SUPPORT AND CARING — Emotional literacy is defined as a person’s ability to identify, name, and communicate their emotions. If a person develops this facet of their emotional intelligence, they will be more capable of analyzing their experience instead of being reactive. They will be more responsible for themselves, less accusative of others, and more empathetic.
AN EMOTION AND ITS NEED
To understand why and how to develop your emotional intelligence, we first need to clarify what an emotion is. For this, let’s use a metaphor that relates to an experience common to everyone: that of the rumbling stomach.
No one is surprised to hear a newborn cry when they’re hungry. We don’t get the idea to say to them: “There’s no reason to cry. Stop that now!” An unpleasant sensation invades their little body and bothers them, so they cry. The parent decodes the tears and the situation, identifies the baby’s need, and prepares to feed them while reassuring them: “Oh! You’re hungry! Don’t worry. The milk is coming.” Thanks to these precious and repeated interventions by the adult, the child gradually learns to calm down and integrate the connection between their stomach aches and their hunger. They learn to tolerate the delayed satisfaction of their need and, ultimately, to communicate it: “I’m hungry. I want milk.”
An emotion is like a rumbling stomach! An emotion is a signal sent by our body to share a need with us and to push us to act to meet it. Antoine cries when dad leaves him at daycare? His brain detects an unmet need for security and urges him to find an environment and a caring person to look after him.
Faced with the arrival of an emotion, we must perceive our physical sensations, identify our thoughts, recognize the emotion that is manifesting itself, decode the underlying need, control our behaviour in order to express ourselves appropriately, and find the action that will allow us to meet this need. Quite a challenge! Even for an adult…
The child will therefore require long years of learning and practice, with the kind help of the people around them, who will accompany them through the maturation of their brain, which is initially incapable of such an exercise.
This process is still very complex for many adults, who often didn’t acquire it during childhood. They are sometimes learning it at the same time as they try to teach it to their children.
So, let’s see how, specifically, we can replace a temper tantrum punctuated by “You’re mean, mom!” with a more melodious “I’m angry and frustrated that I didn’t get that toy.”
Validate the emotions that the child is experiencing.
- “I can hear that you’re really angry because I told you ‘no.’”
- “I see that it makes you sad not to go out with us tonight” to replace “We’ll be back tonight. You’ll have lots of fun with the babysitter. Be a big boy and stop crying.”
- “You were scared! Yes, it’s true. It’s surprising when a dog suddenly starts barking!”
Set an example!
Naming our own emotions and presenting our personal methods of regulation when talking to our child allows for learning through imitation.
- “I’m irritated when I have to repeat the same instructions several times. I’ll try another strategy to help you understand my request.”
- “I’m so angry that I might say things I don’t really think! I need a moment to myself to breathe and calm down. I’m going to the balcony, and I’ll come back after.”
Teach emotional vocabulary.
Expanding our vocabulary related to the emotions lets us bring some nuance to the intensity of the emotion experienced. Indeed, there are about five basic emotions(six with disgust), which are expressed differently according to the intensity of their manifestation. For example, under anger, frustration is less intense than rage. Fear is experienced differently when we feel worried vs. terrified.
Practise when emotions are calm.
We can play with identifying emotions in everyday life, in relational situations, or through the emotions of characters in games or various cultural products. It’s also important to select movies, books, games, and cartoons that teach children different emotions.
“How does this character feel? Are they scared, angry, or happy? How did you guess that? Show me how you are when you feel happy!”
Beyond all the tips that you can read and attempt to apply, the key to having the necessary availability to take an interest in your child’s inner world is to take care of your own emotions. It’s essential to focus on your own feelings, be kind to yourself throughout this process, and seek out support if you feel the need.
FROM A SOCIETAL PERSPECTIVE
In addition to what can be done at home to promote emotional literacy, society has an important role to play in this education. As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.
Expose children to emotional material.
This is about increasing access to material related to the emotions in all areas of the child’s life, whether it’s at daycare, at school, or elsewhere in the community.
- Put up posters that illustrate the emotions using emoji-style images, cartoon characters, or a graduated emotion wheel.
- Provide the child with educational games related to the emotions (like Emotion Planet), books (like The Rabbit Listened), movies (like Inside Out), etc.
Train and equip the people who work with children to validate and welcome their experiences.
- The phrase “Be a big girl, don’t cry” should be replaced with “You’re sad that mom is gone, but she’ll come back to pick you up after nap time.”
- During a conflict between children, focus on how the other one feels and encourage thinking about each person’s feelings. “What happened?” will therefore become “What made your friend feel sad?”
Introduce programs in schools and daycares such as DeStress for Success and Roots of Empathy.
In short, the more we teach children to understand what is happening inside themselves, the less reactive they will be and the more able they will be to have respectful interactions and be empathetic. And by teaching this, adults will benefit from it, too!
READINGS TO LEARN MORE
- Parler pour que les enfants écoutent, écouter pour que les enfants parlent, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, from Éditions du Phare
- From Éditions Marabout, the works of Isabelle Filliozat, including Au coeur des émotions de l’enfant, J’ai tout essayé ! Opposition, pleurs et crises de rage : traverser la période de 1 à 5 ans, and Il me cherche ! Comprendre ce qui se passe dans le cerveau de votre enfant entre 6 et 11 ans
- The Filliozat activity books, intended for children, but with guide pages for parents