Ask someone if they are intelligent and the response may well be based on their literacy or numeracy skills, or perhaps their general knowledge, but there are many forms of intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a form of social intelligence. Someone who has high emotional intelligence is able to recognise and monitor their own and others' feelings and emotions, to engage with and navigate them, and then to use that emotional information to guide their own thinking and actions.
I consider emotionally intelligent people to be like detectives. Every time they interact with someone, they are able to uncover the emotional pieces that are missing from what a person actually says out loud. Then they are able to use that emotional information in an effective way, to become a better leader, a better teammate or a better friend.
Daniel Goleman, a Harvard-trained psychologist, developed the definition of emotional intelligence into a set of nineteen competencies that signal whether someone is emotionally intelligent. There are many, long-lasting benefits to making efforts to increase our emotional intelligence. Perhaps most importantly, having high emotional intelligence can help us create and maintain more meaningful relationships, both at work and in our personal life.
The benefits of emotional intelligence make sense. A child who can calm themself when they feel angry is likely to do well in difficult circumstances. A child who can express their emotions in a healthy way is more likely to maintain healthier relationships than a child who screams or says unkind things when they are angry.
The good news is that all children have the capacity to learn emotional intelligence skills. They just need adults to teach them how. Children need to know how to recognise how they are feeling. We can help children by putting a name to their emotions—at least the emotion we suspect our child is feeling.
Label the Emotions
When a child is upset that they lost a game, we can say, “It looks like you feel really angry right now. Is that right?” If they look sad, we might say, “Are you feeling disappointed that we are not going to visit Grandma and Grandpa today?”
Emotional words such as “angry,” “upset,” “shy” and “painful” can all build a vocabulary to express feelings. We must remember to share the words for positive emotions, too, such as “joy,” “excited,” “thrilled” and “hopeful.”
Empathy not Sympathy
When a child is upset, especially when their emotions seem exaggerated, it can be tempting to minimise how they are feeling. But dismissive comments will teach children that the way they are feeling is wrong.
A better approach is to validate their feelings and show empathy, even if we do not understand why they are so upset. If a child is crying because we told them they cannot go to the park until they clean their room, we can say something like, “I feel upset when I don’t get to do what I want too. It’s hard sometimes to keep working when I don’t want to.”
When a child sees that we understand how they are feeling on the inside, they will feel less compelled to show us how they are feeling through their behaviour. So, rather than scream and cry to show us they are angry, they will feel better when we have made it clear that we already understand they are upset.
Model How to Express Emotions
Children need to know how to express their emotions in a socially appropriate way. So, whilst saying, “My feelings are hurt,” or drawing a picture of a sad face could be helpful, screaming and throwing things are not acceptable.
As adults we should use feeling words in our everyday conversation and practise talking about them. We should say things like, “I feel angry when I see children being mean on the playground,” or “I feel happy when we get to have our friends come over for dinner.”
Emotionally intelligent adults are more likely to have emotionally intelligent children. So we should make it a habit to clearly focus on building our own skills so we can be an effective role model for our children.
“What really matters for success, character, happiness and life long achievements is a definite set of emotional skills – your EQ — not just purely cognitive abilities that are measured by conventional IQ tests.” (Daniel Goleman)