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. Now, more than ever, kids need to be able to express how they feel. 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. And what is traditionally at the center?
If we want to help our children develop emotional intelligence, we need to beef up their vocabulary. They need more than four words to express themselves. Here is a great list of feelings words.
As a Christian counselor, I have a slightly different version of these “primary” emotions. I would replace mad with “puffed-up.”
For two reasons. First of all, anger is not a primary emotion. Think of anger as a mask. It’s covering up a true feeling underneath. Remove the anger and underneath you will find a hurt of some kind. A sadness. A fear. Wounded pride. Anger is an emotional body guard. No matter how loud anger gets, it can’t hide the fact that it is hiding something.
Secondly, with anger out, we need a feeling word in it’s place that all the feelings of being “wronged” stem from.
Puffed up is just synonym for pride. A study of human nature through the lens of Scripture shows that, time and time again, pride is one of the most damaging emotion. It blinds up, entraps us, hinders our relationships.
Now I am not talking about an I-am-so-proud-of-you kind of pride. That’s different (although it could be happy with a touch of “puffed-upness). The pridefulness I am speaking about expresses itself with these sorts of emotions: annoyance, frustration, jealousy, vengeance, judgmentalism.
It is important that we help our kids see that mad isn’t really mad at the core. This knowledge will help them peel away the mask and look for what lies beneath (an example follows in the next section). It’s also important for them to understand the infectious nature of pride, it’s many manifestations and how it affects the heart.
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?
5) Teach the limitations of feelings
Feelings lie. It is important our kids learn this. In 1 John 3:20, it says, “Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.”
Think about that.
God is greater than our feelings.
We may feel rejected. We may feel guilty. We may feel abandoned. But those feelings are lying to us. We are not cast out (John 6:37). We are not condemned by our sins (Romans 8:1). We are never abandoned (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Teach your children that it is okay to experience a wide range of emotions but that they do not always tell the truth about a situation.
It’s important to acknowledge their feelings and not dismiss them outright. Our kids need to be heard. But they also need truth.
They need us to help them see when their feelings are lying. Or when their feelings are covering up. Using feelings words in everyday life will make those tender conversations much more fruitful.
Click here for tips on how to help your children manage difficult feelings.