We live in a culture that devalues emotion in favor of reason. We associate feelings with weakness, not strength. Both women and men struggle with these messages.
But the evidence is everywhere that emotional intelligence – the ability to know, express and respect what you’re feeling – is vital to thriving in every area of life, and at every stage. Emotions are the raw material of our desires, needs and hopes. When your daughter knows how she feels, she can ask for what she needs and stay strong in moments of challenge. Importantly, research has found a consistent link between emotional intelligence and academic success.
Yet from almost the moment they are born, girls are told which emotions it’s okay to feel, and which feelings are off-limits. They learn that “good girls” are happy, caring and liked by others. These positive feelings help girls fulfill the expectation that they give to others before themselves; emotions like anger, frustration and jealousy not only make them less likeable, but burden others with a need to respond.
The ability to know and say how you feel is a skill. As we always say at Girls Leadership, skills are like muscles: the more you flex them, the stronger you get. One of the most powerful ways to cultivate emotional intelligence in girls is to model it as an adult.
Developing emotional intelligence takes time and practice. A good way to begin is to reflect on the messages you received about feelings growing up. In The Curse of the Good Girl, Girls Leadership co-founder Rachel Simmons suggests parents ask some of these questions:
- Were there certain emotions that were discouraged or considered off-limits in your childhood home?
- When you were growing up, what was your family’s attitude toward vulnerable emotions like sadness, embarrassment, guilt, or fear? Was toughness or keeping a “stiff upper lip” a coping mechanism for pain?
- What was your childhood family’s attitude toward the emotions associated with conflict? For instance, was anger freely expressed?
- How often do you share your feelings, especially the most challenging ones? If you tend to keep your feelings to yourself, why? Where did you learn how to do that?
- [For women] How does the pressure on women to be caregivers (selfless, kind, etc.) influence the range of emotions you express?
- Do you question, minimize, or degrade your emotions? Do you advise yourself not to “make a big deal” out of things or to be “too sensitive?”
How to build her emotional vocabulary
Introduce “emotion words” into your language across a variety of situations throughout your daily life. Talk about moments that are exciting, happy, and challenging. Try to be casual and not hokey; slip the words into your sentences, but don’t force them.
Instead of “It’s great we’re going to have dinner as a family tonight,” you might say, “I’m really happy we’re going to have dinner tonight.”
Or if you find yourself saying, “I don’t want to hear another word,” see if you can add something like, “because I’m feeling really overwhelmed.”
How to validate what she’s feeling
When your daughter expresses an emotion, try to affirm, sympathize, or empathize with her experience.
When she says: “Mom, she made fun of my cell phone and then said, ‘Just kidding.’ But everyone was laughing.”
What you can say: “You must feel really betrayed by her.” OR “I can see why you would feel hurt. That sounds embarrassing.” OR “I’m really sorry that happened.”
If you daughter overreacts to an incident, strike a careful balance between affirming her feelings (“I can see how you would be feeling hurt”) and sharing your perception of events.
HOW TO MODEL MANAGING A SETBACK
For those of us who tend to be self-critical, emotional intelligence offers another bonus: when you name feelings as things get hard (“This is so disappointing”), you can avoid beating yourself up for whatever is making you feel bad (“I’m such an idiot” or “I’ll never get this right”).
In this way, practicing emotional intelligence is a form of mindfulness: it allows you to stay in the moment, naming what is happening without exaggerating or denying it. Mindfulness is a critical skill for girls to learn.