Everyone has heard of IQ and the myriad classes and programs you can get your child involved in to increase their future potential. Intelligence is an important factor in future success, but social and emotional skills are just as important. Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage your own emotions as well as imagine the emotional experience of others. The difference between high and low emotional intelligence is the difference between seeing someone trip and laughing at their misfortune, and imagining their embarrassment and feeling guilty for being amused. Schadenfreude—the German word for finding pleasure in the misfortune of others—is real, and that's probably why shows like Tosh.0 and Ridiculousness exist. But when it comes down to it, we all want our little ones to be compassionate, socially successful individuals, not little jerks no one wants to play with. For children, the basic building blocks for reaching a higher level of emotional intelligence are:
1. Spend time with them.
Children learn to empathize through experience. Spending time with your kids and acting as their example is the first way to teach them empathy. Emotions help us express ourselves and understand others. Give your child opportunities to practice expressing their emotions with you and show them how to accept and validate someone else’s feelings.
2. Be omnipresent.
Once you develop a close relationship with your kids by spending quality time with them and demonstrating positive, validating responses to their emotions, you set the stage for them to step out and practice these skills with peers. When they are hanging out with their friends, and someone expresses a strong emotion, instead of feeling awkward they can mimic what you demonstrated to them. Be the little voice in their heads that encourages them to be compassionate to others.
3. Teach them to handle strong emotions.
If you have kids, you remember the terrible twos, or you have yet to experience the awesome power that suddenly emerges from a grumpy two-year-old who is both hungry and sleepy simultaneously. Throw in a dirty diaper, and you have what I like to call the unholy trinity. There is no consoling them, all you can do is protect your face (or other sensitive parts as my kids' dad learned the hard way) and hold on for dear life. Human emotions can be unpredictable, complex, powerful, and life-changingly motivating.
Turn your kiddo's meltdown into an opportunity to practice managing strong emotions without bringing down the house. With Evyn, we haven't had many tantrums lately, but I have had my fair share of holding her in my lap on the floor through an emo-tsunami. I have her take a few deep breaths with me, and I tell her, “I can't understand what you are saying when you yell at me, can you please use your big girl voice?” Remember, young children experience anger, sadness, disappointment, etc. as something that is happening to them. They feel out of control, and don't realize that they can make themselves feel better without getting whatever it was they wanted in the first place.
4. Teach the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Unless you're some brand of sociopath, you've experienced sympathy at some point in your life without much training. You've seen someone struggle and offered help or comfort in some way. Empathy is the intimate understanding of someone else's experience and being able to imagine yourself experiencing the same feelings and emotions that the other person is feeling. This takes training and practice. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone because they forgot their umbrella and it's raining outside. Empathy is imagining the feeling of cold drops of rain on your head and neck. For kids, this can be simplified into just feeling sorry for someone, or imagining ourselves in their situation. Encourage them to imagine themselves “walking a mile” in someone else's shoes and to verbalize the experience by asking things like, "How do you think that made them feel?" Or, "Has that ever happened to you?"