Knowing how to get on with others and move smoothly through social situations is an invaluable life skill, and the key is emotional intelligence – the ability to understand our feelings and those of others, and deal with them.
“Children who have a higher EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) are more likely to be cooperative, sociable and optimistic,” says Avril Kidd, Durban EQ practitioner and representative of the Six Seconds EQ network in South Africa. They tend to be less impulsive and better behaved, and to have more friends and do better academically, helping them to grow into rounded, happy and successful adults.
It’s still unclear what role DNA and genes play in EQ, and while there has been considerable research suggesting that girls are more emotionally intelligent than boys, this may stem less from inherited gender differences than from us raising them, however subconsciously, with different social expectations. “EQ is not just a trait you are born with or determined by your genes, but is very much also determined by interaction with other beings and the environment,” says Joburg-based psychologist Karin Steyn.
Studies have shown that among other things, mothers use a greater range of emotions when playing with daughters and discuss emotions with them more, while boys are raised to repress their emotions, but this is changing: “I know many parents today are trying to avoid this sort of thing,” says Steyn. The danger with repressed emotions, she says, is that they can fester, causing anxiety, depression and aggression, and eventually erupt when triggered by disproportionately minor events.
In his bestseller Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (Owl Books), Dr William Pollack writes that boys were given an “emotional funnel” to express all their emotions – anxiety, fear, sadness and frustration were transformed into one emotion, anger. “Both boys and girls need to be taught to acknowledge their feelings and give appropriate expression to them,” says Steyn. “They should be taught to make responsible choices for how they will stand up for themselves and their values and opinions in life – this is healthy assertiveness.” But, there’s much parents can do to help sons and daughters develop EQ.
1. Be attentive – respond quickly and consistently to your child’s emotional needs from the start so they develop a sense of security and self-esteem. This is the foundation of EQ, says Kidd. “Just don’t confuse responding with pandering.”
2. Accept their emotions and teach them to name them. Ask how they’re feeling, suggests Steyn. For example, “I see you frowning and hiding your face from me – are you feeling angry because you can’t get what you want right now?”
3. Name your own emotions and model how to deal with them: “I’m feeling angry, so I’m going to count to 10, take a bath or go for a walk until I feel calm, then we’ll talk about it.” There should be no screaming and shouting in front of children, says Steyn, “but let them see healthy disagreement and resolution later.”
4. Constantly tell sons as well as daughters that you love them, and hug them, and encourage Dad to do this too. It won’t spoil them or make boys “sissies”; it will make them more secure and confident. “Unconditional love and affection is vital so the child feels worthy and accepted for who they are, and not just when they do something amazing,” says Steyn. “It leads to feeling ‘good enough’ and worthy of love.”
5. Encourage children to speak about their emotions, Steyn says: “You look upset, would you like to talk about it?” Reassure teens that it’s okay to feel awkward and anxious, and encourage discussions about relationships with their teachers, friends or “flames”.
6. Try side-by-side communication instead of face-to-face – chat while doing something with them, such as driving or working on a project; teenage boys, especially, will often open up more this way.
7. Use life moments, books, movies, even commercials to help children recognise the cues to what others may be feeling: “How would you feel if that was you?” Empathy is critical for building enduring relationships, says Kidd.
8. If they act aggressively, look behind the anger for anxiety, hurt or sadness: “You seem upset, are you feeling scared, hurt or sad?” But still explain the negative consequences of their actions, Kidd says.
9. Teach other ways to express anger from when children are very young, says Steyn: “I don’t hear you when you shout, hit or throw things. If you have a problem or want something, you need to tell me another way. How would it be if you did X?”
10. Help children be aware of when they are stressed, and what causes it, says children’s life coach Julie Keating of Magic Blox in Joburg: “I see you’re biting your nails, or your fists are clenched. Is changing school or our family getting a new baby making you tense?”
11. Listen well – don’t interrupt or jump in with solutions unless they ask, she says. It can undermine their confidence in being able to find these for themselves. Often children just need to feel heard, and talking about a problem dissipates it or delivers answers.
12. Acknowledge their perspective and give empathy, even if you don’t agree: “I know it’s hard to stop playing, but it’s time for dinner.” Feeling understood helps children control negative emotions, says Steyn.
13. Give them ways to cope: “Come, let’s tell X how you feel about what he did”; “How about kicking a ball or going for a run so you feel better?” Teach them soothing catch-phrases: “It was an accident”, “Everyone makes mistakes”, and positive self-talk: “I can do this” or “I tried my best”.
14. Teach them how to problem-solve: “You’re fed-up with X because she won’t give you a turn, what could you say to her?” Teach them to use “I” messages: “I feel X when you do Y”, and to compromise: “What can we do so we’re both happy? Share? Take turns?”
15. Notice when they show kindness: “I love how gentle you are with the new baby”. Any behaviour rewarded with your time and attention will continue, says Steyn.
16. Above all, model kindness and empathy – let them see you identify with the plights and feelings of others, especially during the season of giving. Whether you’re helping in a soup kitchen or donating toys for orphans, involve your children too.
EQ vs IQ
American psychologist and EQ research pioneer Daniel Goleman estimates that IQ contributes only about 20% to the factors that determine how successful you will be in life, and the other 80% is made up of other forces. EQ is important in how you:
- are able to motivate yourself
- persevere, especially with challenges
- delay the need for immediate gratification and have good impulse control
- regulate your moods and control your ability to think in spite of stress
- have empathy for others
- manage your relationships
- maintain hopefulness.
It seems that it’s the balance between IQ and EQ that determines success. “Even someone with a very high IQ may achieve nothing without the ability to believe in themselves and create their own opportunities or sell themselves to others,” says Steyn. “IQ without EQ means nothing.”
A study in the Harvard Business Review found that leaders with more warmth outstripped peers who might have been better qualified. “People with warmth tend to manage their relationships better, are more able to be people that others would want to follow, and inspire others,” she says. “You can help children lead happy, successful and fulfilled lives,” concludes Keating.
Mothers’ views on gender and EQ
Karen Monk Klijnstra, Durban fashion designer and mother of Anouk (10), Maia (8), Lola (6) and Rudi (4): “Each of my children has a very different temperament, but I think my girls were more inherently empathetic at Rudi’s age. He’s very affectionate, but the girls tease that it’s more cupboard love – when he wants a treat in the cupboard!”
Sharlene Khan, is a biological scientist turned Durban stay-at-home mom to her son Amaan Azgar (30 months) and her daughter Azhara Laila (15 months): “It’s shocking to me how different they are already. My son’s a little fighter – if he wants something his sister has, he’ll simply grab it, and pull her hair if she resists, or try to smack her. She’s emotional and cries, but plans her revenge when he’s distracted, and takes the toy back with the cutest, most devious smile.”
Ridza Beattie, runs Rondebosch Moms and Tots and is the mother of Saskia (10), Kayla (9), Meera (7) and Joshua (6): “I think my children’s EQs are more linked to birth order and personalities than to gender. I’ve raised them all to be loving, empathetic and strong, irrespective of gender or anything else, and they are.”