Building Social & Emotional Intelligence in Children – How to Teach Connection and Civility

Building Social & Emotional Intelligence in Children - How to Teach Connection and Civility

In our changing world, teaching children civility is more important than ever. Civility goes beyond being polite and courteous; it involves listening to others with an open mind, disagreeing respectfully, and seeking common ground to start a conversation about differences. By teaching skills like empathy, problem-solving,and perspective taking, we can help nurture civility in our children.

Perspective taking.

Perspective taking is a critical skill for working in groups and resolving interpersonal conflicts. When children don’t stop to think about other people’s perspectives, it’s easy for them to make inaccurate assumptions about others’ intentions. And acting on these assumptions can lead to unnecessary conflict. 

Here are a few ways you can teach perspective-taking skills to your child: 

1. Read books together. Books are a wonderful resource for teaching perspective-taking skills, because you can take your time and ask lots of questions to help your child identify how a character might be feeling, spot the clues that reveal the character’s emotions, and discuss why the character might be feeling that way. 

2. Point out someone else’s emotions. Considering how someone else may be feeling in a public or social setting helps children learn to interpret and decode other people’s emotions. Though witnessing another person’s strong emotions can sometimes be uncomfortable, it can also be a wonderful teaching opportunity.

3. Share your own emotions. Talk with your child about how you’re feeling throughout the day. You can share why you feel certain emotions, and what you can do to problem solve or resolve a situation that’s causing a difficult emotion. This experience not only helps children build their perspective-taking skills, but normalizes both positive and negative emotions and helps develop empathy.

Empathy.

Empathy—the ability to feel or understand what someone else is feeling—is the foundation for positive interpersonal relationships and healthy communication. Having empathy in tough situations helps children treat others with kindness and respect, and may also help them intervene when another child is being bullied.

Modeling and showing empathy when you interact with your child is the most effective way to teach this important skill. So when your child is having a rough day or misbehaving, make your first response an empathetic one. This might sound like:

• “It’s so hard when …”
• “Oh, no …”
• “Uh-oh …”
• “Oh, man …”
• “You look/sound … ” 

Responding with empathy communicates to your child that you hear and understand him or her. When children feel heard, they’re more willing to listen, and more open to understanding and identifying with another person’s perspective.

Problem-solving.

Both bullies and their victims tend to lack problem-solving skills. Children who tend to avoid being drawn into bullying dynamics, on the other hand, are better able to recognize problems, brainstorm solutions, and make connections between their actions and consequences. The following three-step process is one you can use to help guide your child toward solving problems when they arise. 

1. Listen and validate. Listen empathetically and respond to your child’s thoughts and experiences with validation. Encourage your child to tell his or her story. (For example, “Hey buddy, tell me what happened.”) Then reflect back what the child said or paraphrase with something like “It sounds like you’re ________.”

2. Help your child label emotions. It’s important that you allow your child to label his or her own feelings, instead of dictating how to feel. Listen in a way that shows you’re paying attention and taking your child seriously, and don’t dismiss any emotions as silly or unimportant. 

3. Set limits while problem-solving. Set alimit on the behavior or choice your child expresses while acknowledging his or her emotions. For example, say, “It’s okay to feel/want ________, but it’s not okay to do ________.” Once the limit has been set, ask your child what he or she wanted or needed, then brainstorm together a few different ways to resolve the situation that are both safe and respectful. Help your child evaluate those ideas based on your family’s values and then let him or her choose what to do to fix the problem, try again, or try the next time the problem occurs.

Acting with civility requires children to be respectful, reflective, and self-aware. Learning the skills of perspective taking, empathy, and problem-solving helps children understand that their actions and words affect individuals as well as their entire community, encouraging them to rise up and act with civility in tough situations.

(This blog post originally appeared on the Committee For Children blog on February 24, 2017)


About the Author: Melissa Benaroya


Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters, and the co-author of The Childproof Parent. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education.

6 Comments

Siti

hey. this is encouraging read as I deal with my 2 teenagers n my 3 yo kid. Have to start young or start at the groundwork first though. can’t just jump right into the middle of this exercises! Thank u for making me feel not alone..

Reply
Melissa

Siti
I am so glad you found it helpful! I can only imagine the work you are doing as a parent of 2 teens and a toddler. Not easy work, but very important work!
Be well,
Melissa

Reply
Chelle Pugh

A friend directed me to this website regarding a great book about anxiety. I decided to have a look at the rest of the site too, and this article was the first that I read.

What a fantastic article – it has reaffirmed for me the approach that I try to take (albeit with needing a few small tweaks around some of the language/word choices) and I will show it to my husband who tends to disagree with my approach as he’s a lot more ‘old fashioned’ and I want him to see the benefit in taking a kinder approach that involves listening to the children, not just making them ‘shut up’ and toe the line without ever considering their feelings.

I look forward to reading more on this site. Thank you for taking the time to write this article though, Melissa.

Reply
Melissa Benaroya

Hi Chelle!

I just saw your response to the article that Karen at Hey Sigmund shared. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Karen is amazing and shares a ton of my writing, but you can also find more on the ChildproofParenting.com website.

Reply
Ari Yares

These are great suggestions!

We’re always working on building up emotional vocabulary. Not just in the moments when the child is experiencing a complicated emotion, but more importantly when we are reading or talking about emotions.

I’m finding that this makes the problem solving much easier.

Reply
Melissa Benaroya

Thanks for taking the time to respond Ari! I cannot agree with you more. The more we build our child’s EQ the easier it is to avoid and manage challenges when they arise.

Reply

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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