Adults do a lot of talking about the best practice to teach children. We subscribe to all sorts of “magic” formulas and tricks. We have books and charts and complicated systems of rewards and punishments, all the while clinging to the ole “do as I say, not as I do” adage. The truth of it is - the best way to teach children is to embody that which we are trying to teach. No lecture, no punishment, no reward, no chart, and no trick is as powerful a teacher as what we simply *are* because, as it turns out, what we model has long-lasting effects.
Imitating their parents and the other adults around them is a core part of development, and this is something that developmental psychologists have always known. One study published by Yale psychology researchers found that children engage in “over-imitation” of adults.
The study included three to five-year-old children who engaged in a series of exercises. In the first exercise, the children observed a dinosaur toy through a clear plastic box. The researcher used a sequence of irrelevant and relevant actions to retrieve the toy, such as tapping the lid of the jar with a feather before unscrewing the lid.
The children then were asked which actions were silly and which were not. They were praised when they correctly named the actions that had no value in getting the toy. The idea was to show the children that the adult was unreliable and to ignore the unnecessary actions.
Later the children watched adults retrieve a toy turtle from a box using needless steps. When asked to do the task themselves, the children over-imitated, despite their prior training to ignore the needless actions by the adults.
In other words, what they saw the adults do stuck more than what the adults told them to do.
But this is no surprise to anyone who has raised a child. One swear word slips, and you find out very quickly how strong the instinct to imitate you is, regardless of the rules you’ve set forth. It makes sense, then, that they will also imitate how we handle challenges, respond when irritated, treat others when inconvenienced, behave when angry, etc.
But woah, do I mean to say that adults need to get our own emotions and behavior in check? That’s deeply … uncomfortable. I know, I’ve been there. In fact, during one of my most challenging times in terms of my children’s behavior, I realized they were acting just like me.
The ugly truth was that I wasn’t handling life’s stresses very well. Overwhelmed and sleep-deprived, I was irritable and snappy, but let my child act that way and he “needed a consequence.” One day, I realized maybe my children weren’t the ones needing discipline.
It was me.
It was an eye-opening revelation, to say the least, and it led me on a harrowing journey of facing down the mirror and doing lots of inner work and healing.
And this is the best thing we can do for children.
We can embody compassion, kindness, calmness, warmth, joy, all of the things that we hope they will embody. After all, how can we expect our young to achieve that which we cannot achieve ourselves?
Will we be perfect at it? Nope. But we don’t have to be. The number one protective factor for children against stress is the presence of one stable, secure, and loving adult. When we work on our own emotional landscape, our triggers and balancing our nervous system so that we respond to what is happening, rather than react to life, we help our children wire circuits to do the same. They observe us in all of our humanness and they mirror what they see. So the real work lies in being a positive model, and at the core of this is boosting our emotional intelligence.
5 Ways to Boost Your EQ
According to Helpguide.org, “Emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.”
They assert that there are 4 key skills to building EQ: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Let’s take a look at how to build each one respectively.
Evaluate your triggers. Many of our emotional responses are a reflection of our early life experiences. Our ability to manage our emotions is often dependent upon the quality of our emotional experiences in childhood. Therefore, it is important to become aware of our own patterns and make adjustments where necessary so that we can provide our children with consistent, quality emotional experiences in their childhoods.
To raise your EQ, you can start by becoming more aware of your emotional experiences - learning to recognize, accept, sit with, and move through your emotions. Practicing mindfulness and journaling can be very helpful in this regard.
Practicing mindfulness means that you simply focus your attention on the present moment. Notice the sensations in your body that are associated with your emotions. Become aware of them, noticing without judging yourself, and let the emotions flow through you. You can use this practice to send love to your inner child, to comfort yourself as you sit with difficult emotions, and to eventually refocus your attention toward gratitude and appreciation for this moment.
Journaling allows you to flesh out your thoughts and feelings on paper and makes it easier to spot patterns and recurrences. Keep a daily journal of your moods, triggers, and responses to your children that you’d like to shift or change in some way.
This entails learning how to quickly recognize rising emotions and managing them so they do not negatively affect your behavior. Emotions are data; they do not define us. Simply stating, “I feel overwhelmed” as opposed to “I am overwhelmed” is a small enough shift to give you a bit of space between you and the emotion. It may seem inconsequential, but what follows “I am” has a powerful effect on your psyche. Given just enough space between you and the emotion, you are now free to choose a conscious response.
A few techniques that may help you in the moment of high emotions include:
- Placing your hand over your heart and repeating a mantra such as “I am safe.”
- Walk to a mirror and silently scream into it. Oftentimes, seeing your own angry reflection is enough to diffuse the anger so that you do not show that face to your child.
- Press the “third eye” between your brows and envision a relaxing place, such as by the ocean or deep in the forest.
- Go to your family’s Calming Corner and look at the feelings on the feelings posters. In this way, you can bridge the gap between your somatic experience to naming and labeling what you feel inside.
- Look at baby pictures of your child, or some other tangible token such as a worry stone.
This is about practicing mindfulness in social situations, noticing nonverbal cues and emotional shifts in those around you, and being present with them in their emotional experiences. This will help you fully understand those around you while allowing you to build deeper relationships with your family, friends, and colleagues.
Bringing this into the parent-child relationship, developing better social awareness will help you to more fully see your child’s emotional experiences. This means you can hold space for them, empathize, and co-regulate with them, thereby laying the foundation for them to be able to self-regulate later. For more on this, read The Myth of Self-Regulation.
You can build EQ in your relationship with others by focusing on positive communication and conflict resolution skills. Positive communication includes both verbal and nonverbal communication - being mindful of your language, facial expressions, and body language as well as practicing active listening when you are involved in conversation.
Active listening means that you listen to understand, not to respond. You seek to understand that person’s experience and perspective, empathizing when necessary, and giving appropriate feedback such as nods, and relaying the information back to them if necessary to ensure you understood.
Conflict resolution skills require quick stress relief skills as well as emotional awareness. To be able to peacefully resolve a conflict in the moment requires you to stay centered and in control through the emotions that arise. One good way to lower stress quickly in the moment is to engage one or more of your senses - squeezing a stress ball, counting blue things in the room, smelling a relaxing scent, or a gentle embrace.
Using your recently-honed skills of social awareness to notice the other person’s cues and your relationship skills of positive communication, you can diffuse the situation and find a peaceful solution.
Ultimately, the most effective way to teach children is to “be” what we want to teach. Yes, it’s a tall order, and it requires us to re-parent ourselves and do the inner work, but this is the priceless gift we can offer our children.