EQI Home | EQ For Everybody Table of Contents
Raising a happy child is the most important responsibility in a democratic society. I can think of nothing more critical to a child's happiness than to have two happy parents. And I can think of nothing more critical to a democratic society's success than happy citizens. Happy children make good citizens because they refrain from the anti-social behaviors which destroy society. For example, happy children grow up to be adults who tend not to:
Abuse, Attack, Blame, Brag, Cheat, Coerce, Compete, Complain,
Defend, Demand, Deny, Destroy, Escalate, Explode, Exploit, Extort, Force,
Hoard, Judge, Kill, Lie, Litigate, Manipulate, Obsess, Over-indulge,
Pretend, Pressure, Rape, Repress, Resent, Steal, Stress, Threaten
If the parents are happy, the child sees happiness when it looks into the mirror of its parents' eyes. If the parents are happy, their own needs have been met, so they may attend to the child's needs. If the parents are unhappy, however, they can no more model happiness than teach an unknown foreign language. Likewise, energy spent on their own needs comes at the expense of their children's needs. Those that play the role of the martyr and pretend to have no needs, by the way, merely devise indirect, and therefore insidious, ways of filling their needs through their children.
Children learn by example, so the way parents manage their own feelings matters. But they also learn by osmosis. In other words, if parents are afraid or depressed, the children will pick up on those feelings. When you consider the fact that emotions are contagious even between two total strangers, you can begin to understand the profound effect that the parents' emotions have on the child.
In this chapter we consider the emotional needs of the parents, the emotional needs of the child, and offer suggestions on how to raise happier, higher EQ children.
Parents' Emotional Needs
Because parents are human, each has the same human needs we have seen before. These include the need to feel:
Let's see how these needs affect the child at different stages of its life.
The degree to which the parents' needs are met or unmet begins to affect the child long before it is born. When a male and female first get together, each has certain unmet needs. The fewer the unmet needs, the healthier the individuals. The healthier the individuals, the healthier the relationship. Likewise, the healthier the individuals, the higher their self-esteem.
Of all the variables which go into making a healthy relationship and creating happy, healthy children, the self-esteem of the individual parents is by far the most important. Before mother and father ever meet, their feelings about themselves, and hence their self-esteem, begins to influence their choice in partners. If you are afraid, insecure, and have feelings of low self-worth, your choice of partners will be much different than if you feel confident and good about yourself.
Psychologists suggest that the old rule "opposites attract" does not apply to self-esteem. Rather, like attracts like. In other words, self- esteem is like water: it seeks its own level. The same seems to be true with emotional intelligence. We can speculate, then that two people with high EQ and high self-esteems will be most likely to be attracted to each other, and will most likely raise children with high EQ and high self- esteems. Of course, the inverse is also true: two people low in self- esteem and EQ will mate and produce children who are also low in both areas.
After two partners find each other, they begin to accumulate a history of feelings towards each other and about the relationship. Positive or negative, these feelings affect the child. Studies show that even during pregnancy, the feelings between the partners affect the unborn child through the chemicals produced by the mother's brain and body. Fear, anxiety, and depression trigger powerful morphine-like endorphins in the brain and stress in the body. Research suggests that such emotions during pregnancy lead to insecurity in the child. A safe, warm, supportive relationship between the parents is, therefore, obviously preferred to a hostile, unsupportive, or antagonistic relationship.
If the parents have unmet needs before conceiving the child, they are unlikely to foster a supportive environment for it. One of the primary reasons parents have children, in fact, is to attempt to fulfill their own needs. I have heard many women say, for example, that they want to create the family they never had; in other words, to receive the love they never received. This desire to receive a child's unconditional love is understandably a prime motivator for many mothers who were themselves insufficiently loved as children. This is perhaps best seen in unwed teenage mothers, but it is not limited to them. It is easy for a potential mother to mistake a child's total dependency for unconditional love. But when the child grows and begins to develop a mind and emotional needs of its own, such a mother often feels unloved, unneeded, and unappreciated.
When the child is born, it immediately begins to shape its own self-image by collecting evidence which will help it determine:
1. Whether it feels valued or not
2. Whether it feels wanted or not
3. Whether it feels important or not
4. Whether it feels approved of or not
All of these determinations reflect the composite feelings in the household. Very young children are like emotional sponges. They will soak up the collective emotions in the family. If there is fear, worry, defensiveness, neediness, insecurity, anger, resentment, and animosity, the child's sense of security and self-esteem will suffer. Likewise if there is joy, calm, contentment, affection, appreciation, and love in the family, the child's self-esteem will blossom. Since the bonding in the first few years is primarily with the mother, the mother's emotions matter tremendously. The baby internalizes the mother's emotions in a simplistic way. A baby's mind works something like this:
When mommy smiles, I am good. When mommy frowns, I am bad.
When the mother frowns for reasons which have nothing to do with the baby, the baby absorbs her negative feelings just the same.
In addition to soaking up the emotions of the family, the child quickly learns which emotions may be safely expressed, and in what forms. The studies show that when certain emotions are either not allowed or not mirrored by the parents, the child may permanently lose those emotional abilities since there are just a few critical years when the emotional connections in the brain are formed. The importance of timing to the brain's development is shown by a study which found that cats which had one perfectly normal eye covered shortly after birth, permanently lost sight in that eye even after the patch was removed.
An example is the child whose genetic temperament is inclined to be happy, but who lives in a family where there is no happiness. In such an environment his expressions of happiness may be literally stifled, with lasting consequences. Likewise, if anger or other negative feelings are ignored, disapproved of, or punished, the child's capacity for expressing such feelings may be permanently diminished. We have all seen cases of people who are clearly upset, but become speechless. Their faces may turn red, but they can not find the words to express their anger. They literally look as if they are going to explode. But they never do. Instead their emotions are bottled up inside them and typically come out only indirectly or through physical illness. Parents who do not display a wide range of their own emotions, thus serve as poor mirrors to the children. Since all emotions have value, this does tremendous damage to the child's ability to lead a healthy life.
Some of the ways parents obstruct emotional development are by:
1. Ignoring emotional displays or pleas for attention.
2. Punishing expressions of emotions and needs.
3. Invalidating the child with such statements as:
Don't ever let me hear you say that again.
You shouldn't feel that way.
You should feel ashamed.
You should be grateful... You should feel lucky... You should be happy...
Wipe that smile off your face.
I don't want to hear any more complaints.
Think of all the people who have it worse than you.
If you don't stop crying I will give you something to really cry about.
When a child is a baby and unable to express itself verbally, it is important for the parent, particularly the mother, to read the child's mind. An unhealthy consequence of this is that even after the child learns to speak, parents often begin to think they know the child better than the child knows itself. In fact, many parents pride themselves on their supposed ESP. Consider the statement: "You can't be hungry again, you just ate!" To second guess a child's feelings is equally presumptuous and invalidating, and is another form of obstructing the child's development.
Rather than dictate or invalidate the child's feelings, the high EQ parent creates a safe environment for the child to express itself. Without this safety, there is insecurity and the child learns it is not okay to express or even have certain emotions. She begins to feel she is wrong for having those emotions, and her self esteem is damaged accordingly.
By allowing a child to express itself, the high EQ parent is able to notice subtle changes in their moods, and thus be more attuned to see warning signs of trouble. If the child is being abused, invalidated, singled-out, picked-on, etc. by anyone either in or out of the home, the high EQ parent will investigate the reasons for the child's emotional changes. In one case a mother saw marked changes in her daughter's behavior during her second grade in school. It turned out that the girl's teacher had made a habit of singling her out, underestimating her, and ridiculing her in front of the class. All of this was apparently because the teacher didn't think the child should have been advanced into second grade from her under-stimulating first grade class after the school year had begun.
The sooner a parent can spot such warning signs, the more able they are to avoid long term damage to the child's self-esteem. A parent who is not paying attention to the child's emotions, perhaps because they are preoccupied with marital, financial or career strife, will either misdiagnose the child's responses, or miss the changes altogether.
If the parent has created a safe environment for the child to share his emotional life, the parent can tap into an important source of helpful data. Likewise, if the parent has created a psychologically unsafe environment, the child will quickly learn to either tell the parent what it wants to hear. Or the child will learn to keep its mouth closed and its problems to itself.
The most likely reasons a parent would unintentionally create feelings of insecurity and obstruct the child's emotional development are: 1) The parent's lack of awareness and lack of EQ training. 2) The parent's own unmet needs 3) The parent's fears
1. Parents' Lack of Awareness and Training
Most parents simply do not have any idea what the long term consequences of their actions are. For hundreds of years, the motto was "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Children were thought to be disobedient, selfish, and even "sinful" by nature. The job of the parent, teacher and religious leader was to teach discipline and obedience through instilling fear. We now know, however, that excessive fear leads directly to feelings of insecurity, guilt, and low-self esteem. Self- esteem, in fact, is a fairly recent concept, not gaining wide attention until well after the second world war. It is slowly being recognized as the dominant factor in a child's future happiness or unhappiness. One author, writing in the seventies, said that when checking psychology textbooks at that time, he could not even find any references to the topic of self-esteem in the index. Checking again recently, I informally confirmed that the number of pages devoted to rats, monkeys, and dead psychologists still outnumber those devoted to self-esteem in introductory psychology textbooks.
2. Parents' Own Unmet Needs
As mentioned previously, the desire to fill unmet needs is a prime reason for having children. As the child grows up though, this attempt at fulfillment often backfires. The needy parent begins to realize she cannot meet all the needs of the child, so she feels inadequate. The child resists the attempts of the parent to transfer its emotional responsibility, so the parent begins to feel resentful and unappreciated. She expresses her feelings indirectly, blaming the child with such statements as:
You should feel thankful... You should feel lucky... Just be thankful you have a mother who.. Just be thankful your father... You should be grateful...
Some parents use the analogy of giving the "gift" of life as an additional guilt trip. But when something is given with expectations of receiving something in return, it is no gift. Understandably, then, the child does not feel grateful. (Erich Fromm clearly describes this situation in his classic book, The Art of Loving, when he discusses motherly love.) Yet, because children are by nature approval-seeking, (since rejection means death to the infant) they will often try in vain to fill their parents' emotional needs. This role reversal is in direct opposition to nature's design, however, and thus the child is destined to fail. Failing in this all-important endeavor leaves lifelong feelings of inadequacy, with corresponding self-esteem damage.
Any parent who attempts to fill its own needs through a completely helpless and dependent child is acting selfishly, abusively and socially irresponsibly. In my opinion this is just as true whether the parent uses the child to fill the parent's sexual needs or its emotional needs. Either way, the child is permanently damaged, and often goes through life attempting to seek gratification, acceptance, and security either from other people, or from attempting to prove his worth.
3. Parents' Fears
Fear is the third reason parents unknowingly hurt their children emotionally. Understandably, parents have many, many fears. Some of these are:
Fear of the child's death or injury
Fear of the child's failure.
Fear of the child being emotionally hurt by others.
Fear of failing as a parent.
Fear of being perceived as a "bad" parent.
Fear of the child's disobedience.
Fear of losing control over the child.
Fear of losing respect.
Fear of not being appreciated.
Fear of the child's disapproval.
Fear of not being able to provide for the child.
Fear of their spouse's disapproval.
Fear of their own parents' disapproval.
Fear of society's disapproval.
Parents who are aware of their fears are more likely to both take responsibility for them and to express them directly rather than indirectly. When parents express their fears indirectly, such as through their tone of voice or by shouting commands, the child ends up feeling anxious, insecure, and responsible for the parents' emotions. The parent must, however, continually remind himself that his fears are the product of his beliefs, his needs, his desires and his insecurities, rather than burden the child with them.
It is also useful for the parent to remind herself that the young child's feelings are more important than its thoughts. For example, it does an infant little good to say "I respect you." Likewise, as the child gets older, the old saying "Actions speak louder than words," has tremendous relevance. The child must feel loved, it must feel important, it must feel respected, and it must feel valued. Hearing the words means nothing to the child whose parent does not back up his words with actions. In fact, the child may even begin to despise the parent if she sees him as hypocritical.
For the child to feel loved and respected, the parent must show the child love and respect through acts of love and respect. In fact, because love is such an over-used word, it is more useful to think in terms of more specific needs, such as the need for approval, attention, and recognition. Consider the confusing messages a child receives when a parent repeatedly says things to the effect of "I love you, but I don"t have time for you right now," or "That's nice, honey, now be a good girl and let me get back to work, okay?"
Because children's innate biological needs and temperaments vary, some children are simply more sensitive by birth, just as some are more intelligent, and some have greater musical ability. Sensitive, intelligent children have greater emotional needs since their overall capacities are larger than average children. Because they are more sensitive, they are hurt more by feelings of rejection or insignificance. They also feel things more deeply, so the slightest form of rejection or disapproval to them feels sharply painful, just as a knife cuts easily and deeply into soft substances. Hence, the expression,"it cuts to the core." In sensitive children, the core is much more accessible.
Intelligent, sensitive children have more complex minds which burn more emotional fuel on thinking and feeling. Their gas tanks are larger and they need more gas from their primary supplier: their parents. High EQ parents help their children by validating them, as opposed to low EQ parents who tell their child they "think too much," or are "too sensitive." These children need special emotional attention, not invalidation. Failure to receive this emotional fuel does them great and lasting psychological damage.
All children internalize things, and the more sensitive and intelligent the child, the more they internalize. In other words, they conclude that when something is wrong, it must be their fault. They tell themselves that if only they had done this or that, mommy and daddy would be happy. Particularly in unhappy families or families where the parents are either not getting along or are divorced (i.e. the majority of parents), the child feels responsible for the happiness of the family unit, and often even for keeping the family together. Generally speaking, the fewer the children, the more pressure is put on them and the less they can turn to their siblings for consolation and validation. On the other hand, in a large dysfunctional family the children may turn against one another in which case the most sensitive child soaks up everyone's unhappiness.
Parents do not realize, or do not want to acknowledge, that their parenting styles may actually be damaging their children. Typically, they sincerely believe that they are being good parents by pointing out all the child's mistakes. They think they are helping the child, teaching it, and protecting it when they lecture the child at great length. But children typically don't feel helped or enlightened; they feel criticized, lectured to, over-protected, and disapproved of. I make it a habit asking young people what their parents approve and disapprove of about them. Consistently, I get long lists in the disapproval column, but there is often an uncomfortable silence, or a quick "Nothing!" with respect to approval. Likewise, when I ask whether they feel loved, supported, and understood by their parents, the negative responses far outnumber the positive ones.
Later Stages - The Turbulent Teenage Years
As the child grows, he forms more of his own unique identity. Thus, it becomes even more critical that the parents validate his unique feelings. Particularly in the teenage years, this validation is essential to the child's self-esteem. Children need to be able to feel safe to separate from their parents. They need to feel the approval of their parents as they step farther and farther out into the world. This approval gives them the confidence that they can and will make it on their own. At this point the insecure parent typically feels its greatest threat. The child begins to challenge its parents' authority, to rebel, and to question their beliefs. As the child rebels, the insecure parent feels threatened. He often feels powerless, out of control, defied, disobeyed, disrespected, and ignored. All of this is natural, but to an insecure parent, these are extremely unpleasant feelings. As mentioned previously, to insecure people everything feels like a 11 on the scale of 1 to 10. Thus the low EQ parent may release its wrath on the child instead of recognizing its own fears, needs, and insecurities. The parent may "crack down" on the child, literally or figuratively, but that is the worst possible response.
A harsh, authoritarian crack down may or may not yield the desired short- term results, but in all likelihood, it will produce counter-productive long-term results. In addition, such a response will certainly damage the child's self-esteem. At this critical point in the child's life, the high EQ parent monitors its own needs and fears very closely. This helps the parent keep in balance and keep the long range development of the child in mind, rather than the short term control of it. At this stage, teenagers desperately need to have their emotional needs met. We have seen these needs before, but it is worth taking another look at them. Teens need to feel:
During this turbulent period it is essential that the parent take responsibility for meeting its own needs, as indicated by the feedback from their feelings. In this way the parent doesn't lay the burden for meeting its needs onto the child. In fact, besides meeting its own needs, the parent must continue to act responsibly in meeting the child's needs for emotional support. This is an awesome responsibility. Because it is so awesome, and there is precious little intelligent preparation for it, most parents fail in it to one degree or another. That is why psychologists say that over 90% of all families are dysfunctional to some degree. And as John Lennon said:
The reason kids are crazy is because nobody can face the responsibility of bringing them up.
Suggestions for Parents
Let's see what suggestions come out of EQ theory to help the well-meaning, but untrained and unaware parent with this awesome responsibility.
· Avoid transferring the responsibility for your emotions to your children with statements such as:
You embarrassed me tonight. You have really disappointed me. You are going to upset your mother. You are driving me crazy. Why do you do this to me? Don't make me... You are going to be the death of me. You are getting on my nerves.
· Be honest and direct about your fears. For example:
"Honey, I am really afraid you are going to hurt yourself."
"My worst fear is that you will get pregnant or get AIDS. Can we talk about that? Can you understand why I am afraid of that, even though I know the chances are slim?"
· Show your child respect by not ordering him around with exclamations such as:
Stop that! Knock it off! Cut it out! Leave that alone!
· Also show respect by:
Not interrupting your children.
Respecting their feelings.
Asking them to do things rather than ordering them.
Soliciting and allowing feedback.
Not cutting them off with statements like: "Don't interrupt me when I am talking to you."
· Try not to make exaggerated statements which invoke needless fear. Two examples of this are:
You are going to kill yourself if you keep that up.
There is going to be big trouble around here if ...
· Avoid making statements which threaten, lay guilt, or imply obligation and duty. For example:
You should...You shouldn't...You should have...You shouldn't have...You better... You better not...You need to...
· Try not to make your child feel interrogated or cross-examined with questions like:
Why did you...Why didn't you...What were you thinking...How could you have...What's the matter with you?
· Express your feelings clearly and directly with a minimum number of words.
· Try to express your feelings rather than issue commands. For example:
- I am feeling impatient. - I am feeling distracted by your noise.
- Hurry up. You're too slow. - Stop making that noise! You are driving me crazy.
· Avoid branding your child with negative labels such as:
Lazy, irresponsible, inconsiderate, selfish, spoiled, disgusting
· Be especially careful not to invalidate your child's feelings by:
Ignoring their feelings
Judging their feelings
Labeling them or their feelings
Punishing them for expressing a feeling
· Avoid dismissing your child's questions, and therefore, feelings with the convenient: "Because I said so."
· Avoid making assumptions about how your child feels--instead ask them. Or if you have a good idea how they are feeling, at least verify it with them.
· Never make a child sorry they told you the truth. Remember that children lie when they are afraid and when they are needy, both of which are better addressed by understanding than punishment.
· After conflicts, show interest in your child's feelings by simply asking, "How do you feel about the way I handled this? What are you feeling?"
· Make your goal to learn who your children are, rather than force them to be who you want.
· Listen more and talk less, since listening is as educational for you as it is validating for your child.
· Work on your own emotional skills.
· Work on your relationship with your partner.
· Communicate directly, rather than indirectly.
· When you are expressing disapproval, find several things to approve of at the same time.
· Allow them to question your beliefs and to form their own.
· Create a physically and psychologically safe, stable environment for them.
· Frequently tell them what you admire about them and what you respect them for.
· Ask them how you can improve.
· Admit your mistakes; don't try to pretend to be flawless.
· At the same time don't exaggerate your weak points.
· Tell them when you feel bad for something you did.
This is a lot to ask of a parent. But then again, parenting is the most difficult, most demanding, and most responsible job anyone will ever undertake. It is not a job for the insecure, unstable, or unhappy. Neither is it a job for someone with low EQ. If you are unsure if you are prepared for this awesome responsibility, ask yourself these questions:
Do I take responsibility for my feelings? Why do I want children? Do I want something from my child? Am I going to encourage my children to question my beliefs? Am I in a healthy, emotionally supportive relationship? Can my partner express his/her feelings? Am I happy in all areas of my life?
If you are not sure if you are ready to have children, here is a simple but effective test. Keep a daily journal for six months. Write down all your strong feelings. At the end of six months add up your positive and negative feelings. Your journal will tell you if you are ready.
If you found this page helpful, please consider making a small donation.