Who among us doesn’t still have the occasional back-to-school nightmare? They are almost always set in middle school! For parents, the start of a new school year brings much hope, expectation, and anxiety. Will our kids get good grades? Will they make friends? If you, the parent are stressed, just imagine how those anxious feelings affect your child.
Our teens are undergoing seismic changes in their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. As if that is not enough, the middle schooler’s value system moves from being defined mostly by their parents to being more strongly influenced by their peers (Hargreaves, Earl & Ryan, 2003), so we feel more and more disconnected from their journeys.
How then can we balance supporting them to achieve their potential without creating more stress in their lives? How can we balance being their “nest” and at the same time, be their source of empowerment and resilience, all the while taking care of ourselves to reduce the stress we may be feeling?
Engaging Emotional Intelligence
A growing body of research is showing that emotional intelligence (EQ) skills are key for academic achievement, healthy relationships, and responsible decision-making. Emotional intelligence is the ability to blend the rational and emotional sides of our brains so that we can be more conscious of our choices, effectively manage our emotions towards positive decisions, and find purpose and meaning in all that we do. When we practice EQ as parents, we also create a safe space for our kids to develop their EQ. Parenting with EQ takes time and dedication, but all these skills can be learned. By modeling and building your own EQ, you’ll be teaching your tween this skills as well.
1. Take a Six Seconds Pause
When you feel stress building up and sense an explosion is about to take place, stop yourself. While breathing deeply, think of six things that would shift your mind from the stressful situation. List six songs that you love or six trees in the landscape near you. By doing so, you are engaging your prefrontal cortex and taking control back from the amygdala where our fight-or-flight reactions reside. The Six Seconds Pause gives our body enough time to cleanse itself of the neurotransmitters and stress hormones that get released when we have a strong emotional reaction.
2. Name It to Tame It
Emotional literacy is the skill of becoming aware of our emotional reactions and having the vocabulary to label them. Try this in a stressful moment: allow yourself and your child to articulate what you’re feeling to each other. When you’re calmer, ask yourselves in what part of your body you were feeling this emotion? Were your shoulders contracted? Was your breath short? Were your legs heavy? This will help you to recognize a rising emotion next time it happens. Like the Six Seconds Pause, engaging our cognitive brain to label the emotion shifts brain activity away from the amygdala and toward the prefrontal cortex, allowing us to react more calmly.
3. Know Your Parenting Patterns!
Observation is one of the best ways to become aware of our own patterns as parents and recognize them in our children. This is especially helpful if it seems that you and your teen are having the same struggle or fight over and over again. Homework battles anyone? Keep a journal of your reactions when you interact with your kids. “When _____ happens, I _____ (think or feel or act), and my child(ren) _____ (think or feel or act).” If you are not satisfied with your own reaction or that of your child(ren), ask yourself what you could do differently. How would you rather have had the conversation go?
Skills to develop Emotional Intelligence for the longer term:
4. Navigate Emotions
Messages: Next time you find your stress level rising, ask: What is the message I want my child to hear and feel from me?
Choice Exists!: One key step is simply knowing: I have a choice about how I feel, how I think, and how I react. It might not be TOTAL choice, but there will always be SOME choice.
Whose Problem?: Parents often feel that it’s their job to solve their children’s problems. Consider an alternate approach: Be your children’s coach or guide and listen actively to allow them to come up with solutions to their problems. Let them own their own problems and they will begin to successfully come up with the best solutions themselves! Madeline Levine, author of the book “Teach your Children Well,” says that the worst thing that parents can do for their children is something that kids can do for themselves. The second worst thing is doing something that kids can almost do for themselves.
5. Practice Optimism
How many parents have heard their child say, “I’m never going to make any friends!” Being optimistic is about building the awareness that there are options to explore and alternatives to take when facing a challenging situation. When dealing with adversity, Martin Seligman, author of “Learned Optimism,” offers a framework called “TIE” to transform our perspective from pessimism to optimism:
T = Temporary (vs Permanent) – The problem will not last forever.
I = Isolated (vs Pervasive) – The problem is limited to a specific situation. There are parts of life outside of this issue that are going well.
E = Effort possible (vs Powerless) – With effort, you can almost always change the situation.
Try teaching TIE to your kids. It’s truly a gift that will help them throughout their lives.
6. Increase Empathy
Try to remember what it felt like to be thirteen, but know your child’s experience of it will be different. Ask questions and listen. Learn to recognize when you switch into “lecture mode.” Empathy for our kids is a pure act of love. It means walking beside them along their path, believing in them all the while. We should also learn empathy toward ourselves by forgiving the inevitable mistakes we’ve made and by accepting ourselves as sincere and vulnerable human beings on our own journey as parents!
By using Emotional Intelligence we can balance supporting our kids to achieve their potential without creating additional stress. We can balance being their safe harbor with being their source of optimism and grit. And last but not least, EQ allows us to take care of ourselves!
You can learn more about parenting with EQ at the Six Seconds’ online free course, EQ 101 for Parents. http://eq.org/learn/courses/parents/
The authors both work for Six Seconds, a global nonprofit network supporting people to create positive change – everywhere, all the time. Founded in 1997, Six Seconds is the first and largest organization 100% dedicated to the development of emotional intelligence