Encouraging Emotional Intelligence in Boys

Photo by Vamsi Krishna via Flickr

Do you know what emotional intelligence is and why it’s important?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and respond to emotions (yours, and others’) in healthy, productive ways. You’ve likely already noticed both high and low levels of emotional intelligence in action. Think about it: the friend who started ranting the minute a fellow driver shifts into their lane without proper signaling vs. the friend who responds to personal attacks with empathy and understanding. The kid who melts down when his team loses a game (and blames his teammates) vs. the kid who expresses disappointment in the loss, but doesn’t let if affect his interactions with his family for the rest of the night. Who might even spend some time thinking about what he can do to elevate his level of play so he can better help his team in the next game.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking of some pretty specific examples. You’re probably remembering all of the times your kids did not demonstrate emotional intelligence — and maybe even wondering if emotionally intelligent kids exist in reality, or are yet another Internet fantasy. Let me put your mind at ease: the above example of a kid who melts down after a loss was drawn directly from my life. From recent experience. And I expect to see the same scenario play out at least a few more times. The good news, though, is that emotional intelligence can be developed over time. 

As you know, children do not come into this world with finely honed emotional intelligence. Infants cry — loudly — when you take something they want away from them. Toddlers routinely hit people who inhibit their actions, and throw temper tantrums because they can’t put both feet in the same shoe. As our kids get older, though, their ability to control their emotions improves. (When was the last time you saw a teenager lose it because he can’t get two feet into one shoe?)

A certain degree of emotional development comes with age and maturity, particularly if the child is surrounded by good role models. And some kids are naturally more empathetic and in-tune with their emotions than others are. But emotional intelligence isn’t something you either have or you don’t, and it’s not limited or predetermined by your genes or environment. Unlike IQ, which is relatively fixed, a person’s EQ, or Emotional Intelligence, can improve over time with intervention. 

That’s important because emotional intelligence is linked to everything from interpersonal relationship satisfaction to job performance and career success. According to a study by Forbes, 90% of top career performers scored high in emotional intelligence, and those with a high degree of emotional intelligence earned an average of $29,000 more per year than those with a low degree of emotional intelligence. (Curious how your emotional intelligence stacks up? Try this online emotional intelligence test. It’s not designed for kids, but teens might enjoy it also.)

Boys, in particular, often struggle with emotional intelligence due to cultural norms that suggest it’s less-than-manly to acknowledge or admit emotions. (“Man up!” and “Big boys don’t cry!“) As a parent or educator, there’s a lot you can do to encourage and support the development of emotional intelligence. Here are some ideas and resources:

Acknowledge and name emotions. As adults, we often focus on the effect of a child’s emotions on us, rather than the child’s experience. (Think about it: when your child throws a tantrum in the parking lot, is your first reaction empathy for his frustration, or annoyance and embarrassment?) That’s partly because so many of us grew up learning to shun and avoid emotion, especially strong ones such as anger, sadness and frustration. (Think about this: How did your parents react when you were upset? Even now, do you acknowledge your unpleasant feelings, or try to push them away?)

You can hone a child’s emotional intelligence simply by acknowledging and naming emotions. Here’s what that might look like in action: Say you get some disappointing news at work, or via an email or phone call. Feel free to say, out loud and within your child’s ear shot, Ugh. This is so disappointing. If the washing machine breaks, instead of cursing or hiding your emotions, try saying something like, This is so frustrating! I’m really busy this week and I’m upset and overwhelmed because I’m not sure how I’ll find the time to deal with this. or Ugh! I was saving up money for a vacation, and now I’m sad and disappointed that we have to spend some of it to fix the washing machine. You can do the same thing when your child is upset: Wow, honey, you seem really angry right now.

Expand their emotional vocabulary. According to the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, there are 5 basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, afraid and ashamed. But there are many gradations to those emotions. (Consider the difference between “pleased” and “elated” or “scared” and “terrified.” ) Talking about and using these words can help children better understand and recognize the range of emotional experience. This post includes some fun activities you can use to expand your child’s emotional vocabulary.

Got a tween? Use emojis to talk about emotions. Tweens and teens use these cartoons to express emotions all the time. (Parent tip: Work this one casually into conversation. No teen is going to want to sit down with their parents and do a point-and-name emoji exercise.)

Try the kids’ activities developed by the Emotional Intelligence Institute. This non-profit institute has developed a whole bunch of interactive activities that parents and teachers can use to develop kids’ emotional intelligence. Take a look, even if you don’t plan to use the activities verbatim. A quick glance at their Respect: Behavioral Word Study, for instance, will give you some ideas and talking points for future conversations with your kids.

Brainstorm alternate ways to handle tough situations. Instead of simply punishing your child for misbehavior, ask your child to think about other ways he could have handled the situation. For example, after your son has sat in timeout for hitting his brother (because his brother took his truck), ask your son what he could have done differently. Encourage him to think of two or more alternate responses. (And yes, crazy responses are OK, as long as he gets around to some realistic ones too.) Younger kids (and older ones) may need some prompting. Try something like, “What do you think would have happened if you walked away? If you asked him give it back to you?

Developing emotional intelligence takes time, practice and lots of repetition — but the effort is well worth it.

How do you help your boys develop emotional intelligence?


The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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