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.

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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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All kids need the 'the right things' to thrive. The right people, the right motivation, the right encouragement. Out in the world, at school, or wherever they find themselves, kids and teens with anxiety don't need any extra support - they just need their share, but in a way that works for them. 

In a world that tends to turn towards the noise, it can be easy for the ones that tend to stand back and observe and think and take it all in, to feel as though they need to be different - but they don't. Kids and teens who are vulnerable to anxiety tend to have a different and wonderful way of looking at the world. They're compassionate, empathic, open-hearted, brave and intelligent. They're exactly the people the world needs. The last thing we want is for them to think they need to be anyone different to who they are.

#parenting #anxietysupport #childanxietyawareness #mindfulparenting #parent #heywarrior #heysigmund
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.'

We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us. Until they have a felt sense of safety though, we won’t see it.

This safety will only happen through relationship. This isn’t a child thing, or an anxiety thing. It’s a human thing. We’re all wired to feel safest when we’re connected to the people around us. For children it starts with the adult in the room.

We can pour all the resources we want into learning support, or behaviour management, but until children have a felt sense of safety and connection with the adult in the room, the ‘thinking brain’ won’t be available. This is the frontal cortex, and it’s the part of the brain needed for learning, deliberate decisions, thinking through consequences, rational thinking. During anxiety, it’s sent offline.

Anxiety is not about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. A child can have the safest, most loving, brilliant teacher, but until there is a felt sense of connection with that teacher (or another adult in the room), anxiety will interrupt learning, behaviour, and their capacity to show the very best of what they can do. And what they can do will often be surprising - insightful, important, beautiful things.

But relationships take time. Safety and trust take time. The teachers who take this time are the ones who will make the world feel safer for these children - all children, and change their world in important, enduring ways. This is when learning will happen. It’s when we’ll stop losing children who fly under the radar, or whose big behaviour takes them out of the classroom, or shifts the focus to the wrong things (behaviour, learning, avoidance, over relationships).

The antidote to anxiety is trust, and the greatest way to support learning and behaviour is with safe, warm, loving relationships. It’s just how it is, and there are no shortcuts.
In uncertain times, one thing that is certain is the profound power of you to help their world feel safe enough. You are everything to them and however scary the world feels, the safety of you will always feel bigger. 

When the world feels fragile, they will look to us for strength. When it feels unpredictable, they will look to us for calm. When they feel small, we can be their big. 

Our children are wired to feel safe when they are connected and close to us. That closeness doesn’t always have to mean physical proximity, but of course that will be their favourite. Our words can build their safe base, “I know this feels scary love, and I know we will be okay.” And our words can become their wings, “I can hear how worried you are, and I know you are brave enough. You were built for this my love. What can you do that would be brave right now?”

We might look for the right things to do or the right things to say to make things better for them, but the truth of it all is the answer has always been you. Your warmth, your validation, your presence, your calm, your courage. You have the greatest power to help them feel big enough. You don’t have to look for it or reach for it - it’s there, in you. Everything you need to help them feel safe enough and brave enough is in you. 

This doesn’t mean never feeling scared ourselves. It’s absolutely okay to feel whatever we feel. What it means is allowing it to be, and adding in what we can. Not getting over it, but adding into it - adding strength, calm, courage. So we feel both - anxious and strong, uncertain and determined, scared and safe ‘enough’. 

When our children see us move through our own anxiety, restlessness, or uncertainty with courage, it opens the way for them to do the same. When our hearts are brave enough and calm enough, our children will catch this, and when they do, their world will feel safe enough and they will feel big enough.
The temptation to lift our kiddos out of the way of anxiety can be spectacular. Here's the rub though - avoidance has a powerful way of teaching them that the only way to feel safe is to avoid. This makes sense, but it can shrink their world. 

We also don't want to go the other way, and meet their anxiety by telling them there's nothing to worry about. They won't believe it anyway. The option is to ride the wave with them. Breathe, be still, and stay in the moment so they can find their way there too. 

This is hard - an anxious brain will haul them into the future and try to buddy them up with plenty of 'what-ifs' - the raging fuel for anxiety. Let them know you get it, that you see them, and that you know they can do this. They won't buy it straight away, and that's okay. The brain learns from experience, so the more they are brave, the more they are brave - and we know they are brave.

 #parenting #positiveparenting #parenthood #parentingtips #childdevelopment #anxietyinchildren #neuronurtured #childanxiety #parentingadvice #heywarrior #anxietysupport #anxietyawareness #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #parentingtip #neurodevelopment
To do this, we will often need to ‘go first’ with calm and courage. This will mean calming our own anxiety enough, so we can lead them towards things that are good for them, rather than supporting their avoidance of things that feel too big, but which are important or meaningful. 

The very thing that makes you a wonderful parent, can also get in the way of moving them through anxiety. As their parent, you were built to feel distress at their distress. This distress works to mobilise you to keep them safe. This is how it’s meant to work. The problem is that sometimes, anxiety can show up in our children when it there is no danger, and no need to protect. 

Of course sometimes there is a very real need to keep our children safe, and to support them in the retreat from danger. Sometimes though, the greatest things we can do for them is support their move towards the things that are important a or meaningful, but which feel too big in the moment. One of the things that makes anxiety so tough to deal with is that it can look the same whether it is in response to a threat, or in response to things that will flourish them. 

When anxiety happens in the absence of threat, it can move us to (over)protect them from the things that will be good for them (but which register as threat). I’ve done it so many times myself. We’re human, and the pull to move our children out of the way of the things that are causing their distress will be seismic. The key is knowing when the anxiety is in response to a real threat (and to hold them back from danger) and when it is in response to something important and meaningful (and to gently support them forward). The good news is that you were built to move towards through both - courage and safety. The key to strengthening them is knowing which one when - and we don’t have to get it right every time.♥️

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