Child psychologist Dr. Louise Porter explains why understanding a child’s emotional intelligence is essential for healthy and happy children.
What is emotional intelligence and why is it important?
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise and to process our own and others’ feelings. This means that we can use emotions as a basis for reasoning, problem solving and in order to produce an appropriate response. It is the ability to integrate thinking and emotions to produce effective behaviours, which requires self-awareness, self-monitoring and self-regulation.
What are some of the red flags to look out for in children that have low emotional intelligence, and how can we help them?
Children need to receive empathy from us so that they know how it feels to be understood, they need us to validate their feelings. We need to accept their feelings, respond to these and affirm that the children are worthy unconditionally. To teach them about their own emotions, you should never blame, shame or humiliate children for their feelings or resulting behaviour. Express your own emotions appropriately to show children how to do so and help children who are overwhelmed emotionally to feel safe by giving them support while they calm down.
What is more important, academic intelligence or emotional intelligence?
One justification for thinking of emotional intelligence as being distinct from pure intellectual ability is that it has a dedicated focal area in the brain: namely, the limbic system. The development of this part of the brain has its own timeline which is why we need to ensure that the experiences our children are exposed to do not stress their emotional coping capacity. Emotional intelligence is closely related to verbal intelligence: both involve the abilities to think and to solve problems. Despite the negative stereotype, people with a high IQ but low emotional intelligence are rare and would probably qualify for placement on the autism spectrum.
How has emotional intelligence in children, and its perception, changed over the years?
I think people of all ages in the developed world have become more aware of emotional language but are just as muddled about what causes feelings – often blaming others – and remain unclear about the distinction between thoughts and feelings.
Are girls better with emotional intelligence than boys, or vice versa?
Parents typically encourage and talk about a wider range of emotional expression in female infants, compared with boys. Because of this and the fact that girls’ language skills (on average) are ahead of boys’, girls develop an understanding of emotions earlier than boys which also allows them to develop emotional self-regulation earlier. Boys suffer more separation distress than girls, they are told that “big boys don’t cry” and are expected to be independent at an early age. For both sexes, it is important that parents accept the full spectrum of emotions so children can integrate their feelings and exercise choice over their expression.
How does the school system teach or support emotional intelligence in children and have you seen variances across cultures and countries?
There will be some individual teachers who will foster emotional intelligence but it is not part of teachers’ training and, therefore, when individual teachers are aware of it, this will be because of a personal interest, not from professional training. It is the job of everyone dealing with children to foster emotional intelligence – not least in schools because emotions are not merely the side effects of learning but fundamentally drive our motivation, engagement and satisfaction with learning.