How Children Learn To Be Emotionally Intelligent

Note: This is the first of a two-part series.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to grow up in a home where your parents expected you to always be cheerful, happy and calm.  The trouble is, things keep happening in your life that makes it nearly impossible to keep up a happy front.  Your baby sister gets into your room and destroys your comic book collection.  You get in trouble at school for something you didn’t do, and your best friend lets you take the rap.  You enter the science competition and your project bombs.  Then there was that awful family vacation that turned out to be little more than one interminable car ride.

But these things are not supposed to bother you.  If you call your baby sister a pest, your mother says, “Of course you don’t mean that.”  Talk about the incident at school and your Dad says, “You must have done something to provoke your teacher.”  Science project disaster?  “Let it go.  You’ll do better next year.”  And the family vacation?  Don’t even mention it.  “After all the money your Dad and I spent to take you kids someplace interesting.”

Over time, you’ll learn that it makes little sense to talk to your folks about your true inner life.  And that makes you lonely.  This can be confusing—especially if you grow older and see mounting evidence that life really is a drag at times.  But you’re not supposed to feel all these bad feelings.  So you become a master at covering up.  Better yet, you do your best not to feel.  You learn to avoid situations that lead to conflict, anger and pain.  In other words, you steer clear of intimate human bonds.

But what if things were different?  What if you grew up where your family’s primary role was empathetic understanding?   Imagine if your parents asked, “How are you?” because they really wanted to know the truth.  You might not feel compelled to answer “Just fine” every time because you’d know that they could handle it if you said, “I had a rough day.”  They would simply listen for what you had to say and they would do their best to understand and help you.

Chances are, you wouldn’t feel so lonely.  You’d feel that your parents are there for you no matter what happened.  You’d know that you could turn to them for support because you’d know that they would understand what was happening inside you.

In its most basic form, empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling.  It’s what allows children to see their parents as allies.  If we can communicate this intimate emotional understanding to our children, we give credence to their experience and help them learn to soothe themselves.

But many parents don’t offer such comfort and safety.  There is The Dismissive Parent who treats the child’s feelings as unimportant or trivial.  There is The Disapproving Parent, who displays many of the dismissive parent’s behaviors but in a more negative way, because s/he judges, criticizes, or punishes the child for emotional expression, and believes that emotions make people weak.

The Laissez-Faire Parent freely accepts all emotional expression from the child, and even offers comfort to the child experiencing negative feelings, but offers very little guidance on behavior and does not help children solve problems.

Contrast those parenting styles with The Emotion Coach.  This parent values the child’s negative emotions as an opportunity for intimacy, growth and personal understanding, uses emotional moments as a time to listen and empathize, and guides the child to regulate and problem solve such emotions.  That parent is far more likely to raise an emotionally intelligent child.  I will address how in next week’s column.

Source:  Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman (Simon and Schuster)

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