Dear Alistair

Dear Alistair,

A friend told me that you recently gave a presentation at their child’s preschool on how to build the emotional literacy of one’s children. Please would you provide a summary of the main points that you covered.

Although quite superficial as a definition, Emotional literacy can be defined as being able to identify, manage and express one’s emotions in a constructive manner such that one’s interpersonal relationships are strengthened.

Feelings and emotions are not unpredictable. They are a normal and natural part of everyday life, and motivate us to engage in behaviour that may or may not be productive in nature. When one experiences negative emotions, such as anger, hurt, sadness, anxiety, guilt, etc., in the context of a relationship the behaviour that results is often self-defeating and quite destructive to the relationship. Such behaviour includes the avoidance of the difficult emotions and the holding in (or non-expression) of the emotions experienced, leaving others confused & unsure as to what one is feeling and thinking. Many of us function at the opposite pole, however, and will express difficult emotions in an outburst or outpouring, with little control, causing hurt and anger and weakening the connection we have with others.

Emotionally literate behaviour is an alternative, and involves managing and expressing one’s emotions in a calm and constructive manner. This helps to ensure the willing support and co-operation of others. Apart from modelling such emotionally literate behaviour yourself, there is at least one other important thing parents can do for their children:

– Engage in reflective listening when your child is experiencing negative emotions

Reflective listening is simply listening very closely for both the content (what is being said) and the feelings behind the content and then putting this into words or “reflecting” these back to one’s child. An example: Your child throws a temper tantrum after you have told him/her that the TV needs to be switched off now, because it is time for bathing and bedtime. Your young child screams at you and threatens violence… one’s gut reaction might be to try to convince them of the inappropriateness of their response, of the need for a bath, and/or of the need for sleep, etc… Not only will your child feel that his/her emotional response is unimportant or worse still, inappropriate, but s/he may also feel that you just don’t understand them.

Reflective listening is a much more constructive response; you might say something like: “It sounds as though you’re feeling really frustrated and angry with me because I won’t ….”

Try to ensure that you offer your observations tentatively to give your child permission to correct you. And, most importantly, make sure that you reflect the feeling/s back to your child in a non-judgemental tone of voice that says “your feelings are absolutely valid in this situation”. Not only will you be teaching your child that difficult feelings are ‘normal’ (and not to be feared), but they will learn how to put words to the feelings they experience. Your child will also feel heard and at least somewhat understood… and they will calm down very quickly!