The number one tool for teaching emotional intelligence to your kids

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“How we deal with our inner world drives everything.”

These are the words of Susan David PhD, award winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Emotional Agility. 

How do your children cope with their inner world? What even is the inner world? 

If you answered the second question in relation to what we think and how we feel you nailed it. Our inner worlds are the thoughts and feelings that are known only to us. They’re busy places. Understandably, there’s no exact figure on it but we have in the ball park of 60,000 thoughts each day. Some of them we share with others, some come and go without us paying them much attention and then there are the thoughts that impact how we feel and what we do, in both big and small ways. 

We know how happy thoughts impact us. In the midst of a regular day we might remember we’re catching up with a friend on the weekend and we feel excited. It might cause us to act in a way that’s more friendly or generous because we’re feeling good. Equally, we can be going about our day having been distracted from the fact that we’re waiting on the results of a biopsy from a suspect freckle and when that thought comes to mind, a feeling of worry or dread can wash over us in a way that can make us impatient and irritable.

What we think affects how we feel which in turn impacts what we do. This is known as the thoughts, feelings and behaviour triangle. And what we do can indeed equally impact what we think and how we feel. Exercise is a great example. 

Of course, the same is true for our kids. They too have thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are all interrelated. We can teach them the skills to successfully navigate their inner worlds by developing within them emotional intelligence. Not doing so is akin to sending them sailing out to sea without an understanding of the ocean, the weather, how to swim or sail their vessel.   

Like any skill that requires flexibility, adaptability and nuanced application, emotional intelligence develops over time. As parents, we’re presented with opportunities to help develop these skills in our kids every day as they experience the range of experiences and emotions that come with being human. 

To begin with, the circumstances that best lend themselves to teaching emotional intelligence are those times when our kids are experiencing what they’ll perceive to be negative emotions. When our kids are feeling distressed it can be hard for us to think clearly and guide them through their experience in a way that supports them, in addition to strengthening their mast and reinforcing their sails to continue the sailing metaphor. 

Because it’s especially hard to support our children to understand and manage their emotions during times of distress I wanted to share with you a science-backed tool developed by the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence to support you. It’s called the RULER approach. Yale actually have a wonderful program dedicated to emotional intelligence if you’re keen to learn more. That said, keeping this simple acronym in mind will support you to support your children in the moments of despair and upset, as well as in times of joy and happiness. Here it is:

R          Recognise

U          Understand

L          Label

E          Express

R          Regulate

Recognise

The first part of this process is about teaching your child an awareness of their emotions. Start talking about emotions on occasions peppered throughout the day to help your child connect with how they’re feeling. Talk about your feelings to and bring the idea of awareness of how we’re feeling to the conversation often. 

Understand

It’s helpful for our kids to develop an understanding of what has caused them to feel the emotions they’re feeling. Was it a thought, a memory or a worry about the future? Did something happen at school, was something said to them or did they hurt themselves? Making a link between the recognition of their emotions and what underlies them is integral to this step.

Label

Name it to tame it. This is an expression that encapsulates this part of the process. It’s important for all of us to be able to put a name to emotions. “I’m feeling sad” or “I’m feeling frustrated” are powerful ways for children to begin to manage their feelings. Note that “I’m feeling…” is the prefix to this awareness, rather than teaching kids to say “I am sad” or “I am frustrated”. A subtle, but important difference. 

Express

Once children know what they’re feeling, being able to express their emotions in healthy and helpful ways is the next part of the process. Key messages here are that expressing emotions is important and this can be done in ways that don’t impact on other people or their surroundings in hurtful or damaging ways. Some young children lash out when they’re hurt or angry so this is a message that is important to be instilled over time. Older children and teens will naturally adopt ways that help them express their emotions but you can also offer suggestions and share how you express your own emotions. Helpful ideas include exercise, playing or listening to music, alone time, talking to a parent or a friend or playing with a pet. 

Regulate

It’s essential we raise our kids to know that there are no wrong feelings. That all emotions are natural, normal and perfectly human. No-one is happy all the time and that recognising, understanding, labelling and expressing emotions is healthy. The last part of the RULER program is about regulating emotions. Developing the know-how and the ability to express emotions in ways that are appropriate to the time and place. This comes with time and maturity as well as parent coaching. While a 3-year-old can get away with a tantrum in kindergarten because they have red grapes instead of white grapes in their lunchbox, a 10-year-old in a grade 5 classroom won’t. it’s not acceptable for disappointment and frustration to be expressed that way at that age. This is what it means to regulate emotions. 

Difficult feelings are hard to bear. But any attempts to suppress or ignore emotions only serves to amplify them. We know this from experience, but it shows through in the science too. The RULER program is an approach that with practice, we can use to support our children to become agile as they experience emotions throughout childhood and beyond. It’s a powerful tool and one that you can step through each time your child is upset and emotional. Each new time reinforces your confidence to support them through tough times and helps your child to internalise a way of coping that will see them grow into teenagers and adults with the skills to cope with what life throws at them.  

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