Emotional Intelligence

When educating your little one, it’s not all about teaching facts and figures. Learning about emotions is a vital element, too

You’re a model parent – from solving quadratic equations to researching Henry VIII’s wives, you’re always on hand to help your children with their homework. It’s giving them the edge over their classmates, right? Not necessarily. The latest research shows that if you really want your children to excel at school, you’ll be better off helping their emotional intelligence – or EI.

Psychologists at the University of Central Lancashire found that children with greater emotional intelligence did better in SATs and GCSEs, and that children with lower IQs often did better than those with higher ones as long as their EI was higher. ‘Faced with failure, a student low on IQ but who is emotionally intelligent will be able to manage their feelings about failure, reconcile poor performance and work to improve,’ says research leader Dr Pamela Qualter. They also tend to be better at setting goals and dealing with the stress of exams, she adds.

It’s not just academic performance that benefits either. According to John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (available from www.amazon.co.uk), a child with high EI is more able to cope with everyday highs and lows, relates better to others and forms stronger friendships than one with lower EI.

Luckily, we’re not stuck with our emotional intelligence and there’s plenty we can do to improve it. ‘Emotional intelligence is laid down in childhood but you can still learn a lot of inter-personal skills in adulthood,’ says psychologist Dr Pat Spungin of www.raisingkids.co.uk. And working with your child’s emotions will help you look at your own emotional intelligence, says Dr Qualter. ‘It’s also a great excuse to have a lot of fun in the process.’

Talk about feelings
‘Children copy their parents, so, if you don’t talk about emotions, your children will be emotionally illiterate,’ says parenting coach Dorothy Boswell. Say things like ‘I feel sad that Granny is in hospital’ or ‘I feel nervous about this new job’. And don’t forget the positive emotions too, such as ‘I feel happy when we watch DVDs together’.

‘You should also ask your children about their emotions,’ says Boswell. ‘“How did you feel when your friends didn’t play with you?”, for instance.’ It can help to talk about your own childhood experiences and how you dealt with them.

And never belittle their feelings. If your child admits they’re scared to do something, don’t say, ‘I don’t know why you’re scared – there’s nothing to be scared of’. Say it can be scary to try new things. You may need to give very young children the words to describe their feelings – disappointed, frightened or excited, for instance.

Acknowledge their emotions
‘In everyday life, notice your child’s emotions,’ says Dr Spungin. ‘Say, “I can see from your face that something has upset you”.’ If a young child is angry or upset, show him that you’re taking his feelings seriously before trying to pacify or distract him. ‘With older children, let them know that it’s fine to feel angry – what’s important is what you do with it,’ says Boswell. ‘By asking the right questions, you encourage them to find their own solutions.’

Read and play together
Working out what other people think is a large part of EI. When you’re reading or watching TV, Dr Qualter suggests talking about the emotions of the characters in the stories and how these might affect the plot. Books also increase the number of feeling words your child knows – characters are not just excited, for instance, but can be elated, overjoyed or thrilled.

Young children can also learn the effects their feelings can have on their behaviour through pretend play. ‘It’s fun and teaches children how emotions affect the way other people feel and behave,’ says Dr Qualter.

Deal with conflict
‘Ideally, don’t get angry and lose your temper with your children,’ says Dr Qualter. ‘But it happens – and when it does, apologise and calm down to talk through the problem.’ If your children see you and your partner arguing, they should also see that, in the end, you work things out.

‘People with high EI learn to remove themselves from a conflict situation for a while, perhaps about 20 minutes, to let their emotions adjust,’ says Dr Qualter. ‘Then they come to the discussion again calmer and more composed.’ Seeing their parents do this could be a good lesson for children.

Be open with children
‘We often try to protect children from problems,’ says Dr Qualter, ‘but they are very perceptive so they will build up their own ideas of what is happening and why.’ She says it’s important for parents to talk to children about family decisions and problems – without frightening them. ‘It’s another chance to teach them about emotions and appropriate responses,’ she says.

Teach them it’s OK to fail
‘We all want our children to be successful at school,’ says Boswell. ‘In reality, children who have an easy ride and are unused to failing often don’t know how to bounce back the first time they encounter failure.’ She suggests allowing your child to fail from a young age. ‘Let your two-year-old hold a drink and spill it – and show them it doesn’t really matter,’ she says. This helps them realise it’s alright to fail sometimes.

‘And if your child has done badly in maths homework, for instance, encourage them to think back about how they could have done it differently or whether they could have asked the teacher for help earlier on,’ says Boswell. ‘In other words, help them work out their own solutions by asking them questions and listening.’

Mind your language
The language you use makes a big difference to the way your children perceive your emotions. The general rules of EI thinking are that you should label your feelings rather than label your children, take responsibility for your feelings rather than blaming your children, and suggest rather than tell your children what to do. So try our low to high EI swaps:

After a clash with your child

LOW EI: ‘You’re making me angry.’

HIGH EI: ‘I feel upset and angry when you don’t listen to me.’

Before leaving the house

LOW EI: ‘Get your hat and gloves.

’HIGH EI: ‘What do you need to be ready for school?’

When you’re tired

LOW EI: ‘Leave Mummy alone.

’HIGH EI: ‘I’m tired. What do you think will make me feel better?’

To your teenager

LOW EI: ‘You can’t go there or come back at that time.

’HIGH EI: ‘I don’t want you to go there because I worry about you. Sorry, but that’s how I feel.’

When talking about another child’s behaviour

LOW EI: ‘What an idiot!’

HIGH EI: ‘He seems like an angry boy.’

Further information
– For a consultation with Dorothy Boswell or for details of her courses and workshops, visit www.parenting-coaching.com.

– If you think your child needs some help, visit www.u-think.org.uk – a computer programme developed by Dr Pamela Qualter and her team to help children boost their EI.

Words: Karen Williamson

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