How Emotions Matter: how to develop emotional intelligence in your children, with Lulu Luckock

Lulu Luckock, our brilliant social and emotional learning consultant, has shared some wisdom on how to help children be emotionally intelligent and resilient. Acknowledging emotions is a central part of individual growth and thus of education, and we hope you find this insight as practical and inspiring as we did.

All emotions are normal, and all of them are okay. It is important to share feelings, talk about them, and realise that each person expresses emotions differently. These lessons, Lulu emphasises, are some of the most important we can teach our children.

The last eighteen months or so have taken a heavy toll on young people’s mental health. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, an NHS study suggests that around 1 in 9 young people were experiencing a mental health issue. That number has now risen to around 1 in 6. The loss of the routine, structure and social interaction that school days provide have left many children feeling vulnerable, lost and alone.

Even now, as life returns to something approaching ‘normality’, many children are still battling feelings of social anxiety, inadequacy, and low confidence. Many young people feel left behind. So, what can we parents, carers, and educators do about it?

Teach that unpleasant feelings are part of life

Lulu emphasises that we should teach our children that unpleasant feelings are part and parcel of living a rich life. Rather than encouraging our children to suppress those emotions, or telling them that being angry is unacceptable, for example, we should instead focus on how to empower them to regulate and accept these negative emotions. Life is full of ups and downs; it’s how we navigate them that matters.

However difficult, we should try to accept all emotions and use them wisely. Emotions are like messengers, who have something specific to tell us about the way things are now. Anger might be telling us that we feel hurt and powerless, apathy might say we’re feeling overwhelmed and not in control, while anxiety could act as an alarm that we’re too concerned with the future to enjoy the present moment.

By granting children space and time to feel, we’re not encouraging bad behaviour. Instead, we’re giving them the opportunity to experience the full spectrum of emotions and, in so doing, teaching them to take the time to understand themselves as emotional beings.

Listen and validate while giving space

Our instinct as parents and carers is to swoop in and rescue our children from any discomfort, difficulty or disappointment. However, if we want to raise emotionally resilient children, we need to take a step back and let them both feel what they are feeling and discover their own ways to meet their problems. In this way, we give them the opportunity to practice making key decisions, which in turn builds their trust and belief in themselves. Stepping in ourselves to save the day robs them of the opportunity to find their own way and thereby learn important lessons.

This isn’t to say that we should be completely passive as carers. Lulu stresses the importance of active listening and validation. When children encounter difficult emotions, we should be present, remain quiet, and really listen to them. This gives them the space to speak out and normalise what they are going through. By validating their experience and its attendant emotions, we communicate that we understand and accept their feelings, whatever they are.

Finding the right words

The next step is to help children develop a richer and wider emotional vocabulary when talking about their feelings. Lulu finds that many of the young people she counsels have a very limited vocabulary in this regard. They are either ‘stressed’ or ‘depressed,’ with little awareness of how to describe more specific emotions in between.

Lulu cites Dr Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry and a mindfulness expert, who recommends that we “name it to tame it.” In other words, through labelling emotions we make space between ourselves and our experience, which allows us the breathing room we need to respond to our feelings and their challenges. Therefore, by giving children more words to describe what they are feeling we help them better understand themselves and others and are giving them the tools to respond positively.

If you are in need of some inspiration for words to use, Lulu recommends searching for an Emotions Wheel (see this page for an example). Over 34,000 distinct emotions have been identified, after all, so it’s wise to do some research!

Some final tips

In all of this, as parents, carers, and educators, we have a responsibility to lead the way and be emotional role models for our children. We need to show them how we name, regulate and manage our own emotions, a task which is, admittedly, easier said than done when we are tired and stressed!

From this point forward, try to name your feelings with your children. Talk things out with them. Discuss your strategies for managing your emotions and, when you lose your cool (which will happen and is normal), apologise and say you’ll try to catch yourself next time.

Lulu finishes by dishing out some quickfire tips on navigating the sometimes-stormy seas of trying to emotionally educate children: keep yourself calm by practicing to pause; keep listening; keep connected; keep talking; keep trusting and loving; and be the change you wish to see in your children.

We hope you’ve enjoyed Lulu’s insights as much as we did. If you’d like to contact Ivy Education about any of the ideas or issues raised in this insight, or indeed with any other educational query, please, don’t hesitate.