Is your kid emotionally intelligent? A psychologist shares the traits to look for—and how to teach them

As a family psychologist, I often stress to parents the importance of teaching kids emotional intelligence at a young age.

Research has shown that this skill set can be a strong predictor of success in relationships, health and quality of life. One study even found that children with high emotional intelligence earn better grades, stay in school longer and make healthier choices overall. 

According to Daniel Goleman, one of the first people to raise awareness of emotional intelligence and author of "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ," this skill set can be streamlined down to five core components.

Here's a look at each one, how to tell which ones your kids need to work on the most, and examples of how to do it:

Self-Awareness

Why it's important: Self-awareness helps us understand how our actions are perceived by others, know when to engage our strengths (as well as when to pull back), and how to discover areas that need improvement.

Signs that your kid is self-aware:

  • They understand and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.
  • They have high self-esteem and aren't afraid to speak up for what they need.
  • They know that how they see themselves may not be the same as how others see them.

How to teach self-awareness:

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  • Label emotions. It can be challenging for kids to talk about their emotions if they can't think of the right words. Initiate conversations about their feelings, as well as other people's feelings. Use descriptive keywords like "sad," "upset" and "disappointed." 
  • Provide feedback. When giving feedback on what your kid can spend more time working on, be thoughtful about word choice; coming off as overly critical or harsh can easily lead to discouragement. 
  • Show interest. To boost confidence and self-esteem, let them know you care about their feelings and that what they have to say matters.

Self-Regulation

Why it's important: Self-regulation helps us direct our behavior towards a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and of our feelings.

Can your kid self-regulate?

  • They can manage their emotions and behavior in accordance with the demands of the situation.
  • When feeling frustrated, they're able to calm themselves down — instead of acting out in explosive outbursts.
  • They know when to pause and take a step back to avoid making impulsive choices (that they may regret later on).

How to teach self-regulation:

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  • Be direct and constructive. When emotional regulation is needed, refrain from vague statements (e.g, "Knock it off!") and rhetorical questions (e.g., "Why do you always do that?"), as they are more likely to be ignored or misunderstood. Instead, use a constructive and supportive tone. 
  • Talk about ways to cope. It may be tempting to always tell your kid exactly how to handle a stressful situation. But it's also important for them to practice coming up with their own ways of coping, even if they don't work.
  • Create daily routines. Maintaining consistency in daily life is key to developing self-regulation. It also helps provide structure, meaning and purpose in what they do.

Motivation

Why it's important: Motivation increases our effort, helps us take action and be more productive. More importantly, it's what keeps us going in the face of extreme challenges.

Is your kid motivated?

  • They don't give up on goals they care about.
  • They're curious, eager to learn and aren't afraid to ask questions.
  • Instead of feeling discouraged, they learn from their mistakes and apply lessons to future problems.

How to boost motivation:

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  • Share enthusiasm. Excitement rubs off, so if your kid sees that you're sincerely enthusiastic about something, they're likely to feel even more motivated.
  • Create a supportive environment. Remain alert to some of the dangerous potholes of parenting, such as demanding perfection, over-reactivity, guilt-tripping and low patience.
  • Help them face hardships. Let your kids make their own choices and face the natural consequences. This is where they'll really grow and learn to make smarter decisions.

Empathy

Why it's important: Being empathetic isn't just about understanding the emotions of other people, it's also about the ability to express sensitivity to them. Children who experience empathy have an easier time providing it to others.

Does your kid have empathy?

  • They work well in team settings and can handle challenges (together) as they come up.
  • They are able to emotionally connect with others, and are considerate of other people's feelings.
  • They put effort into trying to understand things from someone else's perspective.

How to teach empathy:

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  • Actively listen. One of the most effective ways to teach empathy is to model it yourself (e.g., maintain eye contact and let them completely finish their thoughts before stating yours).
  • Share your own feelings. Don't put all the attention on your kid. Create an environment of expressed relatability by sharing how you felt in a similar situation.
  • Talk about other perspectives. This will help them escape the common habit of only caring about their own thoughts and emotions.

Social Skills

Why it's important: Social skills are an integral part of functioning in society. They help us create healthy and positive interactions in both our personal and professional lives.

 Does your kid have social skills?

  • They display good manners and communicate well with others.
  • They show consideration for the feelings and interests of their friends, family and peers.
  • They're able to express their feelings clearly, calmly and respectfully. 

How to teach social skills:

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  • Encourage new experiences. While this might feel uncomfortable at first, your kid might end up liking it (and, in the process, learn new things about themselves).
  • Discuss what's expected. To help them engage in positive behaviors, remind them of what to expect in a given situation and the different ways in which they could respond.
  • Point out body language. This is an effective way of boosting social skills, because people don't always express their feelings verbally.

Sandra Wartski is a psychologist at Silber Psychological Services in Raleigh, North Carolina. She enjoys helping individuals and families use skills for positive coping, thriving and living their best lives. 

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