From infancy, your baby will experience a variety of emotions and although she may not have the vocabulary to express herself, it’s important she learns to understand and regulate her feelings as she grows.
As a mom, you are your child’s first teacher in the school of emotional intelligence (EQ), so you are in the best position to help your little one develop these essential skills. “A well-developed EQ can be the deciding factor for success in adulthood,” says Chris van Niekerk, head of Founders Hill College in Modderfontein, Johannesburg.
“This places an exciting, but onerous, burden on us as parents and educators to ensure that our children are not only well versed in the social, natural and commercial sciences, but also have the emotional savvy to manage their own feelings and subsequent behaviours while understanding the feelings of others,” he says. There’s a strong connection between EQ and the ability to form and maintain relationships, so besides teaching her to read, write and count, developing and enhancing your little one’s EQ is one of the most valuable gifts you can give her.
Founder of iFeel games, Shontell Fiet, who is also a social worker with a special interest in child therapy, notes that some children are born with a high EQ, while others are not in tune with their emotions. The good news is that it can be taught. “The qualities of self-awareness, empathy, trust, mindfulness, curiosity, acceptance, and listening start at home,” she says. How a parent models these qualities has a direct impact on a child’s EQ development.
Owner and co-founder of Step Up Education Centres, Cindy Glass, explains that self-awareness is the first and most important skill to master as it incorporates and supports all other EQ skills.
For toddlers, learning through constructive play is effective. “Teach self-acceptance and self-love by doing activities that draw awareness to your child’s body parts and height. Emphasis needs to be on noticing body parts and their amazing uses.
“Activities that encourage children to express how they feel about a variety of scenarios are also helpful in teaching self-awareness skills,” she says. When chatting to your little one about how she feels, create a fun environment and ask open-ended questions. Find out what makes her happy, angry or sad. Role play is also a great idea − use puppets, dolls or stuffed toys to play out scenes and feelings. Cindy notes that toddlers who learn to recognise, understand and manage their emotions are able to enjoy happier, more constructive friendships as well as concentrate and learn more effectively.
Chris agrees that an improvement in self-awareness within a loving and age-appropriate environment should lead to improved self-esteem. “This means the child should develop a good sense of who they are, and will work towards positive feelings about what they have discovered about themselves,” he says. He explains that the more comfortable she is with herself, the more comfortable she will be integrating and connecting socially with other children.
The benefits of EQ include the ability to empathise with the feelings of others, understanding how to respond and having the emotional skills to deal with life’s challenges. “In a world where we are required to manage a matrix of personal and professional relationships instantly and efficiently, the need to have a well-developed sense of self, alongside good empathetic social awareness is critical,” says Chris.
Toddlers generally believe that the world revolves around them, so learning to empathise will help them see beyond their self-centred bubble. Cindy suggests teaching empathy by letting your child dress up as someone else and including animals in educating your little one.
“Volunteering at an animal sanctuary, showing kindness towards the elderly and those who are less fortunate are fantastic ways to teach kindness, gentleness, and compassion,” she says. Use these opportunities to discuss how the activities made them feel. “Kindness feels good and we want our children to be aware of how kindness affects their emotions,” she adds.
When your little one feels secure, it will be easier for her to trust her environment. This sense of security, or lack thereof, is based on the relationship she has with you and her caregivers. When you create a safe space for your child to express herself, she will feel more confident and trust will grow. Cindy explains that toddlers who learn to believe in and trust themselves overcome fears of separation and are more likely to try new experiences and engage in more challenging activities than those who don’t. Encourage your child to engage in activities that will help her overcome her fears.
Shontell agrees that trust is learned from birth and starts with your baby’s needs being met. “When your baby cries, she needs to be comforted, and when she’s hungry, she needs to be fed,” she says. Later on, children learn trust from what adults say and do.
Shontell explains that acceptance begins with you accepting all your child’s emotions, and reflecting them. She says it’s normal for a child to feel angry or frustrated, but this does not mean they can behave how they please.
“This is where they learn to understand, but also control, their emotions and body,” she adds. Cindy encourages a conscious approach to parenting, allowing space for the realm of emotions that can be experienced by your child. “Remember that all negative behavioural choices are based on fear − of not being heard, of not having purpose, of not being acknowledged, of being alone, of not being good enough,” she explains. When your child tries something new, she’ll look to you for support. As a parent, it’s normal to want to jump in when your child is experiencing discomfort, but this won’t help him learn independence. It’s OK to take a step back and let him figure it out on his own. Allowing him to experience discomfort will teach him to work through his emotions, and if you focus on his effort rather than the outcome, he will feel accepted.
Children are naturally curious, so pay attention to your little one’s interests and get involved. Children are likely to do what their parents do, so lead by example − the best way to encourage a sense of adventure in your tot, is to have one yourself. Go on excursions with your child, try different things and practise patience when he incessantly asks, “Why?”. Be curious, ask your child what he sees, and describe what you see.
“When you explain new things and point out interesting situations, you teach your child about his world and stimulate an interest in learning and understanding new things, which will stay with him later on,” explains Shontell. This will also help build your little one’s vocabulary, so create opportunities to have real conversations with your child and find out what he enjoys.
Training our minds to be still and in the moment allows us to be present. Children aren’t generally worried about the past or future, so this is easy for them to do. Shontell notes, however, that the increase in the amount of time children spend using technology means it may not come as naturally as it once did. You can teach your little one to be more mindful by bringing your attention back to your immediate surroundings whenever your thoughts drift. If you’re taking a walk with your child, for example, point out the trees and encourage her to notice everything around her. This is also an opportunity for you to reconnect with your inner child as you learn to be carefree again − touch the flowers and trees, smell them, and immerse yourself in nature. This will teach her to adopt a mindful approach to life.
The best way to teach your child this skill is by applying it yourself. When your child has something to say, give her your undivided attention. Listening to your little one is also a gift to you, as you gain more insight into who your child is and this lets her know that she matters. Shontell says that by listening to what your child is saying and making eye contact, without interrupting, she will also learn to listen and wait patiently while others are talking. If she interrupts, gently remind her to listen when others are talking.
Thobeka Phanyeko is mom to Oratile, 4. She is a journalist with a BA in Media studies from the University of Cape Town and has extensive experience as a journalist and content producer which she gained from Reuters, eNCA and Caxton Magazines. She is also a life coach and NLP Practitioner and is passionate about motherhood and women empowerment.