How to be an Emotionally Intelligent Parent - Part II
In part 1 we defined emotional intelligence as your ability to: 1) make sense of your own emotion and express that emotion in a way that helps you meaningfully connect with your child, and; 2) accurately read the emotional cues your child sends (both verbally and non-verbally) and validate those feelings.
We also started discussing the three most common obstacles to being an emotionally intelligence parent: 1) our culture's emphasis on mental intelligence and, 2) ways we disconnect from our own emotion.
Here we add a third obstacle followed by some tips on how to cultivate an emotionally intelligent relationship with your child.
3. We often listen to our children's messages (verbal and non-verbal) from our point of view instead of theirs
Because of our fast-paced lives, it is easy to miss your child's perspective and impose your adult-like vantage point when interacting with them. For example, say your young child enthusiastically expresses a desire for a particular toy they've seen advertised. Your immediate response: "Oh no, you don't really want that - it's just a piece of junk." But your child just told you that he/she wants the toy. This doesn't mean you have to get it for her, but you can acknowledge her desire. You could say, "That toy really looks like it would be fun to play with. Tell me what you like about it." When you respond this way you are tuning in to your child's actual signals and attending to their emotion. This creates an emotional connection. You can work to understand what your child is feeling and give them a forum to express their emotion without having to fulfill their requests.
Here's a similar example but with an older child. Say your teen spends an inordinate amount of time playing video games isolated in his room. A typically frustrated parental might say: "You need to get out of your room and stop wasting your day playing those stupid video games." But do you understand why your teen is spending so much time immersed in these games? It may not be obvious to you. His honest answer may surprise you. Instead of demeaning his choices, you could inquire about the game: which one is he playing, what he likes most about it, etc. You could even go further and say, "I'd like you to show me one of your favorite games sometime - how it's played, the strategy behind it." Again, your goal is to find a connecting point with him versus trying to pull him away from the game. When you are able to make these connecting points you are much more likely to feel that the relationship is intact and you can then use the relational connection to steer and guide your child's behavior.
Whether your child is young or older, they need an emotional connection with you. Focus your energy on trying to make that connection by seeing life from their perspective. Look for opportunities to do so. Inquire more than you correct.
But there needs to be a balance. If you only understand a situation from your experience, you will have difficulty feeling connected to your child. If you only focus on understanding the situation from your child's point of view and neglect your own experience, you will likely have difficulty setting healthy boundaries with your child. You will begin to feel helpless, resentful, angry, etc. Strive for balance and boundaries.
3 Tips for Cultivating Emotional Intelligence:
Practice sharing your emotion with your spouse and child. Use the words, "I feel ____" and then insert what you think is the appropriate emotion for the situation (sad, angry, scared, happy, excited, tender) into that phrase. Don't use emotion-laden words to project blame, such as: "You make me feel sad." Own the emotion as your own: "I feel sad because I said things in anger that hurt our relationship." This keeps the relational boundary healthy and intact.
Expressing emotion appropriately to your children is not easy, especially if you did not come from a family where this was encouraged and practiced on a regular basis. But, if you work at it, the benefits can be huge. Here are some of the advantages:
- When we express our emotion to our children we are inviting them into a more meaningful relationship. We are giving them the experience of emotional intimacy - the very quality that will enable them to have meaningful relationships with others as they grow.
- Congruent communication (when the verbal and non-verbal messages we send match) helps your child better understand you and draws them toward you because you are consistent. They can count on your message being predictable. That fosters security in the relationship.
- When you express emotion toward your children they learn what is important to you. They learn about your values. They are more likely to internalize your values as a result.
- When we model emotional expressiveness, we show them that having an inner life is good and a part of their reality. This helps build a strong sense of self. A strong sense of self is necessary to have healthy boundaries.
Help your child identify his or her feelings and validate them. If your child can't identify his feelings, how is he supposed to monitor them or read the feelings of others? Let your children experience their feelings. Encourage them to express how they feel (angry, frustrated, sad, excited, scared, etc.) about things going on in their life or even in their interaction with you. Help them to identify or label the feelings if they can't name them. Then be sure to validate their feelings once they've expressed them. For example, you can use clarifying statements such as, "I can see that you're struggling with some feelings. I can only guess what you're feeling but from the outside it looks like it might be sadness. Is that what you are feeling?" This type of response invites your child to go inside, label the emotion and invites them to talk. The more practice you give your child, the better they will be able to identify and make sense of their feelings.
Do ongoing work to make sense of your own experience of being parented. The more you are able to face and integrate your own difficult experiences from the past, the more emotionally accessible you will be to your child. Integrating your emotion means being willing to think about the situation, feel the emotion, and learn that you can tolerate the experience instead of pushing it aside. When you are able to do this you are no longer controlled by the emotion but can step in and out of it at will.