The Single Most Important Thing to Teach Children About Emotional Intelligence

We all want to raise children who have emotional intelligence, but despite the fact that we spend about 13,000 hours in school just to receive our high school diploma, most of us never learned the basics of emotional intelligence.

We learned that the capital of Illinois is Springfield, even though Chicago makes more sense. We learned how to make potato batteries, which has come in handy exactly zero times. And we learned about all the movers and shakers of the Renaissance, including but not limited to Francesco Petrarca, whose major accomplishment was writing a collection of poems about Laura, a woman he loved but could not be with.

Yet, most of us don’t know much about emotional intelligence, despite the fact that 100 percent of us will face obstacles, and despite the fact that resilience skills are necessary life skills.

(The same cannot be said of learning Hot Cross Buns on a recorder.)

In fact, if we are asked rudimentary questions about emotional intelligence, most of us scratch our heads. We would have better luck remembering the capital of Sierra Leone.

(It’s Freetown.)

(I had to look that up.)

So, let’s start with a pop quiz about the single most important thing you can teach your kids about emotional intelligence. Consider this the Emotional Intelligence 101 crash course.

Pop Quiz: What causes emotions?

Most of us think that the situation causes emotion. If only my kids would start cleaning up after themselves, then I could stop being so irritated, we think. If only I made more money, then I could stop feeling so anxious, we tell ourselves. The situation, we say, is causing our emotions.

Those of us who want to give a more scientific answer might say that emotions are caused by some sort of neurons firing. Then we would grin sheepishly because we aren’t really sure what firing neurons have to do with emotions.

So, what does cause emotions?

The answer is so simple that most of us skip right over it. Thoughts cause emotions. Emotion is the outcome of thought. And yep, this does cause neurons to fire, but the thought happens before the emotion.

Consider this example. Let’s say that out of the blue, your spouse tells you that you are being a real jerk. You would probably become angry and defensive. You would probably feel yourself start to tighten up in some real neuron-firing tension.

Now let’s say that you are walking down the street, and a random stranger screams at you.

“You’re a real jerk!” you hear from across the street. You would probably be confused. You might even find it humorous. If you were having a bad day, you might feel defeated.

But you probably wouldn’t be angry.

Even though the situation is similar — someone is randomly calling you a jerk — you have a different emotional response because your thoughtsabout the situation are different.

When your spouse calls you a jerk, you might think, “How dare you? I’ve been working 60+ hours a week. I come home and cook dinner and get the kids ready for bed. I make sure we have date nights. I even clean your car every couple of weeks because even though you are a car slob, I want you to drive in a car that isn’t lined in empty Starbucks cups. I don’t deserve this!”

When the stranger calls you a jerk, you might think, “Wow! That person is having a bad day!” Or, “Haha. This is kind of uncomfortable. Maybe I could win this person’s affection by showing him how to make a potato battery.”Or, “Woe is me. This day is so bad that even the stranger on the street is yelling at me.

One way or another, you would not be angry. Befuddled? Bemused? Defeated? Perhaps, but not angry.

This is because your emotions are driven by your thoughts.

We need to teach this simple concept to our kids because every single advanced concept of emotional intelligence relies on this.

  • If your children do not learn to identify the thought that causes the emotion, they cannot learn to appraise the thought that causes the emotion.

Furthermore, if your children cannot identify the thoughts causing their emotions:

  • They cannot develop a mechanism to circumvent thoughts that trigger large emotional outbursts.

After all, they are but victims of the situation.

It all starts with this simple concept: Thoughts cause emotions.

So how do we teach this concept?

If your children are amenable, you can show them this worksheet.

If they aren’t amenable, you can just work it into the conversation. “Oh, you say that I’m the biggest idiot ever. I bet that thought really triggers some bad-feeling emotions. After all, thoughts cause emotions!”

Your children will probably roll their eyes. After all, that was kind of a lame segue.

If you’d like a more streamlined method, try this: Talk to them about your emotions. Say things like, “I feel ____ . The thought I have in my head is _____.”

  • “I feel irritated. The thought I have in my head is that you don’t clean up after yourself because you don’t respect me or my time.”

Model the conversation that you want them to have in their own heads. Sure, you can still have your awkward conversations with them, but modeling is the first way of teaching them to match the emotion with the thought.

We all face obstacles, and your children are no exceptions. As much as we hope that our children can spend their lives basking in the glory of a functioning potato battery, the truth is that someday, they will fall in love with a woman named Laura, and they will be brought to their knees because they cannot be with her.

Having the self-awareness to identify the thoughts causing their emotions is the first step toward processing these emotions, standing up after they’ve been knocked down, and moving forward as a stronger, happier versions of themselves.

This article was first published in the Dad Hammer Pub.

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