BULDING INNER RESILIENCE: CULTIVATING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE IN CHILDREN
In the brave new world of parenting, moms and dads are bombarded with the newest, the best, the shoulds and the musts of raising happy, healthy, wealthy and wise children. These ideas, as propagated by a number of different sources, including parents’ peer groups, the media, their families and the overarching paradigm of the
times, often overlook what’s at the core of creating a thriving, independent and well-rounded human being: emotional intelligence. Here, Linda Lantieri, author of Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children, talks about the importance of bolstering your kids’ inner strength and gives you the tips and tools you need to help them get in touch with their emotional selves.
In recent years, the theme of resilience has been frequently brought up to describe the response of many New Yorkers on September 11, 2001. In the midst of profound uncertainty and danger, the adults in schools in lower Manhattan had to make the ultimate decision of their careers as educators—saving the children, some as young as 4 years old, meant evacuating the schools and running to safety. Within hours of the terrorist attack, more than 5,000 schoolchildren and 200 teachers ran for their lives.1 Miraculously, though debris fell around them and confusion reigned, not a single student’s or teacher’s life was lost.
While certainly it could be argued that the teachers and children that day exhibited the inner resources they needed to survive, some wondered: What would it take to refill the emotional and spiritual reserve from which they had drawn so deeply? As the modern stresses of today’s childhood accumulate in children, how can we help them develop a reservoir of inner strength to draw from in every aspect of their daily 21st-century lives?
A growing body of research suggests that helping children develop good social and emotional skills early in life makes a big difference in their long-term health and well-being. In his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence (published in 1995), Daniel Goleman summarized the research from the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology that identified E—emotional intelligence—as being as important as IQ in terms of children’s healthy development and future life success. He wrote:
One of psychology’s open secrets is the relative inability of grades, IQ, or SAT scores, despite their popular mystiques, to predict unerringly who will succeed in life. … There are widespread exceptions to the rule that IQ predicts success—many (or more) exceptions than cases that fit the rule. At best, IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80 percent to other forces.2
Goleman’s work helped us understand the importance of emotional intelligence as a basic requirement for the effective use of one’s IQ—that is, one’s cognitive skills and knowledge. He made the connection between our feelings and our thinking more explicit by pointing out how the brain’s emotional and executive areas are interconnected.
We are learning from recent brain science that children’s brains go through major growth up until their mid-20s, and their neural circuits are shaped by the day-to-day experiences they have. Children who are well-nurtured and whose parents and teachers help them learn how to calm down when they are upset, for instance, seem to develop greater strength in the brain’s circuitry for managing distress and will be less likely to act on aggressive impulses.
Parents can play a key role in supporting their children’s emotional intelligence by encouraging them to be in touch with their emotional selves. The challenge, however, is that most often the way we were raised determines how we act as parents, unless we solicit support to learn another way. For example, although we may have the best of intentions, we sometimes reject children’s feelings by making dismissive remarks, such as “Stop crying, there is nothing to be afraid of.” In all likelihood, these are the words our own parents said to us growing up.
The emotional lessons about cultivating inner strength that children learn from the adults in their lives are powerful and long-lasting. When adults ignore their children’s feelings, children come to believe their feelings are not important. When we repeatedly threaten or punish children for a display of emotion, children learn that emotions are dangerous things that need to be held inside and hidden—an invitation to later depression or rage. When adults are unable to show angry and destructive children other ways of expressing emotion and managing their feelings, children learn it is acceptable to strike out at others or have a tantrum to get what they want.
Rather than dismissing the child’s feelings, parents can make a habit of naming emotions as readily as they name objects, thereby helping children increase their feelings vocabulary. Also, watching the way a parent models a certain behavior is the strongest way children learn. If parents calm down when they are upset before they act—or at least talk openly to children about losing their control if they do—this strengthens a pattern in the child of first stopping and calming down, then thinking about his or her response, and finally picking the best one and trying it.
A careful study of parental relationships and parents’ interactions with children has shown another style of interacting that can help
children grow in emotionally sound ways. Researcher John Gottman refers to this as being an “emotion coach.”3 This means that parents use opportunities presented by difficult or hurtful emotions, such as when a child has had an argument or experienced a disappointment, to explore the true nature of those feelings and how to work with them constructively. Parents can encourage children to use feeling phrases, such as “I feel sad” or “That made me really angry,” to express their emotions rather than simply acting on them. Children need ample opportunities to explore their emotional landscape with the caring adults in their lives.
In my recently published book, Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children,4 I offer some practical ideas and strategies for both parents and the children in their care to develop the ability to appreciate silence and stillness by taking regular moments of quiet time together, and as a result, become more skillful in managing stress. The book suggests that families schedule this regular “quiet time” in order to bring balance, replenishment and calmness into their lives. There is also an accompanying CD with the book that has guided practices for children ages 5 to 7, 8 to 10, and 12 and up led by Daniel Goleman. With these materials, caregivers can develop some concrete skills in cultivating both their and their children’s inner strength and emotional intelligence.
|Using Building Emotional Intelligence as a guide, parents can teach their children two techniques for enhancing emotional intelligence:
1. Relaxing the body (through progressive muscle relaxation and a body-scan exercise)
2. Focusing the mind (through a mindfulness exercise)
In the early years, children are able to concentrate on quiet activities for about 20 minutes, so varying their experience with the material presented is essential. The process is more important than the outcome or product, although young children are starting to be able to sense the concept of cause and effect. For example, the idea that stress has certain effects in the body is something that they can begin to grasp.
When children notice the flow of their feelings, thoughts or sensations during the calming exercises, they are developing the ability to draw on that awareness at any time in their lives. When they begin to feel upset and overwhelmed, they may first be able to use one of these techniques to begin to gain control of their emotions and calm themselves down. It is a lot easier for children to talk about why they are upset when they are able to get out of the “stress response” mode. If they are able to notice where in their body they feel this anxiety, they can use their mind to let go of it enough to be able to talk about it and even think of some ways they might solve the situation or feel better about it.
Children have a natural curiosity and sense of wonder about the world around them. As a result, they will probably respond positively—with interest and openness—to the idea of learning new things about quieting the mind and relaxing the body. Likewise, children welcome alone time with their parents and enjoy participating in common activities together. At the heart of this experience is the relationship between parent and child. This special kind of quiet time can serve to help children express their feelings and thoughts as well as provide a sense of warmth and safety. Having a regular time to check in with each other helps them begin to voice concerns or deep questions that need a more relaxed atmosphere to be expressed. Also, children of all ages like routines and rituals, and repetitive behavior maximizes a child’s learning. Some of the benefits of making these practices a regular part of daily life for adults and children include:
|Increased self-awareness and self-understanding|
|Greater ability to relax the body and release physical tension|
|Improved concentration and ability to pay attention, which is critical to learning|
|The ability to deal with stressful situations more effectively by creating a more relaxed way of responding to stressors|
|Greater control over your thoughts, with less domination by unwelcome thoughts|
|Greater opportunity for deeper communication and understanding between parent and child, because you are sharing your thoughts and feelings on a regular basis|
Take a moment right now and think about a child who is a part of your life, and ask yourself what it is you really want as a parent or teacher for this child. What are some of your hopes for him or her? A variety of answers will arise, depending on the particular needs, strengths and challenges of the child. However, whether or not this child will be successful at realizing those hopes is dependent on whether or not we, as the adults in their lives, have equipped them with the inner strength they will need to approach their day-to-day challenges and the big challenges life may throw at them. Are they capable of being resilient in the face of obstacles as well as opportunities? Can they bounce back and even surpass their level of coping when the tests of life come their way?
What a precious gift children everywhere would have if they were equipped with practical tools to help them with emotional regulation as well as to recover faster from stressful situations. The benefits are far-reaching—from better health and an increased ability to learn to more fulfilled and happier lives. May we have the time and the will to give our children that gift.
Linda Lantieri, MA, is a Fulbright Scholar, keynote speaker and internationally known expert in social and emotional learning and conflict resolution. Currently she serves as the director of The Inner Resilience Program, which equips school personnel with the skills and strategies to strengthen their inner lives in order to model these skills for the young people in their care. In 1985, she co-founded the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP), which is now one of the largest and longest-running evidenced-based school (K–8) programs in social and emotional learning in the United States. Linda is also one of the founding board members of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
She has 40 years of experience in education as a former teacher and director of a middle school in East Harlem, and faculty member at Hunter College in New York City. She is the co-author of Waging Peace in Our Schools (Beacon Press, 1996), editor of Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers (Beacon Press, 2001) and author of Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children (Sounds True, 2008).
For more information, go to www.innerresilience-tidescenter.org and www.casel.org.
1M. Grolnick, ed. Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2006).
2D. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).
3J. Gottman, The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997).
4 L. Lantieri, Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008).
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