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A resource produced for parents and educators by Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane. 

  • Writer's pictureLourdes Hill College

Emotional Skills Should Be Taught, Not Caught

By Linda Stade

Most adolescents are at a stage in their development where they aren’t great at identifying and explaining how they feel. If they were, they would say things like….

  • School is exhausting. There are so many personalities and rules, not just with the teachers but with my friends too.

  • My feelings are big… really big! The comfortable ones and the uncomfortable ones.

  • I don’t always have the words for how I’m feeling. So, I just say, “I’m fine”.

  • Sometimes I need you to just listen. I don’t want you to fix things.

  • Sometimes I don’t feel good enough.

  • I love you and I need you around, just not all the time.

  • I don’t always know how I’m feeling.

They would say these things because this is how kids tend to feel as they navigate this time in their lives. Adolescence is full of change: puberty, moving to high school, changes in friendship groups, moral development, and a complete brain renovation! It’s massive and they need your help, especially with their developing emotional intelligence.

High emotional intelligence is a quality we want in partners, colleagues, and friends. People with high emotional intelligence show up to relationships with empathy, self-awareness, social skills, and the ability to self-regulate. They make good leaders and team members, they act instead of reacting, and ultimately, they create a sense of emotional safety in those around them.

Caught not taught

If emotional intelligence is so powerful, why aren’t we teaching it to our children and teenagers who so obviously need help in this area? The answer is, we are, however, we are not always aware of the lessons we are teaching them. For example, we teach them about persevering when we work on puzzles with them. We teach them about empathy when we tell them stories about other people with different lives. And we teach them about conflict and frustration when we guide them through sibling squabbles.

That said, a lot of the emotional skills kids learn are caught rather than taught. They catch them every day, by watching us role-modelling our own emotional skills. Sometimes that’s great, sometimes not so much! For example, what do they learn when we yell at strangers in traffic?

We aren’t the only ones who can teach maladaptive skills. They also learn by watching poorly behaved influencers, drama on Netflix, and reality tv stars. Poor emotional skills may make good television, but our kids absorb it all. They may also learn from their peers who are often well-intentioned but are also in the process of learning. Inevitably, our kids are not always catching the skills we value.

What are the emotional skills our children need to be taught?

According to Alice Boyes Ph.D., there are ten emotional skills that humans need to master by the time they are adults.

  1. Identifying which specific emotions you’re feeling.

  2. Identifying which specific emotions someone else is feeling.

  3. The ability to start and persist in pursuing goals even when you feel anxious.

  4. The ability to tolerate awkwardness.

  5. The ability to have intimate conversations rather than stonewall, avoid, or flee.

  6. The ability not to crumble when someone is pressuring you.

  7. The ability to soothe your own emotions.

  8. The ability to soothe other people’s emotions.

  9. The ability to not go over the top with positive emotion.

  10. The ability to delay gratification.

It is always fun presenting this list to groups of parents and teachers. There tends to be a ripple of amusement as adults start to count how many of these skills they have mastery of, let alone their kids! That’s okay though, we are all always learning.

Are emotional skills taught in schools?

The Australian Curriculum is a much more powerful document than many appreciate. It is underpinned by several ‘general capabilities’, including the Personal and Social Capability.

It incorporates four elements:

  • Self-management

  • Social management

  • Self-awareness

  • Social awareness

Many teachers and schools do an outstanding job of incorporating this learning into their daily lessons. However, some appreciate that emotional intelligence is too important to be taught only incidentally, as part of other content. So, they teach it explicitly.

At Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane, there is the belief that not only should schools be explicitly teaching social and emotional skills, but they should also be sharing language and strategies with parents.

Jo Brasch-McPhee is Assistant Principal – Students. She says, “We aim to provide students with a toolkit for life. That kit includes academic skills like numeracy and literacy, but it also includes wellbeing skills. We want to equip students with the internal resources they will need during their school years and beyond. Those skills will help them flourish; find meaning in their lives; manage challenges, and find joy.”

How can parents teach emotional intelligence more effectively at home?

  1. Create a family environment where emotions are safe and can be talked about.

  2. Be deliberate in the emotional skills you model.

  3. Help kids develop an extensive emotional vocabulary. Research tells us that being able to label an uncomfortable emotion goes a long way towards regulating it.

  4. Talk to kids about the emotions you experience and the impact they have on your body so they normalise their own experiences.

  5. Allow kids to feel all their emotions; comfortable and uncomfortable. They need to know that all emotions are human and acceptable.

  6. Help young people recognise which self-regulation techniques work best for them.

7. Avoid protecting kids from challenges and disappointments. Emotional learning happens when children have real experiences and they have you there to show them how to react.

8. Read, read, read. Kids learn so many emotional skills from reading. They learn that they are not alone, other people feel the way they do. They also learn to see things from other people’s perspectives and that teaches them the most glorious lesson of all… empathy.

9. Expose kids to lots of different types of people. Promote relationships with significant adults outside of the home. These adults offer kids the opportunity to see how other adults feel and react.

10. Act as an emotional coach. Recognise when kids are out of their depths emotionally, help them slow down, think and plan so they can act instead of reacting.

Final thought…

Adolescents struggle with their emerging emotional intelligence. If we leave them to develop it alone, they will probably get there eventually. After all, that’s how it was for us. That said, wouldn’t it be amazing if our generation’s legacy was to provide a better emotional launchpad than we were given?


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