More than a feeling

Parenting Developing emotional intelligence is vital to your child's happiness and success.

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All parents want to help their children develop the skills they need to be happy and successful. Many of us worry about our children's academic abilities and their basic intelligence or IQ. There is no denying that both are important, but by focusing solely on them, parents can neglect an equally important area of development: emotional intelligence, or EI.

EI is comprised of a core set of competencies which build the capacity to create better relationships and a happier outlook on the world. Surely all parents will agree that we want children who grow in to happy adults. Today children around the world are faced with many challenges: high divorce rates, bullying, body-image issues, global uncertainty, stress, and more. We need to provide them with the skills to manage their emotions both at home and at school.

The author Daniel Goleman made the term famous in the mid-1990s when he published the book Emotional Intelligence, examining the research of the psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer. He says that EI has five domains: self-awareness, self-management, motivation, relationship awareness and relationship management. Their research suggests that we must learn to know ourselves well, for example to notice the beginnings of our feelings so that we can manage them before they overwhelm us. We must be aware of our reactions to situations and learn to respond in a way that produces a positive outcome rather than a negative one that we may later regret. Once we have more control over the first domains of self-awareness and management, we can then improve our relationships with others.

Children go through different stages in developing their emotions. Sadness, happiness, and fear can be identified by children as young as three through indicators such as body language and tone of voice.  Parents can help build emotional literacy in very young children by letting them know it is permissible to have different feelings, that all feelings have a purpose and by helping them to label their emotions and manage them effectively.

The capacity to recognise and comprehend emotions increases as we grow older. Children in the six-to-nine age range develop more of an interest in socialising, and creating friendships and interpersonal relationships. Parents of children of this age can do practical things to help, such as making time each day to ask how they felt throughout the day and what were the happiest and saddest moments.

By getting used to speaking about their emotions, children will be more likely to open up if they experience real difficulties later in life. Involving your child in activities such as giving to charity and visiting less fortunate children also helps to develop empathy. Amanda, a mother living in Al Ain, has certain strategies for when her son experiences difficulties with other children. "We let him have the time to tell us the whole story - no matter how long it is," she says. "If he has been on the receiving end of other children's nastiness, we ask him to think about how the other child must have been feeling to act like that."

These types of simple conversations and activities build emotional stability and trust. Instead of asking children "how was school?", ask "how are you?" and really listen to their answers. Draw out their feelings by actively listening to how they coped that day. Don't tell your child not to feel a certain way - "don't be sad", for example. This enforces the belief that certain feelings are bad or that they are not supposed to be experienced.

During pre-teenage and teenage years the limbic, or emotional, brain is especially active. Teenagers are going through huge changes in their bodies and minds. With hormones raging, they need to have their social emotional learning opportunities at the forefront of their education before poor decisions are made that they may later regret. Developing EI skills in children allows them to manage conflict with friends. They can develop skills in self-motivation, optimism and stress management.  This will also help them to work cooperatively with others both at school and in the wider world.

Children with high EI are also able to display understanding of others and may be able to help others with lower EI. These are skills that will serve children well in their adult lives. Imagine being taught at school how to manage your stress from a young age. Encouraging children to write in a journal is a great way to do this. Children can often look back a few weeks later and see that they did manage a situation which at the time felt very difficult.

If children can manage stressful feelings, have good relationships with their peers and teachers, and are self-motivated, the chances of an improved academic experience are high. Many skills can be easily integrated into the regular curriculum at school as well as taught explicitly.  One idea parents and teachers can use is bibliotherapy - a wonderful way to develop EI skills by reading a story together, then discussing how the characters were feeling, or looking at the narrative from another character's point of view. If your child is experiencing a particular problem it is also useful to search out books with characters facing the same dilemmas (such as a divorce or moving house).

Children learn primarily though their role models. They watch what we do and how we handle situations. As far as possible, try to be a positive influence and to manage your own emotions effectively. It is important to show children effective ways to handle stress and anger. When learnt at a young age, these skills become ingrained and continue to develop into adulthood.
Helen Maffini is an educational consultant in the UAE. Her book, Developing Children's Emotional Intelligence, is published by Continuum. @email:www.emotional-