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Emotional Intelligence, Parenting and Education; Part 4 of Interview with Dr Karen Hansen

Yvette Vignando: I know that there are all sorts of emotional intelligence training or social and emotional learning courses and workshops being trialled across Australia but I wondered what your views might be on the importance of parenting styles and behaviour as opposed to only what children learn at school?

Karen Hansen:    It’s fairly well established that to develop a healthy emotional disposition relies heavily on how children attach to their parents. It’s called attachment style and there’s healthy and unhealthy attachment.  

A healthy or secure attachment is where we are connected to our parents but we’re not overly dependant on them.  We don’t get particularly anxious about being separated from them but we also connect and we’re not ambivalent towards our parents.  It is very complex but essentially if we develop a secure attachment style with our parents then that maximises our potential for emotional healthy development. In terms of emotional intelligence that’s an under-researched area and we are currently undertaking some research looking at parent emotional intelligence and attachment style, and at parenting style and adolescent emotional intelligence.

But definitely having a secure healthy attachment between parent and child maximises the potential for healthy emotional development - so that’s about being a positive role model, about teaching our children about how to effectively express our emotions and not devaluing our children’s emotional experiences.  We should not dismiss them but actually try to understand them and help our children to understand them -  to articulate how they feel, why they feel that and then start to offer problem-solving strategies around how to deal with emotions.  

It’s about understanding what’s happening, what’s the child’s motivation – for example, if they chuck a temper tantrum it’s not to disrupt your day and interrupt your favourite TV show - there’s actually something underlying that. If we can figure out what that is, then we can work through that with the child and develop some more positive problem-solving behaviours around that so hopefully next time they feel that emotion or things don’t go their way, they have a more adaptive way to deal with that.  

Emotions are very important.  They’re very adaptive.  We have them for a reason.  They typically tell us something about what’s happening in our environment so if I’m scared then am I under threat?  If I’m happy is something good about to happen?  If I’m angry has someone wronged me?  It’s about trying to figure out what the emotion is and then finding an effective way of dealing with that emotion - so there’s no right or wrong emotion.  Emotions in themselves aren’t good or bad, it’s our decision about what we do with that emotion that counts.  

So for parents, doing our own learning in emotional intelligence will go a long way towards our ability to also raise children with those skills?

Absolutely, I think our philosophy when we deal with schools, is always to develop EI in the teachers first because they are the role models and the better you understand yourself and your EI, the better placed you are to actually develop and instruct others in how to develop their own.  But also for parents - our research is quite compelling linking emotional intelligence to stress.

Quite often it’s very difficult to deal calmly and effectively with a child who’s very emotional if we’re under stress ourselves; quite often, developing our own EI and reducing our own stress actually puts us in a much better position to be able to role model and help our children develop adaptive emotional outcomes.  

I imagine a lot of parents listening will be thinking, ‘how do I asses my own child’s level of emotional intelligence?’  ‘How do I understand where my own adolescent is at?’  How would you recommend they go about assessing or understanding their child’s levels of emotional intelligence and then what might they do once they have those results?

There are a number of resources on the internet that can give more information about exactly what you’re looking for.  But I guess one part of understanding other peoples’ emotional intelligence is purely observation. So, do your children appear to have insight about their emotional experiences or do they tend to be quite oblivious to experiencing different emotions? How is that impacting on their behaviour?  How does this impact on other people?  Are they able to effectively and accurately describe how they feel when they’re experiencing different emotions?  Do they appear to have good insight about other people’s emotional experiences?  Can they perceive emotions in others in their facial expressions or their body language?  Or do they tend to misinterpret emotional cues?  Do they enter into situations with people completely misjudging the emotional tone of that interaction?  Do they seem able to regulate emotions?  Do they have good strategies for how they repair negative emotions or generate positive emotions?  Or do they seem to be at the mercy of their emotional experience and they have very poor coping strategies for managing those emotions?  

We can make observations that give us some insight about whether our children have good emotional intelligence skills.  Otherwise, the internet has a number of resources - brief quickies!  They’re not scientifically valid but just help by giving some insight to people that can be helpful.

What should parents do if one of our children doesn’t have a lot of the skills that we know they need in this social and emotional area?  

I think again, use the internet.  There are resources - particularly this website, will have resources about what you’re looking for and activities or approaches that you can take to start to develop these different aspects of emotional functioning.  Connect with your son’s or daughter’s school.  What sort of programs are they running at school?  If they’re not running them perhaps encourage them to start running them and obviously if it’s a significant issue it is probably worth looking at more professional intervention.  I guess it depends if it’s just a minor issue with understanding emotions but obviously for more serious problems definitely ask for a professional advice I would say.

Thank you.  I look forward to talking to you again to find out what happens with those students in the high schools and to find out the results of that study.