Build emotional intelligence in your child with learning disabilities and ADHD
Emotion and social development go hand in hand and are just as important as academic and life skill development. Emotional intelligence means knowing how and when to express emotions appropriately, understanding another person’s emotions, empathising with them, and acknowledging one’s feelings and regulating them are all essential skills. While children with learning disabilities and ADHD may not necessarily struggle with emotions, they may be more prone to experiencing negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness, etc. Therefore, parents and educators need to support children in developing emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence – Understanding emotions
Below are certain ways in which one can help children understand and work through their emotions
- Use emotion vocabulary: Support children in understanding and labeling their own emotions, and use words to describe what they are feeling rather than expressing it inappropriately. For example, if a child is frustrated and shows it by throwing their notebook on the floor, encourage them to say, “I am feeling angry because…” Parents could also use emotional words in their vocabulary. For example, use sentences like “I am feeling super happy today…” and “I’m feeling a little annoyed because…”.
- Build recognition: To help build recognition and an understanding of emotions, use books, cartoons and movies as media. Discuss with them what the characters might be feeling and expressing. It will also encourage perspective-taking and empathy.
- Accept emotions: Recognise and accept what your child might be feeling at the moment. Tell them that all feelings are valid and it is okay to acknowledge them. Do not dismiss how they might be feeling.
- Reflect: In real-life situations, ask your child to reflect on how they feel and why they are feeling so. Also, encourage them to think about how the other person may be feeling. For example, if your child gets angry and shouts at their friend for not agreeing to play as per their rules, help them express (using words) why they felt angry, how the friend might have felt, and what they could have done differently. If the child is too young or unable to come up with alternatives, offer solutions and model more appropriate behaviour.
Emotional Intelligence – Dealing with emotions
Below are certain ways in which one can help children deal with their emotions
- Observe to see patterns of specific emotions your child may be struggling to manage. For example, if they often get aggressive or angry, try to understand what triggers or leads to such feeling and behaviour. Over time, you may observe some patterns. For example, a child may get upset when you are not able to fulfill their wish. Or a child may regularly get frustrated when asked to write. Recognising these triggers is the first step in working toward the regulation of emotions.
- Similarly, if the child is anxious about school or certain social situations, observe the pattern and break down the situation to understand what exactly makes them uneasy. For example, if the child refuses to go to a birthday party, is it because they do not want to go alone? Do they not have friends there? Do they not feel confident in making conversations or playing in a group? Is there someone they do not want to meet? Figuring out what might be causing the anxiety will help address it.
- Prepare them beforehand. If you know specific situations where the child may feel frustrated, help them prepare for it in advance. Walk them through what the situation or experience might be and how they could deal with it. For instance, if they do not want to go to a party because they feel out of place and cannot initiate conversations, give them a script/prompts to start a conversation. If there is a field trip or an event at school that they may feel anxious about, provide them with a structure of what it might look like and prepare them for their role. Often, structure and predictability help ease out the anxiety.
- If some tasks or situations make them anxious or nervous, help the child break it down. Start with small steps. For example, if a math worksheet makes them anxious, give them one problem at a time. Start with something they know and can do. If they are nervous about going to school, initially have a parent or a sibling go along with them. Next, make them meet a teacher they like or a friend to go along with to the classroom. In the classroom, provide something familiar or enjoyable (it could be anything they like such as Legos or a puzzle, or illustrating or reading a book).
- In terms of their concerning behaviours, start with a doable step, with your support, and gradually increase the level of independence, as you lessen your reliance. This process is called scaffolding and is applicable for any new skill your child may be learning to develop. Do not expect the behaviour to change or the new skill to develop overnight. Recognise their progress and praise them for every positive step completed. Do not give up; consistency is the key.
- If a child is often anxious or frustrated while working, in the classroom or at home, set clear expectations and consistent routines. Mutually develop a schedule with them where they take breaks at regular intervals. For example, they sit in one place and work for 15 minutes then take a five-minute break where they get to do something enjoyable. With younger kids, you may provide rewards (something that they like) at the end of a task. For transitions or changes to be effective, give a warning in advance, like, “We will finish this in 15 minutes and then go to the playground.”
- For older children, who can articulate their feelings and experience, encourage them to talk to or confide in someone. It could be a friend, a mentor, parent, teacher or counsellor, anyone they can trust. Develop the mindset that talking about your emotional experience is healthy and talking will help relieve it.
- Provide your children with strategies to regulate their emotions. For example:
- Remind them that they are bigger than their emotions. They are strong and in control of their feelings.
- Help them recognise what helps them – when they are anxious or upset and what helps them become calm, centred, and refocused. Teach your child to be self-reflective and come up with strategies or alternatives mutually.
- Encourage them to express their feelings and share with a friend or an adult.
- Teach calming techniques such as deep breathing, taking a break and sitting in a quiet space, meditating, mindful colouring, listening to calm music, doing a puzzle, using a fidget spinner, counting everything around in a specific colour. Anything that helps them take their mind off the current situation and calm it.
- Let them practice writing about their emotional experience.
Model regulating and talking about your own emotions. As adults, if we share our emotional experiences and talk about how we managed them, it might positively influence children. It will normalise talking about feelings and the fact that everyone experiences negative emotions as well.