Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to apply emotion-related information in a sensible manner. It is believed that having higher EI allows one to better cope with stressful emotional situations as a result of an improved ability to more accurately differentiate and evaluate emotions, be able to competently express feelings, and regulate moods in an adaptive manner.

Strong EI helps to buffer your child against the stress of major life events, e.g. death or serious illness of a loved one or a pet. He will be emotionally resilient, and thus better able to weather life’s storms. Resilience (or grit) is the ability to cope with life’s challenges, bounce back from tragic events, and move on with life. In this feature, we look at the internal factors that influence a person’s resilience, namely his emotional intelligence.

Building EI

The necessary skills that form the basis of EI should be taught to children from toddlers and it should be done based on your child’s maturity level instead of physical age. Use practical approaches based on real-world scenarios not theoretical explanations. According to Assoc Prof Dr Alvin Ng, Clinical Psychologist, helping your child to recognise his own emotions (e.g. anger, frustration, jealousy, etc.) allows him to take ownership of them. “Do this with negative emotions and also good ones. In addition to making him aware of his emotions by naming them, teach him that his emotions can affect others. For example, if someone feels down in the dumps, he can drag everyone’s mood down. Similarly, a sunny, happy person can brighten up someone else’s day,” he states.

“Children start learning and understanding EI early in life through stories, which help them relate to others. This early exposure to EI should be a continual process that involves something called emotion coaching, so parents need to engage deeply with their children on an emotional level. What is important is to understand and help children deal and express their emotions in appropriate ways,” he says.

Parental role model required

Quoting the saying ‘Monkey see, monkey do’, Dr Alvin reveals that the best way to foster emotional intelligence is to show it. “Start by sharing your emotions with your children. Don’t restrict your focus to just the ‘big’ emotions such as joy or anger. Share all the ‘little’ ones such as contentment or annoyance too. Be more demonstrative with how you deal with emotions – let him see how you get over anger or disappointment. Above all, don’t neglect positive emotions! It might help if you treat emotions and how you deal with them as ‘show & tell’ sessions,” he advises.

The Founding President of the Malaysian Society of Clinical Psychology (MSCP) also warns parents against blaming the child for making parents feel angry, sad, or disappointed. While the child’s action or behaviour might be the trigger, the emotions it engenders are the parents’ own emotions. In other words, you are responsible for your own feelings. Learning one’s own triggers will go a long way to mastering one’s emotions because familiarity of emotional patterns helps one to manage them better.

Getting started for kids

  • Self-awareness: Encourage him to be mindful, acknowledge, and accept his emotions without judging them. Practising mindfulness is useful to help him gain better awareness and understanding of his emotions. Do a little self-reflection together before bedtime to ask himself questions such as “What am I feeling?”, “What caused it?”, and “Does it make me feel pain?” (e.g. tensed shoulders, clenched hands or teeth, feeling mentally/physically tired, feeling afraid or elated). Once he has determined what and how he feels, he will identify these emotions. Next, he should discover what triggered these feelings.
  • Self-management: Self-control forms an integral part of self-management. It is about recognising emotions and responding to them appropriately, NOT concealing or bottling them up. Poor self-management can lead to reckless and inappropriate reactions when triggered by strong emotions. The idea is to teach him how to work through his emotions to arrive at more adaptive or constructive decisions or actions. This ability will help him to rein in impulsive behaviours, manage emotions healthily, and adapt to different circumstances.
  • Social awareness: Being able to recognise and interpret non-verbal cues from others in his social circle allows him to better interpret group dynamics. The necessary skills mimic that of a parent-child relationship: active listening, focusing on his interaction with others, identifying emotional state of others, being respectful of their feelings.
  • Relationship management: The ability to effectively socialise has its roots in emotional awareness and one’s ability to recognise and empathise with others. Being able to use non-verbal communication skill benefits relationships. Conflicts and disagreements may occur during interactions thus learning how to resolve them by understanding and communicating in a healthy and constructive manner is crucial. The use of humour, laughter and play can help relieve stress and keep things in perspective.

EI & Socialising

Parents and caregivers provide children with their first glimpse of socialising and other aspects of EI. Dr Raja Juanita, Consultant Developmental and General Paediatrician is convinced that the parental role is instrumental in getting children off to a good start. With proper care, your child will develop mentally and emotionally, learn to be more positive and caring, nurture meaningful relationships with others, be able to resolve conflicts, and manage stress.

To achieve this, Dr Raja Juanita recommends that parents work on their own empathy.

  1. Awareness of emotions: Be aware of your child’s (and your own) emotions. Acknowledge and accept his emotions – even if his emotional triggers make no sense to you. Do not dismiss his emotions by trying to distract him (e.g. offering him candy or a smartphone if he gets upset).
  2. Connection through emotions: Challenging emotions are a good chance to connect and coach him. Hang on to your patience and get him to open up. If he is upset over something and is unable to talk about it right away, give him time to calm down before resuming. Focus on him and do not be distracted by your phone. He will realise that he is your priority and open up.
  3. Empathise/acknowledge his emotions: Don’t ignore or belittle his emotions. Listen to him and validate them. Give your full attention and listen when he expresses himself. Ask questions when necessary, but don’t make assumptions and interrupt him when he is talking.
  4. Recognise and name emotions: A useful method is to ask how he feels with other people’s emotions while watching a show together, e.g. If you were Belle, what would you feel when the Beast imprisons you? This way, you will know how he feels when similar situations occur.

Next, teach him how to set limits and find solutions together. Let him know that emotions are acceptable, but bad behaviours are not, e.g. being angry at someone is OK, but hitting is not. Guide him on how to cope with emotions by:

  • Reflecting on his past behaviour as a result of a particular emotion (e.g. hitting a sibling after fighting over a toy).
  • Developing problem-solvingskills by finding alternative solutions (e.g. taking a short time-out to avoid losing his temper, counting to 10, or taking 10 deep breaths).
  • Discussing how he could respond in future (e.g. taking turns to play with the toy).
  • Learning how to set limits on his behaviour on his own (e.g. being mindful of his actions would allow him to keep bad behaviour to a minimum through self-awareness).

“It sounds complicated, but it can be done. Keep in mind that it will take time before he can get the hang of things, so be patient. It sounds easy but competency takes practise, so children will need multiple reminders,” she says.

In addition to this, parents and caregivers should also provide children with positive affirmations that are realistic, reasonable, specific, and explanatory. How you phrase it will determine whether it works or not. Instead of just saying “You played the piano well”, be more specific, “Practising every day seems to be working, that last piece was perfect”. Affirmations will not work if he harbours deeply-held negative beliefs which are in opposition to your affirmation. The larger the gap between the conscious and subconscious, the worse he will eventually feel, so be sure to keep it real.

“Show him love and respect. Respect is about how you treat others, so make it very clear to him that while he is allowed to speak his mind, there are boundaries. If he talks back, it should be done in a respectful manner. Avoid publicly scolding your child at any age and to do so privately and respectfully. Remember that how you reprimand him is a lesson in respect – be strict and firm yet kind. Lead by example and show him the same love and respect that you expect from him,” she advises.

Providing him with a sense of security is also important, as emotional security helps build up his resilience. Having responsive and consistent care from parents and caregivers helps him develop a positive sense of self and others, which aids his self-confidence and ability to trust others. “It’s all about building trust in the parent-child bond. You can achieve this by being there for him and interacting with him consistently. He should come to view you as his ‘safe zone’ or safety net. Be prepared to let him explore the world however he likes, but be there for him when he needs you,” she says.

By providing your child with all this, you help minimise the risk of internalising behaviours such as anxiety and depression, which can affect a child’s ability to function at home, school, or in any other setting.

Don’t neglect his mental health

A strong EI will help him to be more resilient and better able to focus on learning, problem solving and developing positive social relationships. All this will add up to the necessary skills that he will need when he becomes an adult. However, Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, Chairman of the Positive Parenting Management Committee, advises parents not to neglect their child’s mental health.

“Parents have to be willing to commit spending time with their children, and more importantly, be observant. This is crucial to the parent-child bond and allows you to observe your child’s emotional state and help him to link it with his behaviour. ” advises the Consultant Paediatrician and Paediatric Cardiologist.

“To err is human, and parents may mess up due to strong emotions. However, don’t pretend it never happened or make excuses.

Acknowledge what occurred and try to repair any damage to your relationship. This helps to create a more open environment and benefits the parent-child bond,” he informs.

At the same time, parents should not neglect their own emotions. Don’t ignore feelings as they serve a purpose. Allow yourself to feel but also give yourself time to process them. It may not be possible to walk your child through the whole process but it may help if you talked with him about it later. This may be invaluable for him, especially if it is an emotion that he has trouble with. “Understanding your own emotions is crucial, before you can start emotion-coaching your child to make him more resilient,” he concludes. So take the initiative to seek professional help if you have difficulties. Do not wait until it’s more severe as it would take a longer time to fix, and a lot more money, too!

By Assoc Prof Dr Alvin Ng, Clinical Psychologist and Founding President of the Malaysian Society of Clinical Psychology (MSCP); Dr Raja Juanita Raja Lope, Consultant Developmental and General Paediatrician; Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, Chairman of Positive Parenting Management Committee.

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