Emotional Intelligence: What Is It, Who Has It, and How to Get It

by Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D.


Your nine year old is teased at school for being the new kid in class, or being too fat, or answering correctly one too many times, and tells you he wants to run away or kill himself. Your six year old feels humiliated at soccer practice cause she can't kick the ball as well as the other girls (never mind they had a year more practice) and wants to quit. Your four year old’s preschool teacher complains to you about your son being too aggressive with the other kids. And your oldest teen girl gets a D on her last history exam and you find she seems to have given up studying and instead is sleeping and smoking pot most of her free time. What does this all mean and what is a parent of a supposedly "smart" child to do?

First, realize that although each of these children are all bright, (have at least average or above IQ's) they have not developed the emotional skills necessary for success in such life situations. These skills, many of which we often take for granted, thankfully can be taught, and have most recently been coined emotional intelligence (EQ) by Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence was first described by Peter Salovey and John Mayer, two Yale University psychologists in 1990. Emotional intelligence refers to five main emotional competency areas. Notice where your children's strengths and weaknesses are.

Emotional self-awareness: recognizing, naming, and understanding the cause of one's feelings. For example, a child being able to not only identify feeling "bad" but angry, hurt, jealous, upset, sad, or scared in various life situations.

Handling emotions appropriately: demonstrating productive options for managing stress and upsetting feelings rather than "acting-out" negatively such as using words rather than fists to express anger.

Self-motivation: thinking, planning, and solving problems by using impulse control, frustration tolerance, and delayed gratification to reach a specific goal (e.g.: no TV until homework is completed); and maintaining hope and optimism, trying again despite setbacks (e.g.: a poor grade on a test leads to studying more, not less).

Empathy: recognizing and understanding emotions in others. If one child is able to care about how another is feeling, teasing or picking fights with unsuspecting victims can be drastically reduced.

Social Skills: handling emotions in relationships and interacting harmoniously with others, including being sensitive to others needs and wants, being able to listen to and soothe others feelings, and developing what is considered good "people skills".

The concept of emotional intelligence is to be applauded. Not because it is totally new, (you may recognize some aspects from previous ideas) but because it captures in one compelling term, the essence of what our children need to know to be productive and happy.

Intellectual ability is not enough. As Goleman points out, IQ and SAT scores do not predict who will be successful in life (IQ at best contributes about 20 percent). Even school success has been predicted more by emotional and social measures (e.g.: being self-assured and interested, following directions, turning to teachers for help, and expressing needs while getting along with other children) than by academic ability.

Who Is Responsible?

Teachers might say parents are responsible for such social competence. Parents might say it is in the schools where children can best learn to get along with other children and develop social skills. Who is responsible? WE ALL ARE. With the devastating high rise of juvenile crime, depression, suicide, drug use, eating disorders, and pregnancy, we seem to have a generation of emotionally disabled youngsters and everyone must become involved to help turn the tide.

How To Get It

To understand how to develop emotional intelligence, we'll take a look at anger management, one of the most important skills for our children (and us) to master. Goleman cites research that shows many children who are aggressive and hard to handle in the first and second grades tend to have a five-fold increase in truancy, drinking, drug taking, dropping-out and petty crime in their high school years.

Think about the last time your child exploded in anger. When his sister grabbed the remote control and changed the TV station? When her younger brother burst into her room and bothered her friends? How did you react? With calm reason or did you explode back? If we lose control when our children do, what are we really teaching them?

The good news is that we have the power to change and grow - both in our actions and in helping our children develop competent emotional skills. Consider a six-year old boy who's been having alot of trouble getting along with his younger three year old sister, and who initially had difficulty expressing his feelings. With some simple training and direction he was able to develop a repertoire of positive coping skills and resolve his dilemma.

"How did you feel when you hit your sister?" - "Bad"

"Would you like to feel better?" - "Yes".

"What can you do next time so that you do not have to hit your sister and feel bad?" He was able to articulate: "balloon breath (deep breathing) ... count to ten.... go to my room till I calm down" ... "use my words".

Here, in a simplified form appropriate to his age, he demonstrates excellent anger management by calming down using relaxation and distraction techniques, and not responding to his first impulse to hit. When asked what would help him get along better with his sister, he responded "Not blaming her for things I do." The next time a similar incident occurred, a gentle reminder from his parent on how he decided he wanted to calmly handle the situation, assisted and empowered him to keep on track with his developing emotional intelligence.

Children Learn Best By What We Do

We are all role models for our children; we all have a responsibility. Every time we interact with a child we have the opportunity to teach and model emotional intelligence and health. Children learn by what they see us do; our well-intentioned words must be backed up by our actions.

As Goleman reminds us, "parents can help their children by coaching them emotionally, talking to them about their feelings and how to understand them, not being critical and judgmental, problem solving about emotional predicaments, coaching them on what do, like alternatives to hitting, or to withdrawing when your sad". And, when they (and we) make mistakes (as can be expected), we can teach our children how to handle a future situation more productively. Not unexpectedly, studies indicate the more parents are emotionally adept, the more their children are.

One mother had a startling, simple revelation recently. She relayed a typical incident of her two children (brother and sister) beginning to escalate their differences into shouting and perhaps hitting. She was about to scream at them (certain to escalate the situation even more) when she remembered to stop, breathe, and count to ten before reacting. This mom surprised herself (she really wanted to get angry and "act-out") and something miraculous happened. As she was calming herself down, using deep breathing and self-talk, her kids began to follow her lead. They too, stopped yelling, breathed, and counted to ten. At that point they were able to talk through their problem and come up with a creative solution that satisfied and pleased everyone. What a learning experience - it finally clicked in - for her and for her kids!

Clearly, education at all levels is warranted. There even seems to be a special part of our brain for such skills as emotional self-control and empathetic understanding which continues to develop into late adolescence (16-18 years). Emotional habits acquired in childhood appear harder to change later in life, leading to a critical window of opportunity to help shape lifelong emotional propensities. Classes to raise the social and emotional competence in children are being taught all over the country at all grade levels under such titles as "social development", "life skills", "self science", "conflict resolution", and "emotional literacy". More are needed.

How to Test EQ

Although there is no specific paper and pencil test to measure you child's EQ, just ask your 4, 6, 9, or 14 year old how they would handle the situations of our troubled friends at the opening of this article. Better yet, gather a group of your children's friends and pose these and other similar home-grown situations to open up creative brainstorming sessions. Who knows, you might be helping your child and their friends develop into healthy, happier, more productive adults.


Originally published in:
Whole Life Times, December 1996

Imagery For Kids

“Simple, practical, brilliant. What a wonderful world it will be when all families give their children the gifts presented in Dr. Reznick’s book. Joy, success . . . and health and happiness are just around the corner!” — Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, creator of the book & DVD The Happiest Toddler on the Block


“Dr. Reznick offers a revolutionary approach for parents to help their children handle fears, worries, and self- doubt. Her simple, accessible advice allows kids to develop their self- esteem while creatively tackling problems. This book is a must- read for any parent who hopes to arm their child with the tools to handle life’s daily struggles.” — Jack Canfield, coauthor of The Success Principles™ and coauthor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul® series


“This is a wonderful guide for anyone raising children in a stressful world. I’m looking forward to practicing Dr. Reznick’s strategies with my own daughters as they grow and become more aware of life’s everyday pressures.” — Mallika Chopra, coauthor of 100 Questions from My Child and author of 100 Promises to My Baby


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