3 Ways Parents Shape Their Kids' Emotional Intelligence Without Realizing It

Psychologist By Marc Brackett, Ph.D.
Psychologist
Marc Brackett, Ph.D. is a Connecticut-based psychologist, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, professor at the Child Study Center at Yale University, and author of Permission to Feel. He received his bachelor's in psychology from Rutgers University, both his master's and doctorate in personality and social psychology from the University of New Hampshire, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Psychology Department at Yale.

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Want to raise children who are in touch with their emotions and can handle the tumultuous ones when they inevitably come? Start with developing your own emotional skills first, says psychologist and Yale professor Marc Brackett, Ph.D., in his newly released book Permission To Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions To Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, Brackett explains why prioritizing children's emotional development is paramount to their health, mental well-being, and future success. And in this excerpt, he demonstrates exactly how parents unconsciously influence their children's emotional intelligence through the ways they express and manage their own emotions.

A woman approached me after a seminar I did for parents and caregivers. She whispered, "Can we talk privately? I am really worried about my son."

"Sure," I said. "Tell me the problem."

"I am afraid he has no emotional intelligence," she said. "He's throwing things and is just too aggressive. He's different from my oldest son, who is gregarious and highly skilled. I am really worried. My husband and I are a mess. Should we bring him to a psychologist?"

I made some suggestions for how she could support her child in learning how to regulate emotions, but she said, "We can't use any of those strategies."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because he's only 11 months old."

I stood there speechless. The first thing that came to mind to say was, "Yes, I think you should call a psychologist—for you." Instead, I took a breath and gently suggested that maybe she was being overly worried about her son's emotional intelligence and could wait a little while longer before seeking professional help.

We all arrive in this world programmed differently where emotions are concerned. Each of us has a different threshold for being provoked, activated, aroused, startled. Some of us experience feelings more intensely than others. We recover from emotional reactions at different speeds. But these individual differences don't determine whether we will develop emotion skills. Research shows that even highly reactive kids who are raised in nurturing families can turn out just fine.

Of course we're all concerned about the emotional lives of our children. We know what's at stake—virtually everything. Their physical and mental well-being, their ability to learn in school, their future success at work and in families of their own, all depend on it. There's no greater measure of how we did as parents than the success of our kids in this regard. Few influences can match those of family and home.

But which home?

There's the home where we grew up, where our emotional lives were formed. We're not born with emotion knowledge; we mostly respond to stimuli—we're hungry, we're cold, we're uncomfortable for one reason or another, and so we react. Nature provides that response to make sure we get the attention we need to survive infancy. Everything beyond that is learned in the nest.

Along the way, as we learn what we need to be an adult and to sustain a home or family, we take in the emotional experiences, like the air we breathe. We carry those emotional patterns forward with us—the good and the bad—often replicating them. And in our new home, the cycle repeats—built on the emotional foundations of the one where we started out.

Many of us go through life trying our hardest to avoid precisely that fate. We strive to be anything but our parents. And then, inevitably, comes the moment when we hear ourselves say, "Where did that come from?" Suddenly we realize we've been carrying our parents around inside us all our lives.

When there are two adults building a family, there are even more emotional inheritances in that home. And even if there are no children present—or you live alone—that past is always somewhere inside of you.

Given this, what steps can we take to create healthy home environments, places where our children and loved ones will feel supported, valued, treasured, understood, heard? Homes filled with patience and acceptance and humor and joy?

You teach your children to express their emotions by skillfully expressing yours.

Few parents today would argue with the idea that their children will do best if they're well loved. That wasn't always so. Early in the 20th century, the fields of child psychology and development were divided over how best to raise children, especially on the merits of strictness or leniency, discipline or tenderness. The president of the American Psychological Association, John B. Watson, warned in 1915 that too much love and comforting was dangerous for children and that their lives would be spoiled by cuddling.

Today, nothing could sound more misguided or damaging. Current scientific research on attachment of children to parents, on the power of feeling seen and felt, and on the benefits of comfort all show one thing: Children do best with demonstrative love and caring.

But parents seem ambivalent when it comes to their children's emotional lives. I routinely encounter resistant parents who think I'm advocating everybody sitting in a circle on the living room floor and discussing their feelings ad nauseam. They see our work as overindulging their children instead of preparing them for real life.

What those parents miss is that a focus on emotion skills is about real, practical skills.

Permission to feel doesn't mean obsessing over every time somebody is mean to us or ignores us. It's really just the opposite—teaching the ability to get through those moments, to learn from them, and to continue to function normally. Emotion skills are a bulwark against the epidemic of anger, bullying, disengagement, anxiety, and dread in this country, especially among young people. They clear away the most persistent drags on our creativity, relationships, decisions, and health.

Permission to feel strengthens. It's not always easy to face the truth about who we are and to reckon with our own and our children's emotional lives. But it is a whole lot better than the alternative: denial, overreacting, and so on. You teach your children to express their emotions by skillfully expressing yours. Conversely, if you are reluctant to express your feelings, or do so only sparingly, in as few words as possible, then that's what your children will learn to do when they grow up. This is why we adults need to be open to learning and practicing strategies in our own emotional lives before we can support our kids.

Researchers have found many ways that parents' own emotions affect their children's:

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1. Beliefs about feelings.

Family researchers such as John Gottman and developmental psychologists such as Amy Halberstadt have shown that parents who value emotions tend to be aware of their children's feelings and are able to act like coaches. They don't respond with threats of discipline when their kids express anger or sadness—instead, they see strong feelings as a central part of healthy development. Parents who view emotions as harmful or disruptive are the ones who command their children to "suck it up" and see their kids' emotional expressions as manipulative. Those are the same parents who mask their own emotions and send implicit messages that feelings are unimportant.

Even when we do acknowledge others' emotions, we have to be careful about how we do so. Boys and girls often receive different messages about emotions from parents. And these gender differences tend to increase with age: Nancy Eisenberg, a professor of developmental psychology at Arizona State University, reported that there are few gender differences in preschool children, but by second grade, larger disparities emerge. For example:

  • Mothers speak more to daughters about feelings and display a wider range of feelings to daughters than to sons.
  • Fathers discourage boys from expressing emotional vulnerability and use tougher language with sons than they do with daughters.
  • When parents tell stories to their preschool children, they use more emotion words with daughters than with sons.
  • Mothers smile more and are more expressive to infant and toddler girls than boys and talk more about sadness with daughters and more about anger with sons.

2. Emotion vocabulary.

Most of us are unaware of how important vocabulary is to emotion skills. Using many different words implies valuable distinctions—that we're not always simply angry but are sometimes annoyed, irritated, frustrated, disgusted, aggravated, and so on. If we can't discern the difference, it suggests that we can't understand it either. It's the difference between a rich emotional life and an impoverished one. Your child will inherit the one you provide.

In one study, researchers found that mothers who used more sophisticated language when talking about feelings had children who were better at regulating their own emotions. The authors wrote, "The ability to talk about one's own affective state has its most obvious importance for regulating affect in its power to enlist others as sources of aid or comfort." What that means, essentially, is that if mothers and fathers use many words to describe emotions rather than just a few basic ones, their children will be better able to express their feelings to others. They'll also be more empathetic.

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3. Co-regulation.

Researchers use the term co-regulation to refer to how we affect one another's feelings, moving another's feelings up or down by our own actions. In the parent-child dyad, the child is an active participant in his or her own regulation, but the parent is the source of the strategy.

At the most basic level, it includes a caregiver's warmth, responsiveness, and sensitivity, as well as methods for buffering a child against stress and creating routines to promote a sense of security. For young children it might include offering strategies such as distraction: "You sound upset. Are you angry because he took your toy? Let's play with this toy together instead."

Another way involves scaffolding children's self-regulation of emotion using prompts: "What happened? How are you feeling? How do you want to feel?" The adult may act as a partner to support problem-solving—"Why don't you let him play with your toy? After two minutes, I'll make sure he gives it back"—and reappraisal: "Perhaps he thought it was his own toy and not yours. I see he has a very similar one behind him."

And yet another strategy is metacognitive prompting, which emphasizes empowering children to generate and/or choose from alternative emotion regulation strategies: "Is there another way to think about what happened? What could you do instead? What's worked before when you've felt this way?"

I'm an obsessive eavesdropper on families in public. For me, it's research. Sometimes I find skilled parents who nurture their children's developing emotion skills. But not always.

This happened one morning while I was eating breakfast in a hotel restaurant:

"You're going to calm down right now," the father said to his 3-year-old daughter. "Thank you for ruining our day." I couldn't tell what had prompted his outburst.

He then picked up the menu, ordered breakfast, and turned to his phone, as did the little girl's mother. For 30 minutes, that man never once looked up at his daughter or his wife. As they rose to leave, he turned at last to his daughter and said, "You're not going to behave that way again, are you?"

It wasn't a question.

"If you continue to behave like this, you aren't going swimming for the rest of the vacation."

The child began to sob. Do you think she cried because she couldn't go swimming? If you asked that 3-year-old child how she was feeling—if she had adult language—you'd probably hear that she felt ignored, stifled, worthless in her father's eyes.

This father lacked the ability to recognize, understand, and label his daughter's feelings, and it broke my heart. As the family left the restaurant, I wondered: Was this a typical morning for them? Does this little girl believe she has the permission to feel? What is the implicit message her dad is sending her about her character? What learning will she carry forward into her future?

From Permission To Feel by Marc Brackett. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.

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