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.

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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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