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!

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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.

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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.

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Anita

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

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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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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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