What A Two Year-Old Can Teach Us About Emotional Intelligence

We have our 2 ½ year old granddaughter with us for two weeks and it has been a great experience for me.  I have never had my own children, although I’ve been blessed by my relationship with two step children for nearly 20 years.  They entered my life when they were 10 and 11, so the experience of having a toddler day in and day out is new. Much of our emotional intelligence is rooted in our early years, so my little Anadella has been a great teacher for me.

While I would describe her as a very intelligent girl, one who picks up on anything new very quickly and tries it out, it is natural that someone her age would be more driven by her emotions.  Here are some things that I’m learning about emotional intelligence, and about Anadella, by engaging with her every day!

Some emotions are innate, others are learned.  

AnadellaAs I said above, there is no question she is driven by her emotions.  The interesting thing is which ones are present now and which ones have yet to make an appearance. On a daily basis, we are graced by her immense joy of being alive and her free expressions of love.  She also displays sadness openly when it visits her.  At other times we are “blessed” by displays of anger and our attention captured by her fears.

But there are some other emotions that we haven’t seen make an appearance as of yet, indicating that they are things we learn as we grow up.  She has no concept of shame.  She performs, pretends, dreams, goofs around, laughs or screams anytime she feels like it! Circumstances don’t matter. Likewise, I’ve seen no indication of anxiety yet – that she actually worries about anything.

As parents, it is important to recognize that all emotions have a purpose and our job is to try to steer the more distressing emotions into healthy ranges.  The gift of healthy fear is protecting ourselves. Excess fear can cause us to withdraw from others. The gift of healthy anger is setting appropriate boundaries, while excess anger can cause us to be critical of others and perhaps be intense in relationships.

For those emotions we learn, we learn them from our families.  If we have a lot of anxiety or shame in our history, chances are we might pass it on.  If not it’s possible our children won’t learn it either.  Healthy anxiety warns us when something isn’t right. When it is low, we may not see risks easily.  When it is high we may become overly planful and cautious.  Healthy shame is the source of our integrity and humility.  High shame makes us highly critical of ourselves. When it is low, we have trouble seeing others boundaries.

Empathy is innate to us.

I’m amazed at how astute Anadella is at picking up the subtle queues of emotions.  This has been the case since she was born.  For example, when she was learning to walk and toppled over she would cry if we looked concerned and would laugh and pick herself up if we smiled.  Now, if we show any frustration with her “busyness”, it can create move her towards a more difficult move.  When I am looking at her and have my love of her in mind, she often moves towards me with a hug.

faces and emotionsThis idea isn’t mine.  Science knows that the seat of our emotions in our brain, the limbic system, is an open-loop system, where we rely on connections with other people to determine our moods.  Think of when we hear laughter.  How often do we find ourselves joining in or at least smiling!

The question now is how do we use this open loop as adults? Are we aware of the impact of others emotions on us, such that we can understand what is coming from within us and what is being driven by others? It’s easy when the emotion is joy or love.  But what about when the emotions are more distressing? Earlier this week I was a part of a situation where there was a lot of anxiety being expressed by another, and I was feeling almost overwhelmed by my own anxiety.  Even knowing about this principle, it was all I could do to stay connected in the relationship and manage myself in the conversation.  If I wasn’t aware that my anxiety was coming from the other person, I might have had much more difficulty managing myself (and it was still hard).

We really do learn to park our feelings at the door!

One of the key concepts of the school of EQ that I follow is how well we balance our reliance on thoughts, wants and feelings. Watching my little granddaughter, there isn’t a lot of reliance on thought!  She is driven by her wants, and when her wants are/are not met then her feelings are front and centre! That is certainly normal for a two-year old.  Our intellectual capacity really starts to reach a level where it can compete with wants and feelings around age five.

The evidence from EQ research shows that it is rare in adults that we rely on our feelings more than either thoughts or wants.  Thoughts are about understanding the situation, wants are about moving to action and feelings are our gauge of what’s important.  To move from childhood where we are driven by feelings to where we tend to set them aside in evaluating our experiences must mean that this is learned.

We make better decisions when we bring our feelings into play.  We’ve learned to park our feelings, we can learn to bring them back into play as well.   Here’s an exercise. Over the period of several weeks or a month set aside time several times a day to reflect on what feelings you have experienced since the last reflection.  Name your feelings and write them down.

As you get good at this, try to add a couple more elements to your notes.  First, try to notice how you experience that feeling in your body.  When under stress, the somatic manifestation of a feeling is often easier to pick up on than the feeling itself.  Second, start to look under the initial feeling to see if there is a more fundamental feeling.  For example if you note anger, look underneath to see if it was initially rooted in shame of a feeling of being “not enough”.  By knowing that the true emotion was shame, we can address that root cause and learn how to know we are enough.

What have you learned from your kids about emotional intelligence?  Any interesting stories to share?

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

7 thoughts on “What A Two Year-Old Can Teach Us About Emotional Intelligence

  1. So very true Ian — and what great insights.

    In some ways, it’s also like living with a puppy. Their pure joy is contagious, their ability to live in the moment inspiring.

    And the rest is just stuff! 🙂

  2. I love this post Ian. That your granddaughter can sense when you are thinking about how much you love her and runs to you to hug you is the most beautiful thing I’ve read this morning. ❤
    Diana xo

  3. This post is quite appropriate for me at the moment on two counts. Firstly reacting more on feelings rather than responding by thinking and planning; secondly by taking on anxieties or shame of others. When either occurs I need to stop myself. In stressful situations, it can be difficult to see that it can be the response of someone else producing stress or anxiety within me as it is so easily passed on. Equally, once I recognize that fact, it is then too easy to shift into my own feeling of anger or guilt at having been sucked into the other person’s world (rather than simply putting their emotional reactions aside). I believe your idea of reflecting on the situation afterwards and writing things down would help in ‘responding’ rather than ‘reacting’ in future situations.
    Great post! It really got me thinking.

    1. I’m glad this resonated with you, at it seems as though you have some great ideas on how to use this information! I think your experiences are shared by many others, and it is by conscious effort that we can bring our feelings based reactions out of our subconscious for us to examine and begin to substitute a new way of dealing with them.


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