As an adjunct instructor at Medaille College, I have had the opportunity to teach a variety of courses that (I hope) influence future professionals in a positive way. Teaching is definitely mutually beneficial, as it also enhances my own clinical work. This semester, I chose the textbook Child Development: A Cultural Approach (2nd Edition) by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Ashley E. Maynard. Emotional development (often referred to as emotional intelligence) is a major part of this textbook and has quickly become one of my favorite topics to cover. I have also noticed more student engagement and interest when we focus on the development of emotionally intelligent people. This is so important (and exciting) because our emotional development can impact other areas of development-physical, cognitive, academic, and social.
In the classroom and in private practice, people often ask me how they can improve emotional abilities. Here are few concepts to consider while fostering the development of emotionally intelligent children:
- Emotional development starts (very) early. Our emotional development begins very early in life. It is influenced by a variety of factors, some that occur even before we are born! It is important for parents to focus on their own emotional functioning if they want their children to succeed as well. Engaging in prosocial behaviors and exhibiting healthy emotional functioning is vital in our daily life. This includes practicing self-regulation, using impulse control, monitoring personal stress level and expressing emotions in a healthy way. This does not mean you must avoid stress and negative emotions-that would be impossible and quite unhealthy. Finding ways to self-soothe and cope with life’s challenges helps you, and your child, even during prenatal development!
- Know when to seek support. Since emotional development can begin before birth, if you plan to become pregnant, being aware of your emotional health is crucial. This is important for both the person carrying the child, their partner, and/or other people in their life (family, friends, other children). Planning for pregnancy and the birth of a child can be an emotional rollercoaster! Enhancing self-care practices and seeking out support can help regulate emotions and encourage a healthy pregnancy- supporting a stable and nourishing prenatal environment! If you have a history of depression or anxiety, you are at a higher risk for the develop of postpartum depression. Being proactive and seeking out help before issues emerge is a great strategy. If you are looking for support now, check out the group Mama’s Rising run by Explore What’s Next therapist, Nikki Brown, LCSW.
- Infants have emotions…and know you do too. During the first year of life an infant is already able to express primary emotions (anger, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise and happiness). Even more interesting- infants begin to become aware of others’ emotions during the first few days of life. They may cry when others cry, learn to expect certain emotional reactions from caregivers, and begin to demonstrate social referencing. This means that they will look to others to form their own reaction to different environmental stimuli. For example, if you scream and cry when seeing a dog-your infant may do the same! Practicing mindful self-awareness and identifying ways to manage your own emotional reactions is a great place to start!
- Understand child temperament and goodness of fit. Thomas and Chess were some of the first researchers to explore the idea that infants exhibit different temperaments. They also found that parent’s emotional functioning and personality impacts their child’s emotional development-in positive or negative ways. This idea of “goodness of fit” between parents and infants is something to consider when striving to raise emotionally healthy children. Infants can pick up on the energy and emotional messages parents send, which may influence how they react. Research has shown that caregiver’s who are able to stay calm and offer comfort are a “good fit” for children who are difficult to soothe (Chapter 4, Child Development: A Cultural Approach). This may not be easy-especially if you have tried soothing your child for hours on end with no result! Increasing parental self-care practices, engaging in therapy, finding a support group and regulating emotions can help children relax as well.
- Self-regulation starts in toddlerhood. During toddlerhood, children make many advances in their emotional development-which can be hard to see during the terrible twos and increasing temper tantrums. As children begin to develop a sense of self, their sociomoral emotions (guilt, shame, embarrassment, envy & pride) are also evolving. Toddlers are also beginning to notice their own needs and figuring out how they are able to get those needs met. Since language and motor skills are not fully developed, this can be extremely frustrating. Teaching (and modeling) self-soothing practices can make a huge difference, alleviating both toddler and parental frustration. With patience, practice and a toolbox of strategies, parents and children can develop the ability to control emotions in a healthy way.
- Delaying gratification is an important skill. Since their brains are not fully developed, children find it difficult to demonstrate effortful control of emotions. In early childhood (3 to 6 years old), children begin to improve their ability to delay gratification and cope with negative emotions. With support, children can begin to adapt strategies such as seeking support, engaging in self-talk, leaving the frustration situation, and/or shifting attention to another activity. The ability to tolerate the discomfort when we can’t get what we want immediately will help overall development and influence effective social skills.
- Experiencing negative emotions is healthy. When I ask students how they think caregivers can support healthy emotional development, someone usually suggests protecting or shielding children from upsetting things. This is a response I look for, as it leads to a conversation about the human experience of sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, etc. We need unpleasant experiences in order to feel these emotions. If we are not exposed to negative situations, we won’t learn how to cope in healthy ways. I am certainly not suggesting you place your child in dangerous situations, but allowing them to navigate the world and encounter developmentally appropriate unpleasant experiences is vital (arguing over toys, falling down, not getting that massive chocolate bar in the check-out line, etc.). These moments lead to valuable teaching opportunities, and the development of effective emotional control and the ability to self-soothe.
- Encourage emotional balance. As children learn how to regulate their emotions, it is important to teach them the value of emotional balance. Some children will over control emotions, while others under control emotions. Teaching children the benefit of experiencing feelings is so valuable! It is good to experience some sadness when we, or someone else is hurt. This fosters the development of Empathy. There are many situations in life where these “bad” emotions are valid and necessary. Teaching children how to balance their internal experience and external expression supports healthy emotional intelligence.
- Emotional development is a lifelong learning process. We all make emotional reaction mistakes. Children will notice this and may even point out our own emotional regulation errors. Acknowledging our own emotional intelligence weaknesses, and making an effort to address them, normalizes a child’s experience. They will learn that “if I mess up, I am not bad person-I just need to work on this.” You may even find a unique emotional management strategy that you, and your child, can use together!
Although this is just the tip of the iceberg, it is a great place to start! Finding different resources to support your parenting skills is helpful, but may not answer all of your questions. If textbooks are your thing, check out: Child Development: A Cultural Approach, 2nd Edition.
If you are looking for more individualized guidance, contact us to schedule an appointment. Explore What’s Next therapists will work with you to develop the best approach as you nurture the development of emotionally intelligent children!
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Warm and emphatic, Colleen uses a flexible, creative and collaborative approach to empower and inspire clients to maximize potential and improve their lives. Contact Colleen for more information about how she can help you experience success!
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Parenting can be tough both physically and emotionally. Here are three more articles from our archives that you might find useful in your journey as a parent,