How can I raise an emotionally intelligent kid?
As parents, we've all had to navigate our kids' strong emotions. And some of us probably do it better than others. I spoke with Marc Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, about his new book, Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, and we discussed how helping kids (and ourselves) become "emotion scientists" can benefit them in the digital age.
Sierra: What can parents do to raise emotionally intelligent kids?
Marc: So the first step is being a knowledgeable, skilled role model. The second step is being nonjudgmental about everything. You just drop the judgment, become a scientist. My goal is to make all parents into emotion scientists: curious, open investigators as opposed to tellers, attributors, knowers. Then the third step is supporting the child and discovering their true feeling states.
S: It sounds, honestly, very challenging.
M: The thing is, we have not had a really adequate emotion education for adults. So you're starting from scratch. You've got to give yourself permission to fail and forgive. It's hard. But it's doable. The problem is that we are an immediate-gratification society that doesn't like to put effort into these areas. We want quick fixes: "Take a breath." "Let it go." "Move on."
S: In your book, you write about the "meta moment"—which I really like. Can you talk about why this might be a helpful concept for parents and kids?
M: It's about triggers. So, for example, let's say I'm at a party and someone posts a picture of me and I really hate it. I'm activated, and I want to write a note to the person that posted it to take it down. If you do this from your automatic activated self, what will happen? You will go for the jugular. So the meta moment says: Before you make any choices, you've got to take a breath to deactivate, because our brains do not make good choices when they're activated. But importantly, it asks you to pause and reflect on your best self.
S: I can imagine for parents it would be helpful to think about who our "best parent self" is.
M: How do I want to be seen and talked about and experienced as this child's parent? Like, how do I want my kid [to see me]: "My dad is an a--hole"? Or is it, "My dad is empathic, caring, supportive"?
S: Can you talk a little bit about the idea that a single person's emotions can affect a larger group's feelings?
M: In a school, if you post something on Instagram that is frightening or threatening, you've now activated the entire community. So you have literally co-created an emotional experience for everyone in that environment.
How parents role-model this helps. If I walk into my house at the end of the day, and I'm like, "Another bad day … ," all of a sudden the energy in the house goes, oof. We grossly underestimate the power of co-existed emotions. How I handle my emotions influences how you experience emotions and in turn how you handle emotions, especially in power dynamics, like relationships with parent and child. So the question is, am I aware of that process?
Think about this in terms of bullying online: So I'm feeling shame because somebody posted something about me that makes me look terrible or embarrasses me. And then I'm told that I have to figure it out on my own. That's really messed up. Probably what I need is some love and social support and someone to talk through the problem with, to help me manage my feelings. So I just think that [the idea of] resilience and grit and self-control is grossly overrated in terms of its helpfulness.
You know, we're social creatures: We need love, we need support, we need connection, and sometimes we just need to talk through the problem [with] someone who is a nonjudgmental emotion scientist.
[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]
Tools to become an emotion scientist (and help your kid be one, too).
As Marc said, it's hard. It might be the hardest part of parenting, and it gets more complex as kids get into their tween and teen years. Parents who don't have a rock-solid grasp of their own emotions (and who does?!) have an even harder time helping kids build those skills. These tools can help kick-start our path to emotional intelligence.
The Mood Meter
Developed by Marc and his team, this tool helps kids (or adults) identify and chart their emotions on a grid. And it offers strategies to shift emotions to a different part of the grid (from agitated to calm, for example).
Stop, Breathe & Think
If kids need help "deactivating," these short, accessible meditations can work wonders. Consider building these into a regular part of your kid's day or week.
HappiMe for Young People
If negative thoughts are getting in the way of your kid's well-being, this app might help. It focuses on managing thinking patterns and offers mindfulness and visualization exercises.