What is Emotional Intelligence/Emotional Competence?

In recent years, researchers have begun to identify a number of central skills that assist people to respond to emotions (in themselves and others). They have found that these skills are associated with much better life outcomes. Often called emotional competencies in child development literature, or emotional intelligence in the adult personality and popular literature, these skills consist of:

  • understanding one’s own emotions and being able to communicate with others about how one feels
  • understanding other people’s emotions and being able to identify and interact with others when one or both parties are emotional
  • regulating one’s own emotions (including controlling, expressing and modulating emotion) in a culturally and situationally appropriate manner
  • the ability to use emotion in one’s life in order to achieve one’s goals.

During the preschool years there are significant changes in children’s language and cognitive abilities, and these contribute to learning about emotions. By the time they reach school, most children are able to communicate about their feelings and are able to regulate them (Denham, 1998). They are also increasingly able to understand some of the complexities of emotional experiences, including that:

  • there are social and cultural rules about displaying emotions (Saarni, 1999)
  • one can experience different emotions at the same time (Denham, 1998), and
  • as a result of interpreting other people emotions, one can begin to take others’ perspectives and become empathic (Eisenberg et al., 1996)

These aspects of emotional competence have been found to be related to children’s abilities to develop friendships, resolve conflict, learn at school by being able to focus and concentrate, and achieve their goals. Several researchers have suggested that they also provide the foundations for emotional intelligence as the child grows into an adult (Goleman, 1995; Mayer & Salovey, 1997; Saarni, 1997).
Stressful events in family life are unavoidable. But research is showing that if children have the capacity to understand, communicate, and regulate their emotions, they can then respond to stresses in socially appropriate, flexible and adaptive ways. They can express feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, grief or loss, and find ways to cope with these feelings — rather than suppress their emotion, or react with aggression. Emotional competence provides children with the flexibility to respond to stressful life events in a resilient way.

Emotion Coaching

The link between parent socialisation practices and children’s emotional competence is now well established (Denham et al., 2001; Eisenberg et al., 1998; Gottman et al., 1997; Morris et al., 2007). Parents have been found to influence children’s emotional competence through:

  • the model they provide about expression and regulation of emotions
  • their reactions to children’s emotions
  • their discussion and coaching about emotions with their children
  • the emotional contexts they put their children in

During the early years, children depend on parents to assist them to regulate their emotions. As they develop, their parents teach them about emotions, and increasingly they begin to understand and then regulate their own emotions. Some parenting styles have been found to be optimal in this regard.

Longitudinal research by Gottman and colleagues (1996; 1997) has provided one of the more detailed descriptions of some of these different parenting styles and how they affect children’s emotion regulation and other aspects of development. Gottman et al. found that the way positive and negative emotions are managed and coached (a way of teaching children about emotions) by the parent was a crucial part of emotion socialisation. From detailed interviews, they concluded that parents have a personal theory about emotions, called a Meta-emotion philosophy. This philosophy, which is shaped by the parent’s experiences in their family of origin and continues to be refined over their life, influences the beliefs and responses they have to their own and others’ emotions. For example, a parent who believes that anger is about loss of control and therefore suppresses angry emotions, may not be able to teach their child about optimal ways to understand and regulate anger, nor about how to resolve situations of conflict.

Gottman and colleagues found links between parents’ Meta-emotion philosophy and parenting styles, and children’s abilities to regulate emotion. They concluded that children learn about ways of coping with emotions by watching their parents and being coached in methods of emotional self-soothing, inhibiting negative affect, and focusing attention (Gottman et al., 1997). Parents who supportively coached their children’s emotional learning tended to display greater levels of warmth, were less critical of their children’s emotions and behaviour, and were more likely to use teaching styles that structured and praised their children’s attempts to resolve emotionally evoking situations. When parents were unable to tolerate their children’s expression of emotions or could not teach their children about their emotional experiences (which Gottman termed emotional dismissing), children had poorer emotion regulation skills.

The key aspects of Emotion Coaching identified by Gottman and colleagues were:

  • being aware of children’s emotions
  • viewing children’s display of emotions as a time for intimacy and teaching
  • helping children to verbally label the emotions being experienced
  • empathising and validating children’s emotions
  • helping children to solve problems (and setting limits where appropriate)

Other parenting styles that these researchers identified were:

  • Emotion dismissing — where the parent does not attend to emotions, or minimises emotions. This parent may still be warm and attentive to the child

    but avoids talking about or allowing the child to express difficult emotions

  • Emotion disapproving — where the parent judges or is critical of emotions in the child often by criticising the child when they express difficult (or positive emotions)
  • Laissez-faire — where the parent permits all emotions and their expression but does not help the child to regulate these emotions or resolve problems that have led to these emotions

These three parenting styles were found to be associated with poorer outcomes in children.

Since Gottman’s original publications about these ideas, a number of studies have found important links between Emotion Coaching and children’s emotional competence and behaviour (Lagace-Seguin & d’Entremont, 2006; Morris et al., 2007; Ramsden & Hubbard, 2002; Schwartz, Thigpen, & Montgomery, 2006; Shipman et al., 2007). Children who receive Emotion Coaching are more likely to have better cognitive abilities, stronger social skills, display more prosocial behaviour, and have fewer physical illnesses than children who do not experience this style of parenting (Eisenberg, 2001; Eisenberg et al., 1998; Gottman et al., 1997). In a longitudinal study, Denham and colleagues (2000) found that supportive and coaching parenting had the greatest benefits for those children who had higher levels of negative reactivity and externalising behaviour difficulties at a young age. Over time, this parenting style helped to reduce the intensity of

negative reactivity, thereby reducing the child’s risk for social and behavioural problems. The way parents respond to children’s emotions, therefore, seems to act as a crucial mediator, especially for those children at greater risk for problematic development.