Making Your Kids More Emotionally Intelligent

Family Counseling Insights brought to you by Patricia McTague-Loft

Raising kids provides tremendous satisfaction, with moments of joy unlike any others. The flip side, of course, is that raising kids can also provide moments of true frustration. Fortunately for most people, the joy far outweighs the frustration. Most parents, especially when their kids have successfully “taken flight,” cite being a parent as one of if not the most significant accomplishments of their lives.

If being a parent, then, rates so highly as one of a person’s most meaningful roles, why do so few parents take the time to become an expert parent. Most parents do the equivalent of getting in a car and throwing it into Drive without ever having taken a driving lesson — or even practiced driving. Many times a couple simply wings it, raising their kids as they were raised, or turning to grandma for a little advice when they’re stumped.

Today, with respected information readily available online, it’s easy to do a little research and get easy-to-follow and trusted advice. Take a recent article from, for example, written by Julia DiGongi, PhD, a neuropsychologist and author of Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power. She offers some simple advice about talking to your kids, offering three phrases you should never use with them in order to make them more “emotionally intelligent.” They are:

Why can’t you be more motivated? It takes only a little self-reflection to get at the core of this question: you have expectations about your child’s behavior that they are not meeting. But each child has unique capabilities. Consciously or unconsciously, kids generally enjoy doing what they are good at. If you’re expecting them to do something they simply have limited ability to do, their behavior is probably not due to a lack of motivation — it’s because they struggle with the task.

Take reading, for example. In this age when it seems like kids would rather have a digital screen in their hands than anything else, it might seem hopeless to encourage reading, no matter how valuable reading skills are. DiGongi offers some advice about getting to the heart of the issue. Let’s say your kid is spending too much time playing video games and too little on reading. “Avoid asking, ‘Why aren’t you more motivated to read books?’” she says. “Instead, try an open-ended question: ‘I see you really like video games. I’d love to hear what you like about them so much. Would you share with me?’ That opens up the opportunity to see if your child might need some tutoring. Or, if your child loves the fantasy setting of a particular video game, it may be a chance to research some wonderful age-appropriate fantasy novels they might fall in love with.

Why don’t you listen to me? This gets back to the issue of expectations. If your child is not responding to your instructions, you may be tempted to assume they simply aren’t listening to you. But, writes DiGongi, “Children’s brains are wired for autonomy and a need to explore the world based on their own identity, not your beliefs about who they should be.

“If you’re locked in a disagreement with a seemingly willful kid, instead of asking them why they don’t listen, consider asking, ‘Have I listened to you?’” That may be hard to do, but it might be a good sign: “Emotionally intelligent parents don’t strive for compliance from their children,” writes DiGongi, “but for connection.”

You are being so disrespectful! There’s a big difference in the behavior of a six-year-old and that of a teenager. A younger child is probably not being disrespectful — they’re just being a kid. That’s not the case with a teenager. Older kids require a respectful approach on the parent’s part as well. “The most emotionally intelligent approach to fears that your kid doesn’t respect you,” writes DiGongi, “is to ask specific, non-judgmental questions, and then explicitly affirm your willingness to listen.” In other words, model for them what respectful behavior is, and trust them to respond in kind. If you’ve done your job as a parent, you’re on track to nurturing a respectful relationship with your adult offspring.