One of our jobs as parents is to equip our children with a large and accessible emotional database. This means that they are able to identify and articulate a number of different feelings. Kids who can’t express their feelings with words, will often express them with less-than-desirable “feelings behaviors.” Here are some tips on how you can increase your child’s emotional intelligence, with tips for Christian parents.
1) Increase your kids’ emotional vocabulary
Feelings are a little bit like a color wheel –there are some primary feelings at the center which then combine to create numerous, nuanced feelings. But even though there is breadth and depth to the emotional experience, most people tend to not think beyond the center of the wheel. Here are some great templates to help your kids expand their emotional vocabulary.
As our kids age, it’s also important to help them learn about the nuances behind anger. Anger is a bit of an emotional bodyguard. It’s often protecting a more tender, vulnerable feeling underneath. Remove the anger and underneath you will find a hurt of some kind. A sadness. A fear. Wounded pride. There is righteous anger (when we are angry about injustices or being wronged) but it’s important to teach our kids to dig a bit deeper to identify what is really going on under the anger. You can google “anger iceburg for kids” and see a lot of resources that can help you explain this process to your kids.
2) Share your own emotions with your children
If you want your kids to have healthy emotional expression, they need to see examples of that in real time.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re on the way to the doctor’s office for an important appointment and you get stuck in a traffic jam. You keep glancing at your watch and your blood pressure keeps rising. You may mutter an unkind word to the motorist in front of you or blare your horn a little longer than necessary at the person who cut you off. Your children are watching and filing away clues and patterns of emotional regulation.
You feel angry but what is really underneath? Maybe you are nervous about the results of a test. Or maybe it took you a while to get the appointments and you are worried that you will have to wait a long time for another if you miss it. After some prayer and emotional reflection, it would be entirely appropriate to say to your kids, “I got so angry at that person in the car that cut in front of me. Sometimes anger bubbles up when I am worried. This traffic jam has me worried that I am going to be late to my appointment. But I talked to God about it, and He reminded me He is always in control.”
When we can identify, articulate and regulate our emotional states, everyone around us benefits.
3) Use media to teach and assess
Movies, books, and songs are all great on-ramps to discussions about feelings. Picture books provide great opportunities for younger children. You can sometimes use the characters in the story to create a side-bar teaching moment (“Wow – he looks very frustrated in that picture!”) or to assess (“What do you think she is feeling in that picture?”).
Songs can often be used in a modeling sort of way. You can say, “This song has a great beat – it makes me feel bubbly inside.” Try to use a range of words in a many different ways to help teach your kids that there are a wide range of words they can use to express themselves.
4) Discuss and ask about feelings
Knowing the words and hearing your practice them isn’t enough. Your kids need to use them. So they are going to need some practice. The way they will get that is if you integrate feelings words as much as possible into your daily conversations.
Tell them how you feel. Ask how they feel. As much as you may want to avoid sounding like a therapist, it is really okay to ask, “How did that make you feel? You can even speculate a bit, if necessary. You may say, “Your mouth is turned down. Do you feel sad?” You may not always get it right, but that’s okay! If they correct you, that means they are listening and learning.
5) Feelings aren’t everything
Feelings are important. When we name them, we calm the threat center of our brains. When we understand them, we can better handle them. When we know the sings of big feelings, we can intervene earlier. But feelings are not everything. They can mislead us. They can cause us to think certain things that are not true. We may feel a rush of adrenaline and think, “Oh, I must be nervous.” Next thing, you know, you are feeling anxious about being anxious.
It’s important to teach our kids to notice and name their feelings. We can also teach them that all feelings are normal (even Jesus had feelings). But let’s not forget to tell them that feelings don’t have to control what we do or say. We can have a feeling and choose to do something different. Often doing the exact opposite of what our difficult feelings are telling us to do can be helpful.
Maybe we are feeling angry at someone. We can respond to this feeling by praying a blessing over them. Or maybe we are sad. We can smile, just a bit. We are not negating the feeling, we are just exerting some choice on how we respond to it. Behavior is choice, even if feelings are not.
Click here for tips on how to help your children manage difficult feelings.