Back to school is a stressful time. Here's how parents can learn and model high emotional I.Q.
Emotional resilience—the ability to bounce back from failure, or perceived failure, and delay gratification—is at the heart of children's emotional and social development. A child going back to school, especially if she's changing schools and taking on more academic and social complexities, can feel as though she's taking the ultimate resliency test. As parents we see, hear and feel the emotional fallout at the end of the school day and desperately want to help our kids make it through these challenging transitions. But can emotional resiliency be taught by a parent, teacher or therapist?
This question arose largely from the book and fieldwork done by child psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence written in 1995. Goleman observed that children who are well nurtured and whose parents model and help them learn how to calm down when they're upset seem to develop greater strength in the brain's circuits for handling distress. Those children whose parents neglect them or fail to model such behaviors will be more likely to act on aggressive impulses or have trouble calming down when they're upset. As Goleman puts it, “distress kills learning.”
School-Based Emotional Learning
Goleman advocates parents and teachers teach children emotional expressivity, along with emotional knowledge and self-regulation. He co-founded a center at the University of Illinois in Chicago to develop a curriculum and train teachers to accomplish this goal. The resulting program is called SEL, for social and emotional learning.
ABCs of Emotional Resiliency
What are the crucial skills to produce a high emotional IQ? In the SEL program there are five competencies which, these researchers say, can be cultivated at school and at home:
1. Self-awareness: The child learns to identify her thoughts, feelings, and strengths. She makes the connections between these and her habitual actions.
2. Social awareness: The child identifies and understands the feelings of others, developing empathy and being able to take the perspective of others.
3. Self-management: The child learns to handle emotions so they help rather than hinder the task at hand. This helps her set short- and long-term goals and deal with obstacles.
4. Responsible decision-making: The child learns to come up with solutions to problems and implement them, as well as how to consider long-term consequences to decisions.
5. Relationship skills: The child learns to resist peer pressure, work to resolve conflicts, and keep healthy connections with others.
By learning and using these five competencies, the children in SEL programs exhibited real-world results including higher scholastic achievements and lower behavioral problems in adolescence.
In-school programs can help prevent low self-esteem in children by building their emotional and social skills. But what about children already suffering from the negative consequences of low emotional competence? A form of psychotherapy called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) has been developed and has been shown to effectively address social and academic problems related to low emotional competence in adolescents. Using this therapeutic approach, child psychologists (and others who work as counselors of children) seek to illuminate the negative beliefs and habits of mind that often accompany poor self-esteem and unhealthy emotions.
One 14-year-old boy who had taken part in REBT sessions described his experience, saying: "Before coming here everything went wrong. I used to blame myself. I used to think only of my bad points but now I'm able to think about my good points. I am able to use rational thoughts."
Although human beings are wired to form close ties with their peers, the research points to the importance of helping children learn the skills that make strong emotional relationships possible. Children can learn self-regulation and relationship skills-the building blocks of emotional resilience-at home and at school. Modeling the behaviors mentioned above is the best way for parents to teach their children to be more resilient. Sometimes adults have remedial work to do themselves in this department. If so, and who doesn't need a leg up in his resliency skills in these trying times, individual therapy, parent education and family therapy can help.
For more on children's emotional, social, cognitive and moral development read the new Complete Idiot's Guide to Child & Adolescent Psychology, coauthored with child psychiatrist Jack C. Westman, M.D.