nonverbals and displays of emotion.
Activity: The Body Speaks— Dr. Robert Plutchich theorized that there are eight primary emotions: fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, trust, anticipation, and surprise. Make flashcards for each of these primary emotions and have your child nonverbally act out what each emotion looks like.
What is the posture like? How are they breathing? With practice, they can more adeptly move from the emotional state that they are in to the desired emotional state by focusing on the physiological cues. We can fake it until we become it as explained in Amy Cuddy’s excellent TED Talk on body language shapes who you are.
From there you can move to more complex emotions and contrast them. Here are some examples:
- Pride vs. shame
- Closeness vs. distance
- Caution vs. rashness
- Patience vs. anger
- Relaxation vs. stress
- Envy vs. goodwill
Emotional Sensitivity— Children with high emotional sensitivity are receptive and able to pick up subtle emotional cues from others. This means they are empathic to the feelings of others but may also be at risk to pick up the “emotional contagion” of others. Some researchers believe that Aspergers could be related to having an overwhelming overflow of empathy rather than the lack of it. For every child, being more emotionally intelligent will mean different things. In this example of emotional sensitivity, it may be about dialing back emotional sensitivity rather than dialing it up. The key is to have them play with the range and how it makes them feel.
Activity: Emotional Peek-A-Boo—This time, you model the different emotions through non-verbal cues and your child guesses which emotion it is that you’re demonstrating.
Social Sensitivity—The ability to listen and perceive social norms in communication. On the far end of the spectrum, a child could be extremely sensitive to social cues leading to anxiety and withdrawal from social situations.
Social Control—The ability to understand the social dynamics and to play an appropriate role within them.
Activity: What Would You Do If—Present different age appropriate situations and ask them, “What would you do if… someone stole your toy?” “What would you do if a friend was giving you the cold shoulder?” Etc.
Emotional Control—Ability to choose which emotions are shown to others. May appear to be cold.
After practicing the way these non-verbal cues work and look, in the moment of a melt-down, you can coach your child through their feelings and how do they ultimately want to feel? What do they need? By putting their emotions into words they activate an area of the brain that’s known as the brain’s braking system—the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.
Let’s explore why this braking system is so important. In an adorable study by Walter Mischel conducted in 1972, children were challenged to sit in a chair with a marshmallow, and if they didn’t eat it, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Those that were able to use more self-control by not eating a delectable marshmallow for 15 minutes scored 200 points higher on their SATs in comparison to their counterparts who lacked the same restraint.
You can watch a reenactment of the study here.
All forms of self-control are regulated by the same neural pathways in the brain so by flexing these neural “muscles” you can increase self control in other ways, which can have an incredible impact on their success later in life.
Activity: When I…—Have your child write out different behaviors, the feelings attached to those behaviors and ultimately, what they need. This will help them understand the emotions they are expressing and how to identify what they actually want.
- When I…cry
- I am feeling…sad
- I need…a hug
This again, helps activate the brain’s braking system and you can talk through with your child when do we need to wait for what we want, and what makes it socially appropriate given the context of the scenario.
Social Expressiveness—The ability to hold engaging conversations with others using verbal communication skills. This is separate but related to extraversion.
Activity: Mommy/Daddy & Me Date— Take your child on a Mommy & Me and/or Daddy & Me date. Turn off your cell phone and any other digital devices. No multitasking. Just thirty minutes of dedicated conversation. Take turns asking questions and listening. What does it feel like when we are listened to? Why is listening important? What questions can we ask others to make them feel important and loved?
By taking a whole-family approach to emotional intelligence, and getting everyone involved in improving their communication, you can improve your well-being too. The greatest gift you can give to your children is your presence. So in this time of hectic holiday chaos, use these activities to invest in one of the most precious gifts you could give this holiday season: A fully present and engaged you.