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November 12

The Emotionally Competent Parent: 10 Ways To Make A Smarter Kid



The Emotionally Competent Parent: 10 Ways To Make A Smarter Kid


Your Emotional Competence Makes A Huge Difference In How Smart Your Kid Will Be

Emotional competence describes the skills necessary to be self-aware of your emotions. When you are emotionally competent, you can accurately name your emotions, consciously control them, act appropriately, and manage your distress. You can read the emotions of others (especially your children), reflect back those emotions with a “you” statement (affect labeling), and build resiliency. Emotionally competent people score high on emotional intelligence assessments and tend to excel in life and relationships.

Researchers have discovered that emotionally competent parents raise children that shine in school and have strong social bonds with their peers, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds. On the other hand, emotionally ignorant parents raise children who do not always perform well academically and may suffer later in life.

The Four Styles of Parenting

Consider how your parents raised you. As you think back, which of the four parenting styles did your parents adopt? And, have you adopted a similar parenting style with your kids?

The Emotionally Invalidating Parent

The emotionally invalidating parent treats their child’s feelings as unimportant and trivial. Emotions are a nuisance, and negative emotions are not tolerated.

The emotionally invalidating parent is the extreme opposite of the emotionally competent parent because they disengage from or ignore the child’s feelings. These parents want the child’s negative emotions to disappear quickly. They see the child’s emotions as a demand to fix things.

Parents will minimize their child’s feelings and downplay the events that led to the emotional experience. These parents will not problem-solve with their child, believing that the passage of time will resolve most problems

Effects of emotional invalidation on children: Children learn that their feelings are wrong, inappropriate, and invalid. They may think that there is something inherently wrong with them because of the way they feel. They may have difficulty regulating their own emotions. By the time they are ready for adult relationships, they have no tools or skills to navigate their emotions. They can become numb, emotionally unavailable, or in extreme cases, narcissistic.

calm someone down The Judgmental Parent

The judgmental parent displays many of the Emotionally Invalidating Parent’s behaviors but in a more negative way. These parents judge and criticize their child’s emotional expression. They emphasize conformity to acceptable standards of conduct. They believe negative emotions need to be controlled. They think that emotions make people weak, and children must be emotionally tough to survive. The Judgmental Parent sees negative emotions as unproductive and a waste of time

Effects of Judgmental Parenting on childrenSame as the Emotionally Invalidating Parent, only worse.

The Let-It-Be Parent

The Let-It-Be Parent freely accepts all emotional expressions from the child. She offers little guidance on behavior, does not set limits, and believes nothing can be done about negative emotions other than riding them out. The Let-It-Be Parent does not help his child solve problems. This parent believes that managing negative emotions is a matter of hydraulics: release the emotion, and the work is done.

Effects of the Let-It-Be Parent on children: These children don’t learn to regulate their emotions. They have trouble concentrating, forming friendships, and getting along with other children. They may suffer from low academic achievement, become loners, and have complicated relationships later in life.

emotionally competent parent The Emotionally Competent Parent

The Emotionally Competent Parent values her child’s negative emotions as an opportunity for intimacy. She is aware of and values her emotions. The Emotionally Competent Parent either is not anxious about her child’s intense emotions or can self-soothe her own anxiety.

She sees the world of negative emotions as an essential arena for parenting. The Emotionally Competent Parent does not poke fun at or make light of his child’s negative feelings. He does not tell his child how to feel and validates his child’s emotions.

The Emotionally Competent Parent uses emotional moments as a time to listen to the child, empathize with soothing words and affection, help the child label the emotion he or she is feeling, offer guidance on regulating emotions, set limits and teach acceptable expression of emotions, and teach problem-solving skills

Effects of the Emotionally Competent Parent on children: These children learn to trust their feelings, regulate their own emotions, and solve problems. They have high self-esteem, learn well, and get along well with others. They tend to perform above grade level academically. They form lasting, loving relationships as adults.

The research establishes that being an emotionally competent parent is a prerequisite to raising healthy, smart kids. So, how do you become emotionally competent?

Steps to Improve Parenting Emotional Competency

Developing emotional competency is neither easy nor quick. It is a lifetime endeavor. Here are the best practices for becoming an emotionally competent parent.


Developing emotional competency requires the correct mindset. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, has defined two mindsets.

Fixed Mindset:

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” (Dweck, 2015)

A fixed mindset is a belief that intelligence and talents are static and cannot change.  People with a fixed mindset assess whether they have the skill or not. If they discern that they do not have a skill or talent, they will turn away from anything that allows them to grow.

Here are some statements about a parent with a fixed mindset:

  • “I’ve got to toughen up my kids because life is hard.”
  • “Emotions are weak.”
  • “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
  • “Discipline is the only way to keep kids under control.”
  • “Kids should never have negative feelings.”
  • “Telling your kid to shut up and behave is good parenting.”
  • “Sending your kid to her room for crying is the right thing to do.”
  • “Kids should be seen and not hear.”

Growth Mindset

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Dweck, 2015)

A parent with a growth mindset understands that raising children is hard work. He is looking for ways to improve his parenting and is willing to devote time and effort to be better. He accepts parenting failures and mistakes as opportunities to learn. He is particularly interested in learning as much about his children’s emotional development as possible.

Statements about a parent with a growth mindset include:

  • “Parenting is hard and challenging work.”
  • “Parenting is a process of continuous self-reflection and improvement.”
  • “Kids are emotional and need coaching to learn emotional competency.”
  • “Praising effort is better than praising outcomes. No gold stars.”
  • “Validating my child’s emotions is the most powerful gift I can give.”
  • “I accept that I make mistakes with my kids and learn from them.”
  • “Consequences should only be talked about after I have de-escalated my child.”
  • “Modeling emotional competency is the most powerful teacher for children as they are natural imitators.”

How To Develop A Growth Mindset Towards Parenting

Here’s how to work on developing a growth mindset as a parent.

  • You don’t have to be perfect
  • Be a detached observer
  • Study brain science
  • Choose difficult tasks
  • Be persistent and patient
  • Acknowledge your frustration
  • Recognize that developing a growth mindset is not easy or fast
  • Monitor and evaluate your parenting to identify how you can do better
    • Too much parenting is instinctive and reactive, rather than thoughtful
  • Acknowledge your faults and look for ways to overcome them.
  • Look at challenges as opportunities.
  • Replace the word “failing” with “learning.”
  • Redefine “genius” too. Being a genius requires hard work. It’s not some unobtainable talent.
  • Seek criticism as positive too.
  • Enjoy the ride, not the outcome
  • Self-reflect
  • View improvement in your parenting skills as separate from failure
  • Set goals for your parenting work, daily, weekly, monthly, annually
  • Be willing to fail and admit it
  • Be a beginner at something hard to master all the time and model it to your kids

Parenting With A Growth Mindset

  • Praise effort, not talent “You worked hard to achieve that goal,” vs. “You’re so smart.”
  • Create a safe space to make mistakes
  • Give honest, specific feedback when asked for it
  • Embrace and talk about struggle
  • See failure as opportunity
  • Emphasize the power of Yet “You are not there yet. Hang in there and keep trying until you succeed.”

Learn About The Difference Between Emotions And Affect

Affect is the state of pleasantness or unpleasantness you experience. Affect is measured by valence (positive, neutral, or negative) and intensity (degree of arousal). Emotions are cognitive constructs created by our brains. Emotions serve important functions.

First, emotions concretize affective experience into consciousness.

Second, emotions allow us to seek cause and effect relationships (“What is making me angry?”).

Third, emotions are essential to our decision-making. Fourth, emotions inform us what to do next.

Finally, emotions allow us to communicate our feelings to others.

Babies are not born with emotions; they are born with affect. The brain’s emotional centers, located primarily in the limbic system, do not mature until 18 months.

From 18 months to five years, children have the task of building up a database of emotions. If they succeed at this task, they will likely be emotionally competent adults. Suppose the child’s job is thwarted because of an Emotionally Invalidating, Judgmental, or Let-It-Be parent. In that case, the child will likely not be emotionally competent as an adult and suffer.

An emotionally competent adult knows the basic neuroscience of childhood brain development. This knowledge helps you coach and guide your children through the pivotal developmental years of 18 months to five years.

listen your child into existence Listen Your Child Into Existence

Listening your child into existence is the phrase I use to describe affect labeling. The emotionally competent parent will read the child’s emotions and reflect them back to the child with a “you” statement. Here are some examples:

  • “You are angry.”
  • “You are frustrated.”
  • “You feel ignored.”
  • “No one is listening to you.”
  • “You feel sad.”
  • “You are excited.”
  • “You are happy.”
  • “You are feeling all alone.”
  • “You don’t feel loved.”

Brain scanning studies have established that affect labeling calms the over-active emotional centers of the brain and reboots the prefrontal cortex. When you listen your child into existence, you are helping her build her emotional database. This is one of the crucial roles parents should be playing with their children.

Label Your Own Emotions

Likewise, learn to label your emotions. Brain scanning studies show that self-affect labeling can calm you in literally seconds. As you learn to label your emotions, your emotional competency will grow dramatically. To learn more about affect labeling, check out my free webinar here.

Learn About Your Child’s Developmental Processes

It takes years for kids to develop a mature understanding of emotions. Children are works in progress.  They are still collecting data about how people think and behave. They are still trying to figure out their own feelings. They are at a distinct disadvantage at showing patience, following directions, juggling competing demands, remembering plans, and controlling their impulses. Their brains are still developing these abilities.

Develop Empathy For Others, As Well As Your Children

Empathy is a skill that must be learned and practiced. There are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to read another person’s emotions and reflect those emotions back to the speaker. Affective empathy is the ability to feel another person’s emotions and reflect them back to the speaker.

Affect labeling (listening others into existence) is a practice of cognitive empathy that leads to faster, more efficient affective empathy.

Emotionally competent people understand the difference between empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

Compassion is a feeling of non-judgmental concern for the distress of another. Compassion may or may not motivate you to take action to help, depending on the circumstances and your relationship to the distressed person or animal. Compassion emerges naturally with empathy and is not a skill that can be learned.

Sympathy occurs when you perceive someone else’s distress, and you attempt to comfort them. Sympathy is socially acceptable but is an inferior and weak way of dealing with others’ pain. Typically, sympathy is “I” centered, such as, “I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.” The idea is that an expression of sympathy builds solidarity and support. Common experience teaches us otherwise. Sympathy is expressed by people who have no clue about how we are feeling, what losses we have suffered, and what pain we are in. Sympathy generally soothes the anxiety of the sympathetic person without validating the pain of the distressed person. Sympathy also allows you to remain emotionally distant from the distressed person.

An emotionally competent person with use empathy and compassion and never sympathy. Emotionally incompetent people will use sympathy and never get to empathy or compassion.

How Sara Coaches Jonah: An Example of an Emotionally Competent Parent in Action

Three-year-old Jonah reveals to his mom, Sara, “You are the meanest mommy, and I dislike you”, and after that kicks her after Sara informs him that the playdate is over– it’s time for Liam to go home.

Label Your Emotions

Sara feels furious and wants to yell at Jonah, “You are the most unappreciative kid ever! Liam has actually been here for 2 hours and I have actually put aside whatever I required to do to monitor, make cookies with you, set up the coloring, and so on, and so on. It’s never ever enough!”

She understands this will not teach her kid anything and will simply increase both of their distress. Sara de-escalates her intense emotions by saying to herself, “I’m angry, frustrated, and furious. I don’t feel appreciated, and I feel disrespected.” Sara calms down almost immediately.

Label Your Child’s Emotions

Sara remembers that, at 3, kids are driven by their feelings. Her objective is to help Jonah deal with life’s frustrations and disappointments. She calmly informs him, “You are mad and frustrated. You were having fun, and are you disappointed that it’s over. When a playdate ends, it is hard. You will be all right.” Sara’s self-confidence helps Jonah manage his intense feelings.

Set Limits And Offer Options

“You can be upset and unhappy; however, you can’t kick. Kicking hurts other people. I know you don’t want to hurt me; you’re simply having difficulty managing your body since you are so upset. Your option is to take a break where you can soothe your mind and body, or you can help put the carrots into the salad for supper.”

If Jonah can’t get over his anger, Sara will go about her business, showing that she can endure his dissatisfaction. She is showing him she trusts he can relax himself. This leaves Jonah with the option to remain upset or pull himself together and socialize with his mama.

Effective Parenting Requires Emotional Competency

Emotionally competent parenting is not simple, easy, or quick. However, it is essential if you want to raise resilient, healthy children who themselves are emotionally competent.

  • Hi WInslow. ONe of the value-added services you can give to the parents of your kids is teaching the kids the growth mindset. I would definitely add that to your list of benefits and feature it on your website. You may also want parents to read this article to understand your foundational approach to working with kids.

  • As someone who works with children, this content is extremely useful and surprising (in a positive way). I have historically been the “let it be” teacher, and I didn’t grasp how this can be as damaging to children as emotional invalidation. I like to hide in the “it”ll all be OK” mode, because I’ve only just begun to feel more comfortable recognizing people’s varied “bad” emotions through Doug’s affect labeling class. I also find the growth mindset suggestions key. For example, when praising children: “You worked hard to achieve that goal,” vs. “You’re so smart.”

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    About the Author

    Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA left a successful career as a trial lawyer to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, speaker, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts.


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