Build emotional intelligence in children for better mental health
May 26, 2022
by Lindsey Flannery
Since the beginning of the pandemic, children’s mental health has been in crisis. Virtual schooling, social isolation, lack of activities, and losing loved ones or coping with a loved one’s illness have all taken an immense toll on children.
According to the CDC, the demand for mental health-related emergency care increased by 25% during the first six months of the pandemic, and currently, the demand for psychological services is at an all-time high. Over 140,000 children lost a caregiver during the pandemic.
In a 2020 survey of 1,000 parents around the country, 71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health.2 Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing shortage of mental health care for children, who are waiting months or even years to access care, compounding the problem.
If you’re feeling frustrated or even angry about the pandemic’s effects on your children, you’re not alone. It’s an unprecedented time and we have no control over things like school closures. The current (tentative) return to some semblance of normalcy doesn’t erase the trauma that children have endured.
Fortunately, we are not powerless in this situation. There are simple steps we can take at home, every day, with our kids (and ourselves!) to help improve emotional intelligence and develop healthy coping skills -- which, in turn, improves mental health.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, refers to a person’s ability to identify and manage their emotions, as well as the emotions of others.1; It includes a few skills:
- Emotional awareness, or the ability to identify and name your emotions
- The ability to manage emotions, like regulating your anxiety and anger so you can talk about difficult topics in a productive way
- Empathy, which allows you to see and feel things from another person’s point of view
In other words, EQ is being smart about emotions. Our ability to manage our emotions and behavior in a healthy way leads to a higher quality of life and better mental health. It also lays the foundation for good relationships with others, which is one of the most important factors in lifelong health and happiness.
Good emotional intelligence starts in childhood. We can help our children build strong emotional intelligence and develop the coping skills they need for life’s inevitable challenges.
How to build your child’s emotional intelligence:
1. Accept and validate your child’s emotions.
All emotions are acceptable, even if all actions are not. You can hold limits about behavior while acknowledging the feeling behind it. Your child, like all of us, simply wants to be heard -- and once they are, you’ll find they’re not only happier, but more likely to accept your direction. The key is to teach your child that they cannot choose their emotions, but they can choose what they do with them.
2. Model healthy coping techniques when you’re angry.
If your child sees you flying off the handle when you’re angry, that’s likely how they’ll deal with anger themselves. Instead, use your anger or frustration as an opportunity to teach kids about naming emotions and coping in a constructive way. Try something like this: “I’m feeling frustrated that [your brother isn’t listening/I forgot to do that important thing/my favorite mug just broke]. Everyone feels frustrated sometimes, even moms. I need a minute to calm down and take some deep breaths.”
By demonstrating that you can feel angry and stay calm, you’re helping your child learn to do the same. (And if it feels difficult for you, think how difficult it is for your child, whose brain is not yet fully developed.) Those who learn healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions feel more in control of themselves and their lives, which improves mental health.
3. Model talking about hard things.
Your child may be afraid to discuss the big things that are worrying or challenging them, but these are the issues where they most need your support. Of course, you should seek mental health services for your child when appropriate, but this isn’t a replacement for good communication in the home.
Find a good time -- like once lights are out, before falling asleep -- when your child can bring up what’s bothering them. Listen intently, validate, and ask questions to help your child process their feelings. Avoid the urge to problem-solve or lecture. Keeping the lines of communication open, and maintaining love and connection through these conversations, makes your home a safe space for your child to grow.
The mental health crisis is not something we’ll solve overnight, but our everyday interactions with our children can and do make a difference. Creating an environment at home to support your child’s mental health is not just about getting kids off screens, or avoiding inevitable disappointments, which are a part of life -- it’s about validating their emotions, and helping them learn that it’s okay to feel how they’re feeling.
By being open about your own emotions and coping with them in a healthy way, you give your children a blueprint to do the same. This sets them up for healthy relationships and a successful and happy life.