As a marriage and family therapist for almost 20 years as well as a mother of two boys, I have come to understand how beneficial it is to learn to be emotionally intelligent in this day and age. According to The Gottman Institute, emotional Intelligence is the capability of individuals to recognize their own and other people's emotions, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one's goal(s).
Emotional intelligence creates success in the business world and helps career satisfaction as well as having a fulfilling marriage and relationships. Emotions are always at the heart of our actions whether we admit it or not. It is in everyone’s interest to understand and feel a sense of control or regulation over emotions and also understand the person we are communicating with may be having their own emotional experience. When we understand that, we can figure out the best way to communicate what we want and also be heard.
Sadly, research shows that women tend to have a bit of an edge up in emotional intelligence. While this research can seem discouraging for men, here's the important part: Emotional Intelligence can be learned and we can teach it our children.
Let’s start with looking at why emotional intelligence may come easier to women. There are a myriad of reasons this could be the case: socialization, brain and biology as well as what we has been modeled to us, all make a difference. Historically, as well as today, boys and girls tend to be socialized differently in our culture. We often see gender-restrictive parenting such as “it’s not ok for boys to cry when they are hurt” within our parent communities. Boys tend to be directed towards more basic emotions and given basic language such as anger, happiness or sadness than the full spectrum of emotions and the language to describe them. Gottman explains that “In childhood when boys play games, their focus is on winning, not their emotions or the others playing. If one of the boys get hurt, he gets ignored. After all, “the game must go on.” With girls, feelings are often the first priority. When a tearful girl says, “we’re not friends anymore,” the game stops and only starts again if the girls make up. Girls are given words to use like disappointed or hurt. It would make sense that girls who were socialized to engage in cooperative play grow up to be women who are better at handling emotions and relationships than boys who were socialized to engage in competitive and physical play and not cry, grow up to be men who are less comfortable with vulnerability and emotional intimacy in relationships.”
Biologically, Darwinian theory explains that our male primate ancestors were trying to survive, obtain power within the kingdom and mate. Therefore, males relied on fighting or physical activity. Males’ survival mechanisms like fight or flight were activated, using aggression as a means to survive. Females on the other hand needed to care for their young and keep the community safe. They relied more on their mothering and relational abilities. To this day, research shows that the male cardiovascular system remains more reactive than females and slower to recover from stress. (Gottman) While we have come a long way from the times of Darwinian theory of evolution and there are always exceptions, we still do carry a footprint of this DNA as now we are learning through epigenetics.
In addition to biology and history, we also see have research on the brain and emotions. Generally speaking, there tends to be differences between the male and female brain. This Psychology Today article explains how processing, chemistry, structure, and activity in the brain differs in the male and female brain and it’s impact on emotional intellingence.
Again, the research can seem discouraging, but Emotional Intelligence can be learned and we can teach it our children. In therapy, we work to increase frontal lobe activity in the brain, it is an emotional muscle, the more it is exercised, engaged and worked out the stronger it gets. Emotional Intelligence can be learned and as with many things once we learn it, it sticks, like riding a bicycle.
For men or anyone that would like to work on EQ and help children become more emotionally intelligent here are some things you can do:
- Pay attention and become aware of your own physical and body cues and reactions to stress as well as your physical body cues when you are happy and at peace. Start by noticing any sensations in your body, heart rate and temperature.
- Check in with yourself at regular intervals to name how you are feeling. Ask your child how they are feeling at any given moment and give them a variety of emotional language choices they can choose from to describe their feelings. If naming language is difficult use this list:
- Talk about your own feelings and emotions with your child. This will not only give you practice but model to your child how to do the same.
- Look at a brain map and learn what parts of the brain get activated during different emotional states and how you can focus on different parts of the brain to manage reactions. This often can be parallel to strength or agility training, when we learn about the systems in the body we can try to manage or work with them in a systematic way.
- Work on using “I feel” statements as a part of daily conversation. I.e. Tell your child “ I felt so grateful and excited when I was able to take you to school today so we could have some extra time together”. “I feel so disappointed that the weather is making us have to change our original plans”.
- Practice listening, see if you can hear your child’s or partner’s emotional state within what they are saying and then check it out with them. I.e It sounds like you are feeling really overwhelmed and tired, is that how you are feeling?