By Jodi Healy
Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. What you do with them, however, usually makes them right or wrong. With children this can be a challenge because self-control is an ever-evolving part of growing up. The emotional energy a child experiences can be overwhelming — from stubbing their toe in pain, angst over taking the bus for the first time, experiencing their first succulent taste of ice cream, to a sibling ripping a toy out of their hand.
Life is fundamentally a crux of positive and negative energy, and young children have not yet developed adult filters or control. This can cause lashing out, crying fits, temper tantrums, fighting, or the opposite — exploding with excitement, jumping up and down, and yelling in a store. Emotional maturity and mastery comes from being able to confidently recognize, acknowledge, experience, and properly manage all types of emotion.
The topic of emotional intelligence first became popular in 1995, with The New York Times bestselling book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Ph.D. He is also the author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. There are many models of emotional intelligence, often comprised of four domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. This has become a popular field of study and research by top educators and leaders. Many believe emotional intelligence is more important than IQ for success. According to Talent Smart, 90% of high performers at the workplace possess high EQ, while 80% of low performers have low EQ.
Reason and consequence evolve as children grow, and they need guidance, encouragement, and support to help navigate and develop their emotions based on different situations they experience.
1. Talking & sharing
Having conversations and simply talking to a child is a powerful way to teach emotional maturity. Being able to express yourself is not only a powerful skill, but it also puts the responsibility on how you feel and why on “you,” empowering a child to deal with any situation from a place of clarity and confidence (and not as a victim).
As you put your child to bed, or at another quiet time of the day, ask your child about their day and the experiences they had. Hear what they did, what they want to talk about, what they liked or didn’t like, or what they want to share, good or bad. Open a dialogue daily, so they are free to say what they think or feel in a safe place and learn to enjoy and share the myriad feelings they have. If your child is not a big talker (some are and some aren’t), an alternative activity is reading. When reading, see if your child would feel the same in the same circumstances as the characters. Being able to express ourselves freely and without judgement (be who we are) is what we all yearn for, especially children — unconditional love!
2. Detach with love
When talking with your child, detach with love. Just listen! Do not try to fix, control, or change the child’s feelings or experience. I know this is hard as a parent, especially if our child is in pain or suffering! We want to fix it. But allow them to express what they are thinking and feeling, without judgment. Often, we just need someone to vent to, to listen to us, to witness us. Usually, once we burn off the energy (positive or negative), we can think clearly. It is easier to deal with an issue once the emotion has lost its steam! Sometimes a child just needs to cry to release the pain they may be feeling. A friend may have said something mean, or even a teacher may have said something or reprimanded them. It hurts! But once the pain is gone, it loses its power, and suggestions are much easier to receive, like “Tell the friend what she said hurt your feelings,” “Tell a teacher. If it continues, walk away, or find a new friend to play with,” or “Did you tell your teacher it wasn’t you, or that you were sorry, or that you didn’t understand the question?” Feeling confident to say what you think and feel is powerful!
3. Recognizing triggers
We are all in an energetic exchange and transaction with everything around us! Children are small, fiery balls of energy, and just by proximity fuel each other. Just watch five 7-year-old boys in a room and you will witness this! A trigger is a term coined to identify and recognize things that affect you. A trigger can simply be a sibling taking a toy away, waiting for the bus knowing the big kid who yells will be in the back, the tone of your mother’s voice when everyone is running late, or knowing it is a half day! Children (and adults) are affected by everything around them. Being aware of this helps to recognize self-control. Either the child can talk about their bad feelings as they arise or they can figure out a coping strategy (walking away, breathing deeply, or other). If the big boy at the back of the bus is scary, sit in the front. If seeing Mommy getting upset bothers him, learn to check the time and get your shoes on as soon as you finish breakfast. This is a great skill to teach: You are responsible for what happens and can influence it!
Being able to identify and understand what is causing a child to experience something in a particular way (negatively or positively), puts the responsibility on the child. If a friend is teasing and keeps doing the same thing over and over again, there are always options and solutions. Why choose to spend time with someone who isn’t nice, fun, or doesn’t make you feel good? Find a different friend, say hi to someone new! Being able to recognize a trigger without being reactive — retaliating, fighting back, or lashing out — is emotional maturity. The child also is given a choice on how to act, and know there will be consequences if they retaliate. Even if the other child started something or was wrong, if he hits back he will also get in trouble
Nothing can truly affect you unless you let it. Recognizing triggers allows a child to realize he or she is not a victim to what is happening outside of them, and that we are in control of how we act, feel, and what we experience. And, most importantly, that we have a choice.
4. Follow your feelings
Feelings are how we experience life — good and bad. They are our inner guidance system. We can teach children to use feelings to navigate life. Once a child learns to share openly (talking) and to recognize triggers, they can follow their feelings to answers. Feelings show us what we like and don’t like, want or don’t want.
For example, if they do not like playing soccer and constantly do not want to go, it could be for a variety of reasons. The child may not like a girl on her team, or her coach said something she didn’t like, or she simply doesn’t like playing anymore. By talking about it, you can help identify and deal with the real issue. Often children make comments when they are in an emotional tornado, “I hate soccer, I don’t want to play anymore!” but that is not really the issue. By helping follow her feelings, first expressing and releasing the pain or hurt, she can then discuss why: “The coach yelled at me because I wasn’t paying attention on the field.” It seems simple, but children can’t always articulate the issue behind the emotion. It is much easier to offer solutions when we can get to the real issue. I gave my daughter a small stress ball to play with on the field because she was bored.
Asking open-ended questions are a great way to open a dialogue. An open-ended question is designed to encourage a meaningful answer and a response with more than one word, using a child’s own knowledge and/or feelings. “What makes you feel like you don’t want to play soccer anymore?” or “What happened that made you upset”? A closed-ended question is designed to get a specific answer, a short or single-word answer, a simple “yes” or “no,” or a specific piece of information (“What kind of ice-cream do you want?” “Do you like playing soccer?”).
By helping a child explore and talk through their feelings, the true issue can be found. Great open-ended questions include: “Why are you upset?” “What happened to make you feel this way?” “Is there something we can do?”
Emotions, whether “good” or “bad,” are natural and healthy. It is important to help children learn that all feelings are OK. Learning how to deal with feelings is critical for proper social and emotional development. Suppressing feelings can lead to long-term mental or health problems, such as behavioral issues, anxiety, depression, physical illnesses, and more. Children need to feel comfortable and confident in their emotions, in how to share their feelings, and deal with them appropriately. By following the steps above, even though it seems simple, children can learn to enjoy the emotional kaleidoscope of feelings as a guidance system toward what they want or desire. With emotional maturity, children have confidence in themselves and their identity, and grow up to become healthy adults.
Published Author Jodi D. Healy is a mother of three with more than 20 years’ experience in the field, with a B.A in Psychology and M.Ed. Her recent books, Create a Home of Learning, the Jesse True series, and The Dirt Girl, are available on Amazon or at Create a Home of Learning.
Four Ways to Teach Children Emotional Maturity
By Jodi Healy