There is perhaps no more important skill that we can teach our children than how to be happy. We want to know that they will be able to navigate the world, to form strong, healthy relationships, to keep a positive outlook, to deal with stress effectively and to find what makes them passionate, because these are the things which breed happiness.
I believe that the most powerful way to do this is to boost our children’s emotional intelligence. In this article I wanted to take a look at why fostering emotional intelligence is so important, and what techniques we as parents can use to do it effectively.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is a measure of our ability to manage our emotions. People with a high emotional intelligence are in touch with their own emotions and have empathy for emotion in others. They are able to deal with strong feelings, positive and negative, both in themselves and others, and can use emotion in practical ways, such as problem solving and creativity.
Why is it so important?
Since psychologist Daniel Goleman made the term popular in 1995, there has been some dispute about what exactly emotional intelligence is and how it can be taught, but there seems no doubt that it’s important to our wellbeing. People with high ‘E.I’ have been shown to have fewer mental health problems and tend to do better at work.
That ability to cope with stress and anxiety comes in handy when we’re tackling a big project at work, facing an important job interview or working through relationship problems as adults. In fact, being able to manage our emotions in a healthy way sets our level of happiness much more than traditional IQ.
We first learn these skills as children, from dealing with stress and anxiety in the playground and classroom to managing anger with siblings. If we give our children the opportunity to build their emotional intelligence, we’re giving them the best possible chance to be happy, healthy humans for life.
• Dealing with negative emotions
Anger, stress and anxiety are negative emotions, but they’re also natural ones that our children are bound to encounter many times during their lives. Denying these emotions can feel like it’s the right response – telling our children they shouldn’t be angry, that they don’t need to be stressed or anxious. But in fact, denial doesn’t equip them with the tools they’ll need to deal with these emotions alone. Instead, positively acknowledging negative emotion can be a powerful technique; ‘You are angry. It is making you very stressed, I understand that.’ Identifying and embracing a child’s emotion can help them recognise it themselves, making it easier for them to deal with.
• Encouraging empathy
Connecting with children is without doubt the best way to teach them empathy. A strong emotional connection will allow children to experience someone else recognising their feelings, and in turn will support them in recognising the feelings of others. Sometimes when we acknowledge a child’s fears or anger, it can feel as if we’re reinforcing or encouraging it, but in fact we are reinforcing an understanding of emotion, the key to high emotional intelligence. Children who are strongly connected to the adults in their life are calmer, more confident and find it easier to connect with others.
• Fostering passion and enthusiasm
There is perhaps no more powerful skill when it comes to academic and professional success than a capacity for engagement and passion. People who are passionate about what they are doing are more likely to absorb and retain information, and are better prepared to deal with stress and pressure.
Engagement is a crucial step in this process. Eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and having enough quiet time helps children learn how to truly engage in an activity, and how to find their ‘flow’, that powerful creative state where we are fully present in what we are doing and our creativity is at full throttle. Such a state is as addictive as it is productive, and children who learn to recognise it will have a powerful tool for achieving success and fulfilment.
Helping our children to become passionate people is a huge part of boosting their emotional intelligence. Most children discover subjects they’re interested in as they grow up, from dinosaurs and castles to clarinet and netball. As parents, it’s our job to foster those interests, giving children the chance to explore them fully, to ask questions, learn more deeply and communicate their passion. Home projects, trips to museums or events, crafts and activities relating to their interest – all these help to encourage an enquiring mind that thrives on passion.
If your child doesn’t have their own passion yet, you can help them discover it by exposing them to as much outside stimulus as possible, reading a variety of books, visiting different places and discussing subjects with them openly.
Raising enthusiastic kids may be even more of a challenge than normal for affluent families. Children who are brought up in affluent environments can be less likely to get pleasure from activities and more likely to be bored. This, combined with a pressure to perform academically, can mean children of affluent families struggle to find the joy in what they do.
Self-esteem and emotional intelligence
Self-esteem is a vital requirement for happiness in children and adults. Valuing ourselves and knowing our worth can help us stand up to adversity, deal with hard work and setbacks and make lasting and healthy friendships and relationships, the key to confidence and happiness.
Self-esteem is also tied to emotional intelligence – the child who learns to recognise and acknowledge their emotions as valid and valuable also values themselves as a person.
Sometimes we worry as parents about our children having ‘too much’ self-esteem, becoming conceited or arrogant. But I believe that self-esteem can never be a negative trait. In fact, these negative behaviours often stem from the opposite of self-esteem; insecurity. Rid ourselves of insecurity through nurturing emotional intelligence and we rid ourselves of the need to be conceited or grandiose in our character.
These days, parents have a tougher job than ever helping their children develop self-esteem. Social media platforms, especially those focused on images like Instagram, put a huge emphasis on body image, forcing children to assess their own bodies and lifestyles from a very early age. They also leave children open to online bullying and social pressure. It’s crucial that we as parents educate our children about the limitations and effects of social media, showing them that the image we project there is curated, carefully chosen and often unrealistic.
We need to equip our kids with a happiness toolbox; a set of attitudes and techniques they can use to deal with the world. And it’s something I love doing, because it’s not just our children who benefit. The process connects me more closely to them too.