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How to Teach Emotional Intelligence When Storm Clouds Brew

When storm clouds brew, even the most well-intentioned parent can get triggered and escalate the upset rather than calm it.  But when your child wrestles with the more "difficult" human emotions, he needs your help to learn how to manage them. This is the most important time to teach emotional intelligence.  How?

1.  Model emotional intelligence.   The most important thing you can do to encourage emotional intelligence in your child is to regulate your own emotions. Kids learn emotional regulation from us. What they see you do is what they will do.  And when we stay calm, it teaches our child that there's no emergency, even if she feels like there is at the moment. Our calmness is what teaches little ones how to soothe themselves.

Most of us keep it together fairly well until we’re upset at our child and start disciplining.  But since our reaction always either calms or inflames the situation, it’s especially important to stay calm and see your child’s perspective as you’re setting limits.  There's no reason at all for blame or punishment, only for a clear limit with empathy:

"I'm sorry, Sweetie, I know it's hard to stop, but you can play more tomorrow. Now it's time to say Goodbye, Game. Ok, I'm turning it off.  I know that makes you sad, but now it's bedtime. Come, let’s bring your doll upstairs.  I want to make sure we have time for a story.  What should we read tonight?"

"You know the rule is No Jumping on the couch.  It breaks the couch.  I see your body really wants to jump right now.  You can jump on the trampoline in the basement, or you can go outside and jump on your pogo stick, but NO jumping on the couch." 

2.  Empathize with emotions, limit actions.  Of course you need to limit your child's actions.  He can't run in the street, throw his dinner on the floor, hit his sister, or play on the computer all night.  In every case where your child's behavior is clearly unacceptable, set a limit. (If it isn't "clear" just ask yourself if you're ok with being flexible, and be sure not to push yourself past your own comfort level.)

But he's allowed to have, and to express, all his emotions, and that includes feelings of disappointment or anger in response to your limits.  Children need to "show" us how they feel and have us "hear' them, so meltdowns are nature's release valve for children's emotions. Instead of banishing your child to his room to get himself under control (which gives him the message that he's all alone with his big, scary feelings), hold him, or stay near and connected with your soothing voice: "You are so mad and sad right now.  That's ok, Sweetie, I am right here, I will keep you safe.  It's ok to cry. I am right here." 

Once the storm passes, your child will be cooperative and affectionate, and feel so much more connected to you because you tethered him through his inner tornado.  Ignore any rage or rudeness during a meltdown; your child is showing you the depth of his upset.  AFTER the storm is the time to teach, not during. And you'll find that not much teaching is really necessary once you help your child with his feelings.  That's because he already KNOWS the expected behavior, he just couldn't control those big emotions.  Your soothing support is the first step of him learning that skill.

3.  Respond to the needs and feelings behind problem behavior.  "Troublesome" behavior signals big feelings or unmet needs. If you don’t address the feelings and needs, they’ll just burst out later, causing other problem behavior. Examples of responding to needs:

Connection:  "It’s hard to let go of me this morning.  Starting school has been fun, but you miss time with Mommy .I will be right here to pick you up after school, and we’ll  snuggle and play together and have special time, ok?"

Healthy sense of power/ agency:  "Ok, looks like you want to do it yourself! I’m right here if you need some help.”

Sleep: “You're having a hard time this morning.  I think everything is a bit too much for you because we all got to bed late last night and didn't get quite enough sleep. Maybe we need to spend some cozy time this morning on the couch reading a pile of books."

4. Remember that anger is always a defense against deeper emotions, like fear, hurt or sadness.  “Hate” is not a feeling at all, but a “position,” or a stance we assume to protect ourselves.  Acknowledge your child’s anger, but then go under it to empathize with the deeper emotions spurring the anger.  Having a chance to feel those deeper emotions will melt your child’s anger, and having you meet those deeper needs will keep him from needing to be angry.

"You hate the new baby? I hear you. Sometimes you get really mad at her just for being here.  And I see how mad you are at me, too, for spending time with the baby.  You liked it better when it was just you and me. You feel so sad that things are different now and I am so busy with the baby.  Come snuggle with me and I will hold you and you can show me your sad and mad feelings. When you're ready I will kiss your nose and toes and we can play baby games, just you and me, like we did when you were a baby."

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Since many parents had scary experiences with anger as young children, we’re often frightened of our children’s anger.  Letting our child know that he isn’t a bad person for feeling rage helps him accept his anger as normal and move through it, rather than getting stuck in it.
  • Most of us don’t understand that anger is a defense, so we don’t know how to manage it.  Helping kids recognize what’s behind their anger gives them the tools to dissolve it rather than getting stuck in it.

5. When a desire can't be granted, acknowledge it and grant it through “wish fulfillment.”

It’s amazing how often you can get through an impasse by giving your child his wish in his imagination.  Partly this is because it shows you really do care about what your child wants, and wish you could make him happy.  But there's another, fascinating, reason.  Research shows that the power of the mind is so great that imagining that our wish is fulfilled actually satisfies us for the moment, meaning the part of our brain that shows satisfaction actually looks satisfied on a brain scan!  Giving your child his wish in imagination releases some of the urgency behind it so that he's more open to alternatives.

“I bet when you’re grown-up, you’ll never go to bed.  You’ll stay up playing all night long, won’t you?”

“You wish you could have a cookie. I bet you could gobble ten cookies right now! Wouldn’t that be so yummy?!”

Then find a way to meet the deeper need: "I think you're hungry.  It's almost time for dinner but you can't wait.  Let's find a snack that makes your body feel better."

6.  Don't take it personally, and resist the urge to escalate or retaliate. 

Your child has big feelings. They aren't about you, even when he’s yelling "I hate you!" It's about your child: their tangled up feelings, their difficulty controlling themselves, their immature ability to understand and express their emotions.  When your daughter says "You NEVER understand!" try to hear that as information about her -- at this moment she feels like she's never understood -- rather than about you. Model emotional self-management by simply taking a deep breath and trying to see it from her perspective. Remind yourself that it's hard to be a kid.  She doesn't yet have the internal resources to manage her emotions -- but you do, right? 

Tough? Yes, because most of us find it challenging to manage our own feelings so that we can tolerate our children’s unruly emotions. But have you noticed the silver lining? We get a chance to grow in emotional intelligence ourselves.  So if you got swatted instead of understood when you were a kid, it's never too late to have a happy childhood.

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