There are emotional responses like fear and shock that are straightforward reactions that are about keeping us safe. These emotions are meant to by-pass our thinking so we can act quickly. But many emotional responses are not necessarily about keeping us immediately safe in a moment of danger like – for example – anger, shame, hurt or helplessness. When we feel emotions like these, our thoughts and self-beliefs are often a component that contributes towards the trigger and sustenance of these emotions. If we can get to the point of emotional reactions being the instigator of curiosity about the situation and what is going on for us (once an emotion is triggered) our self-awareness can increase considerably and our responses to emotions can become so much more resourceful.
One component of developing good emotional intelligence is being ‘present’ enough to notice emotions as they arise. Once we can do this, we can create a gap between an emotion being triggered and our response. This gap not only gives us the opportunity to resist defensive and destructive responses, it means we also often have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves – especially if the emotion has been triggered by the actions or words of another. If we notice an emotion as it arises, instead of being consumed by the emotion and reacting from within its effects, we can detach ourselves enough from the emotion to become curious about it and do some wondering!
When an emotion has been triggered we can wonder:
- if the ‘volume’ of our response is an appropriate reaction to what triggered it. (Sometimes it is e.g. anger about an abuse of power. If the volume is appropriate there’s less likely to be much learning about ourselves as the emotion is sort of ‘pure’ and unaffected by our own interpretations or sensitivities).
- if we are reacting automatically because a deeply held self-belief that we might well not be very conscious of, has flared up such as: they never listen to me, everyone thinks I am stupid or they are all laughing at me. (Universals like ‘always’, ‘never’ and ‘everyone’ are often clues that some unhelpful thinking is going on).
- what might be going on for anyone else involved and apply some empathy so we realise the situation is not just about what we are thinking and how we feel.
- If you might have done something we consider to be wrong and this has triggered shame, embarrassment, defensiveness, regret, awkwardness etc
- if we need to change something e.g. solve a problem, change an attitude about ourselves, be more forgiving of ourselves etc.
- about what would actually be the best outcome in the situation: e.g. do nothing, walk away or do something – if we work out what the problem is, if there is one, and aim to sort it. Sometimes ‘sorting’ can be as simple as needing to cope with an emotion until it dissipates, sometimes we might need to apologise to someone when we have a fuller picture of what happened and our part in it, sometimes a practical solution sorts a situation out and sometimes we might need to talk assertively to someone to prevent the situation from happening again etc.
Also, having the awareness that an emotion is arising as it arises, not only gives us an opportunity to avoid automatic responses that we probably learnt in our childhood by making ourselves conscious of these, it also means we focus inwardly and are less likely to lash out or blame others for how we feel. We learnt to take responsibility for our own emotions rather than splashing them all over other people!
So how do we set children off on a journey towards greater emotional intelligence using the information above. Here are my suggestions:
- Talk about emotions more. Do emotion ‘check-ins’. Reflect upon the emotions of the day at the end of the day. Bring emotions into greater awareness generally. Give a commentary about your own emotions.
- You can explain to your child that being aware that an emotion has arrived, as it arrives helps us to manage it better.
- Explain that when we notice an emotion arise – that’s a time to become curious about what’s going on for us. It’s a good idea to start by looking inward rather than outward at this point.
- Explain the link between thoughts and emotions. We sometimes have an emotional response because we are making assumptions that others think the same as we think about ourselves (our self-beliefs). e.g. Nobody likes me. Such thoughts need challenging with , for example, the evidence that some people certainly do like you!
- Explain emotions give us messages. (Some of these messages are helpful, some not so. Emotions are not always rational). These messages need to be looked at and we need to decide if they are telling us anything useful. For example:
- Anger because someone borrowed something and didn’t give it back. The anger is telling us a boundary has been crossed and we need to address this with the person who crossed it.
- Disappointment because something was cancelled is telling us we were really looking forward to something but there’s not much we can do, so we have to just feel the emotion and eventually move on.
- Shame when we make a mistake tells us that we are not comfortable making mistakes. We need to look at the mistake, learn from it and remind ourselves everyone makes mistakes to put it in perspective.
- Sadness because of loss tells us we want to withdraw to recover emotionally or reach out for help to feel soothed.
6. Remind children about the importance of empathy. If we don’t automatically wonder about what the other person in any situation might be feeling and why they might have done what they did, we need to learn to remember to do this. This can often smooth the way for a more effective and speedy resolution.
7. Explain that in the light of the idea that emotions give us messages, we need to work out what we need to do with each message. We can ask, ‘what outcome would be ideal in this situation?’ and problem solve, reflect or be assertive in order to get this outcome. Of course, sometimes the outcome is just to manage the uncomfortableness of the emotion until it passes.