19 Practical, Powerful Ways to Build Social-Emotional Intelligence in Kids & Teens:

19 Practical, Powerful Ways to Build Social-Emotional Intelligence in Kids & Teens

If you could teach one set of skills to every child in the world, what would it be? What if it could be something that would bring intelligence and compassion to decision-making, reduce (or end?) violence, embed within humanity a drive towards kindness, empathy and create relationships that connect, heal, nurture and flourish those who are in them? Social-emotional intelligence could do this, and if we could teach it to every child on the planet, by the time the world was in their hands we would be living in an amazing one. 

The thing is, we don’t need to teach it to every child on the planet. We only need to teach it to one. 

Social-emotional intelligence involves being able to recognise and manage feelings appropriately in ourselves and our relationships, as well as understanding what other people are feeling. 

The emotional centres of the brain are closely connected to the areas that are involved in cognitive learning, so it’s not surprising that there is an abundance of research highlighting the importance of social intelligence for success.

Supporting children in developing social-emotional intelligence will boost their chances of success at school, at work and in life. A recent study found that the kindergarteners who were regarded by their teachers to be more socially competent – as measured by helpfulness to others, willingness to share and a capacity to resolve their own peer problems – were, by age 25, more likely to have graduated from college, be in full-time employment, less likely to have been arrested and less likely to be in public housing or on a public housing waitlist than students who weren’t as socially able. The results of the study were independent of the effects of poverty, race, being born to teenage parents, family stress and neighbourhood crime.

When it comes to our children, we’re the ones who can fuel their flight and building their social-emotional intelligence is a sure way to do this. We can’t choose their temperament and we can’t choose their personality, but we can shape it. Here’s how:

  1. The words have it.

    Words set the culture. Our kids won’t always remember our words, but they’ll remember how the words made them feel, and those will be the feelings with which they relate to the world. As the parent or important adult, you represent to them the very best the world can be. If they interpret that as judgemental or critical, they’ll approach the world with a defensiveness and disconnection that will stifle them. 

  2. Model imperfection.

    Own your humanness – it’s beautiful and you’re the only one on the planet that does human the way you do. Embracing your own imperfection will help your children to embrace theirs. Give them permission to fail and to get it wrong, and give it to yourself while you’re there. You’ll have off days, off moments and sometimes you’ll stuff up spectacularly (I regularly tick that one-off the list by breakfast) – it’s part of living and relating to the world in full colour. When you do, let your kids see you own it, and when they come to you to talk about their own mistakes, be grateful for the opportunity to strengthen the connection. Nothing feels better than someone embracing us when we’re not that deserving of that embrace (even if their shaking their head a little as they squeeze).

  3. Make kindness a priority.

    Most parents will say that kindness is important but kids aren’t getting that message, believing that grades are the most important thing to parents. Though grades are very important, kindness is at the heart of social competence, relationships, and connection. Telling them to be kind is one thing, but letting them see you be kind to yourself, to them, to people you know, to strangers – that’s where the magic is.

  4. Teach them how to listen.

    Listening is the key to being someone people love being with. It’s magnetic. To teach this, reflect back what you hear when they talk to you, ‘So what you’re saying is …’ I understand that’. Create plenty of time where you can be with them fully while they’re talking, so they can see how this listening thing it’s done. 

  5. Disagree. But don’t stop listening.

    Being able to effectively negotiate different points of view is an important part of maintaining relationships and preserving a sense of self in those relationships. Let them disagree with you sometimes without trying to change their mind: ‘I understand what you’re saying, though I see it a different way.’ Understanding someone doesn’t mean you agree with them. What it means is that you respect their right to their opinion, and that you want to keep the connection and dialogue open. People will always value those who respect their opinions, even if they disagree. 

  6. Empathy.

    Empathy is the ability to understand what other people are experiencing and it’s at the heart of thriving relationships. The best way for children to learn this is by watching you. Notice what they’re feeling, name it, and let them know that you get it. ‘You seem really mad/ sad/ confused. I understand that.’ By doing this, they’ll experience first hand the difference empathy makes.

  7. Share your own feelings.

    We all get sad, mad, scared, jealous, insecure – and pretending that you don’t runs the risk of your kids feeling ‘less than’ when they feel off-balance. Whenever it’s appropriate, share your feelings with them, but be careful not to dump your own troubles onto them. 

  8. Relationship is critical.

    Staying connected is the biggest and best way to ensure you have influence, so let the relationship take priority over pretty much everything. If they’ve come to you with a confession that has you scrambling for breath, take a moment, breathe, and focus on the behaviour you want increase (their honesty, the connection, their willingness to talk to you), rather than the behaviour you want to decrease. Acknowledge how much their honesty means to you, then gently discuss the behaviour you want to change. You’ll always have more influence when they feel connected to you. Their relationship with you will form the foundation for their relationships with the world. 

  9. Don’t try to change what they’re feeling.

    All feelings have a reason for being there and it’s okay to feel every one of them. The more feelings are pushed down, the more those feelings will push for expression. Give your children the space to feel their feelings without trying to change or talk them out of the feeling. Letting feelings come is the key to letting them go. When feelings are denied and buried, their way out is obstructed. This invites depression, general anger at the world or an angry, fiery explosion when the pent up energy is done with being stifled. 

  10. Explain what feelings do.

    All feelings have an important reason for showing up:

    ♥  Anger is a clue that something is wrong and gives us the energy to put things right.

    ♥  Sadness makes us step back from the world for a while and reset, recharge and heal, and lets others know that we might need some loving.

    ♥  Fear gives us the energy and physical resources to fight or flee something dangerous if we need to.

    ♥  Anxiety fuels us to deal with a potential threat. (When it’s related to performance, if it can be reframed as ‘excitement’ it can energise and work for, rather than against).

    ♥  Jealousy lets us know that something is important and points us in the direction of what we might need to invest in.

    ♥   Bad feelings around friendships alert us to the possibility that those friendships aren’t good ones to be in, that we deserve more, and that it might be time to let go.

    Attending to the feeling will often give clues about what’s needed to find balance. Encourage your child to find the words or images that are attached to the feeling. It doesn’t matter if there aren’t any, what’s important is that they are opening up their self-awareness and their capacity to notice their feelings and become aware of what they need.

  11. Be savvy with discipline.

    If punishment involves shaming, smacking and yelling, that’s how the kids on the end of that will learn to control the world and the people around them. We’ll all have bad days and lose it from time to time – that’s completely okay, we’re all human – but when shame is consistent, it changes people and the way they see themselves and respond to the world. Shame never changes anyone for the better. It’s important to have boundaries, but it’s also important to show our kids how to protect them with grace and without compromising anyone else’s. People (including our kids) will always give you more of what you need and want if their boundaries are kept intact and if they feel respected, liked and valued. 

  12. How does this friendship feel? 

    A fundamental part of social and emotional intelligence is being able to read and respond to relationships. The decision about who we let close is always ours to make. Encourage your child, without judgement, to think about their friendships in terms of how they feel in those relationships. What do they get from the relationship? Would they feel better or worse without it? Does it bring out the best or the worst in them? These aren’t easy things to think about, or to answer, but the earlier they can develop this mindset, and own their power to choose the people they let close, the happier they’ll be. 

  13. When a friendship feels bad.

    When relationships feel bad, it’s generally because they are. When those relationships do damage is when it’s taken as evidence of a personal deficiency. It’s not – it’s so not, and our kids need to know this. When people treat others badly, it’s often because they are driven by their own history and hurts. That hurt can be contagious, and it’s not up to any of us to take responsibility for another person’s healing. It’s important that we don’t get in the way of it, but we don’t need to be a target for anyone else’s pain or dysfunction.

    Encourage your kids to look at their own behaviour with an open heart, but if there is nothing they can change to make the relationship feel better, then it’s likely the friendship is one that doesn’t deserve them.

    Give them permission to keep the friendship if they want (often, the more you fight their friendships, the more they’ll defend them and this will tie up the energy they need to explore the friendship and what it means for them) but empower them as the ones who have the ultimate decision about whether or not to stay. Being alone isn’t a sign of popularity, or lack of, it’s the gap between leaving friendships that don’t deserve them, and finding the ones that do. 

  14. Build them up, but …

    Kids need confidence to experiment with relating to the world, but be careful not to over-inflate them. Praise their effort and what they do, rather than who they are. You’re trying to shape behaviour, so that’s where the focus needs to be. Overly praising without substance runs the risk of raising kids who lose their humanity because they genuinely believe that they are better than everyone else. Love them hard and without limits, but when you praise them, let them know why, so the praise is building behaviour.  Praise is a kind of currency and they have the capacity to earn plenty of it. You don’t want to flatline their growth by giving it to them too often for nothing. They are awesome humans because of what they do – how hard they work, how respectful, kind, funny, strong, brave they are. 

  15. Don’t force an apology.

    Making kids apologise too quickly might mean they have no idea why they’re apologising. Empathy is at the heart of an apology and will be missing from a forced one. Apologies don’t automatically heal a connection and they don’t automatically fix everything, and it’s important for kids to learn this. Instead, ask how they see the situation and how they think the other person might see the situation. If there’s something they’ve missed, gently point it out. Then, rather than telling them to apologise, ask them what brave steps they might take to put it right. It might not always be an apology. If they’ve hurt a sibling, they might think a cuddle is the way to go. If they’ve accidently pushed someone on the sports field, it might be saying ‘Are you okay? I didn’t mean to hurt you.’ Don’t shame them, but give them a chance to be a hero. There are usually two sides to every story. Validate theirs and support them in realising the full impact of whatever it is that they’ve done. The more shame they feel, the harder it will be to own whatever they’ve done wrong and to put it right. The idea is to nurture them towards being responsive when they get things wrong, not defensive.

  16. Model forgiveness.

    If they are the ones apologising for something, show them how to do ‘forgiveness’. Not every bad behaviour has to invite a consequence to teach an important lesson.

  17. Model responsibility.

    Responsibility isn’t about blame. It’s about response-ability – having the ability to respond. Taking responsibility for something means owning the ability to respond and to put things right. It’s done from a position of strength, not shame. When you’re the one who has made a royal stuff-up, be quick to own it and to put it right, ‘I wish I didn’t yell when you were late home. I’m sorry. That must have been scary for you walking into that.’

  18. Make it easy for them to talk to you.

    If they confess something they’ve done, breathe, take a moment, and respond in a way that teaches them telling you was the right thing to do, and nurtures a willingness to come to you again next time. Sometimes they can take your breath away with the things they do (actually we all have that in us), but all you’ll teach them by punishing or screaming is not to tell you next time. They’ve given you a prime opportunity to talk to them about the dangers or stupidity or whatever of what they’ve done. Use the opportunity to grow your relationship and your influence, not shrink it.

  19. Create a calm down space.

    Teaching kids how to calm down will strengthen their resilience from the inside out. Support them in finding a place in their room or at home where they can go when they are overwhelmed, stressed or angry and need to regain control. Let them decorate their special space however they want to – cushions, photos, pillows, soft toys. It’s not a time out, and time there is always under their control. Explain why it’s important by telling them how anger works: When people are angry, the part higher part of the brain that is reasonable, sensible and great at making decisions and finding solutions disconnects from the lower part that is more impulsive, primal and automatic. The lower part does crazy things when the higher part isn’t there to take charge. Calming down is about re-establishing the connection between the two. Mindfulness, listening to music, and strong breathing are ways to do this and to help them be the boss of their brain. 

Our kids watch everything we do (except how to stop clothes from hurling themselves on the floor – they don’t seem to watch that). If there are things you do that don’t work, or if you’re carrying your own scars, this is the single biggest reason to heal your own wounds and try doing things differently. You can the beginning of something extraordinary, making sure everyone who comes after you is able to connect with the world in a more fulfilling, effective, adaptive way. 

Our kids have it in them to find the answers, but by directing too much, we can stifle their inherent capacity for connection and growth. Being a human is hard work and it takes time. One of the most loving things we can do as parents is to give our kids the space and support to experiment and find the answers. They aren’t perfect, and neither are we and the more we are able to receive their mistakes with love and compassion, the more open they’ll be to finding another way, and to our influence, our guidance and our wisdom

20 Comments

Viv Proost

Thank you so much for this article. I plan to share this with my teenage daughters and other family members. I love the positive framing of what are considered “negative” emotions that most of us we’re at some point taught to be ashamed of. This will help them see how very valuable their feelings are and how to use them as guides for making wise decisions.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. I’m so pleased you are able to use the information. And yes, a lot of us were taught that certain emotions were wrong, so anything we can do to give our kids permission to feel their feelings safely will really empower them.

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Austin

I have already worked with my daughter to help her resolve conflict with her sister. She responded well and I can see positive improvement in her mindset already!

Reply
Katesurfs

This is perfect. If we want our kids growing up to be connected, in touch adults, parents need to be doing all of the things you mentioned.

Reply
e3nafk

19 Practical, Powerful Ways to Build Social-Emotional Intelligence in Kids & Teens:

The talking points are straight forward. And useful for a parent. As a family, if we dial down the speed 2 notches, there are so many learning moments on how to approach something with less angst and truly bond or feel more confident with decisions. I have daily opportunities to refer to the 19 suggestions. Many thanks.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Yes – slowing things down can provide the space to act from our own wisdom, intuition and rational thought, rather than impulse. It’s not always easy, but it’s often powerful.

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Tanya

There is so much helpful information in your posts, this one especially, I’m a yeller and have been trying to turn this around for a while. My oldest son is becoming a yeller and has a quick temper and trying to teach him to be calm and vocalise his feelings is tricky when I am not fantastic at doing it myself. I think a calm space for all of them will be a good starting point and I will work through the other 18 points one by one ?thank you

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. I’m pleased the information is helpful to you. It can be really hard to stay calm all the time – I really get it – we’re all a work in progress though. Anything you can do to empower your son to manage his own anger will start to make a difference. You’ve been there – you know what it’s like to have a quick temper, as well as how hard it can be to manage – that makes you the perfect one to teach your son because you have the insight that comes with experiencing. He’s lucky to have you.

Reply
Anita

What An amazing article. Thank you for the insight. I’m saving it to reference in the future.

Reply
Kathy

I absolutely love your articles! Thank you for this in depth and comprehensive reminder of how to nurture our little ones 🙂

Reply
Lulu Z.

I started reading your articles this spring when I read your spectacular piece on anxiety in children and how their bodies respond during anxiety. I teach kindergarten in an independent school and my population is mostly affluent, and many of them are coming in quite anxious (compared to when I started teaching 20 years ago). Social emotional learning and mindfulness is a priority in my classroom. I continue to get training in these two areas and find it so inspiring as well as critical in facilitating children’s experiences at school/in life these days. I deeply appreciate your articles and the way you weave different authors and studies to make them relevant.
With gratitude, Lulu

Reply
Hey Sigmund

I love hearing about teachers who practice mindfulness in the classroom and give priority to social emotional learning! You will be making such a difference to the children in your care.

Reply
Fran Stokes

Would love to receive all of your articles. Emotional intelligence is excellemt anf you have a range of interesting articles that I could use in my work..many thanks

Reply
Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased the articles are helpful for you. The best way to make sure you receive all of the articles is to sign up for the newsletter. The newsletter signup is in the sidebar on the right hand side of any page, or down at the end of the articles.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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