Imagine you’re a fairy godmother with a magic wand that can bestow one—and only one—gift on your child. What gift would you give?
- Success in life
- Great health
- A fantastic education
- Emotional intelligence
That’s a tough question. Almost impossible, in fact.
As parents, we do our best to bestow ALL those gifts on our children.
But we can’t do everything. We’re best at teaching life lessons we’ve worked to master ourselves.
Like the importance of hard work, not taking no for an answer, and persevering through tough times.
Or the importance of eating right, daily exercise, and getting enough rest.
Or the love of books, ideas, and learning.
Cultivating self-discipline, a healthy lifestyle, and a love of learning will get a child far in life.
But there’s one area that often goes overlooked:
Emotionally Healthy Kids
Emotionally healthy kids are resilient. They’re buttressed against anxiety and depression. They communicate their feelings rather than acting them out.
These kids aren’t happy ALL the time. When they’re frustrated or sad, they show it, even if the timing is inconvenient for us. But once they express their feelings, they feel better. They don’t hang on to bad feelings for long.
Part of being emotionally healthy is having emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions, as well as understand and deal with the emotions of others.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman famously claimed that emotional intelligence matters more than IQ when it comes to reaching the top levels of success in leadership, sports, and relationships.
In business, people promote people they like and get along with. We’ve all met someone who’s extremely bright but doesn’t have people skills. Though their intelligence makes them a valued asset, they’re not always the easiest to work with.
At the top level of sports, mindset makes the difference between winning and losing. Elite athletes stay cool, visualize success, and harness emotional energy to drive them past the finish line.
In relationships—both the romantic kind and the everyday kind that fills our lives—emotional intelligence is the most important trait of all. Our boys need it just as much as our girls. According to the Gottman Institute, it’s a key ingredient in a lasting marriage.
Acceptable and Unacceptable Feelings
Helping kids understand and express their emotions is some of the most important work you can do as a parent.
I know this from experience. I grew up in a culture and era when an entire range of emotions were off-limits. We were allowed to be angry (as long as the anger was directed at appropriate subjects) and happy, but that was it.
I learned to stuff my difficult emotions or turn them inwards. Feelings like loneliness or frustration felt dangerously unacceptable. Without help to process my strong emotions, feeling anything too intensely made me feel shamefully out of control.
As a parent, my goal is to pass on a different legacy to my daughter. I want her to know that her thoughts and feelings are valid. It’s okay to feel what she feels. There’s nothing wrong with her for having those feelings, even if they make me uncomfortable.
And sometimes they do. No one wants to be the parent of a sobbing child in the middle of a busy public space. People stare. They judge.
But my daughter’s feelings are not about me. They’re a natural response to the difficult work of making sense of the world.
For those of us who were told, “Stop crying, it’s not bad, you’re tough,” it can be challenging to let our kids get their emotions out.
I remind myself that it doesn’t matter what people think; what matters is how my daughter feels. If I were brought to tears, I would want someone to hold me and make me feel safe. So that’s what I do for her.
People criticize. They tell me I’m coddling her. They tell her she’s a big girl. They say that the world is a tough place and she’d better get used to it.
But what they’re really saying is that some feelings aren’t acceptable. Growing up means stuffing those feelings down and denying our pain.
That didn’t work for me. I don’t think it’s worked for anyone.
How to Emotionally Validate Your Kids
My job is to help my daughter name her emotions, understand where they come from, and release them.
This means approaching her feelings with curiosity rather than condemnation … asking her questions to make sure I understand her correctly … then giving her what she needs to let the emotion go.
Some of my favorite phrases are:
- “That makes sense to me.”
- “I can see why you’d feel that way.”
- “I like your thinking.”
- “You’re right.”
The most important thing I do is this:
I don’t make her wrong for having feelings I disagree with.
For me, this is an extraordinary leap. I wasn’t raised like this. I have had to figure this out on my own.
I still get triggered sometimes by her feelings. The more unresolved pain in our own past, the more challenging it is to hold space for a child’s pain. But I’m working on it.
I am so grateful to my daughter for giving me the opportunity to create a home where all emotions are okay. Even mine. And I can’t wait to see how she’s going to carry that compassion and emotional intelligence into a big and bright future.