The 4 Steps to Increase Emotional Intelligence in Children

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Explosive Child" by Ross Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the key to preventing explosive outbursts? How can you improve emotional intelligence in children?

According to The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, discussing your child’s tantrums is the best strategy for addressing long-term behavioral problems. This will help improve your child’s emotional intelligence so they can better understand how to manage their emotions in the future.

We’ve outlined the four main steps of this strategy: prepare topics, gather information, share your perspective, and brainstorm solutions.

Step #1: Prepare Topics

The best place to start to improve emotional intelligence in children is to prepare two lists, one for each component of an outburst:

1) Practical Challenges

Make a list of the specific tasks your child has trouble completing and the rules they have trouble following. Don’t frame this in terms of their problem behaviors—prevention requires focusing on what causes outbursts, not on what happens during outbursts. For example, Liz’s parents would list “Has trouble getting out of bed in the morning.” They wouldn’t write down “Screams at us when we tell her to get up.”

(Shortform note: It can be difficult to deemphasize your child’s problem behaviors, especially when those behaviors are hurtful to you. If you’re struggling with this, try to avoid taking their behaviors personally—as previously discussed, children don’t want to disobey you and manipulate you into feeling a certain way. They’re just having their own emotional struggles and lack the self-control to manage everything they say. Making the effort to stay objective and focus on just their practical challenges now will pay off with fewer hurt feelings later on.)

2) Lacking Executive Skills

Make a list of the executive skills your child might be lacking. Greene provides his own list you can use as well. He frames these missing skills as “difficulties” your child faces rather than as problems with their behavior. Note that you won’t be using this list for discussion topics with your child—it’s just for your own reference to try and contextualize your child’s outbursts.

(Shortform note: Noting your child’s lacking executive skills can also help you understand the full scope of their struggles and how those struggles impact their development in different ways. Psychologists have been able to link struggles with executive functioning to anxiety, depression, and even physical health problems due to increased stress. This makes it especially important that you not only accurately list your child’s lacking executive skills, but that you also work to develop them over time—which Greene’s method is designed to do.)

Step #2: Get Your Child’s Perspective

Once you’ve created your lists, Greene says you can discuss practical challenges with your child beginning with the ones that cause the most outbursts or conflicts. Your goal in these conversations is to understand your child’s perspective on their practical challenges and outbursts. Greene acknowledges this isn’t always an easy process—kids often don’t fully understand their own feelings, and they might resist talking about their behavior—but by approaching your child openly and working with them, you’ll eventually discover the causes of their outbursts.

Greene offers two guidelines for conducting these discussions with your child:

1) Ask Specific Questions

Greene explains that your questioning throughout the discussion should focus on the specific circumstances behind practical challenges—allowing you to change or avoid these circumstances later on, preventing outbursts. To do this, ask your child a lot of what, who, where, and when questions, like: What is challenging or frustrating? Who makes you upset? Where and when do you tend to get upset? What were you thinking about in the moments leading to the outburst? For example, Liz’s dad asks what Liz doesn’t like about getting up in the morning or when she finds it easier or harder to get up.

2) Practice Active Listening

While getting your child’s perspective, you’ll want to keep your child as open and communicative as possible so they feel comfortable talking with you. To this end, Greene suggests you actively listen to your child, making them the focus of the conversation. He offers several conversational dos and don’ts for active listening:

  • Do repeat your child’s answers back to them to make sure you understand them correctly.
  • Do ask clarifying questions like “What do you mean?” or “How so?” when you don’t understand something.
  • Don’t bring up problem behaviors, as doing so might make your child defensive and closed off.
  • Don’t guess what your child is feeling or why they acted a certain way—you don’t want to speak over them and deprive them of an opportunity to explain themself.
  • Don’t offer solutions yet, as this will come later.

Step #3: Explain Your Perspective

Once you feel as though you have a good sense of your child’s perspective on a practical challenge, Greene says you should explain your perspective to them. Tell your child why you ask them to complete these practical challenges and how failing to do so negatively impacts them and the people around them. By helping your child understand why you ask them to complete practical challenges, those challenges will feel less arbitrary and less frustrating.

Step #4: Brainstorm and Test Solutions Together

Once both you and your child have made your perspectives clear, Greene says the next step is to work with your child to find a solution that works for both of you. You shouldn’t go into this step having already decided on a solution since it might narrow your thinking or cause you to slip into a “demand” strategy. Whatever solution you land on should be realistic and should satisfy everyone—otherwise, it’ll only breed resentment and increase tension over time, leading to future conflicts. 

While you might think this step gives your child too much power or lets them take control, Greene argues this isn’t the case. You’re still determining a way they can complete the practical challenges you give them, after all.

The 4 Steps to Increase Emotional Intelligence in Children

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Explosive Child summary:

  • How to get your life back when you have a child with behavioral problems
  • Common myths about the causes of outbursts and why they really happen
  • Why prevention is key for addressing long-term behavioral issues

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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