Emotional intelligence: Help kids respond to bullying from the inside out

Research shows the importance of developing emotional intelligence for children, youth and adults.

Many people are concerned about issues of bullying and are looking for strategies to help kids respond. Some approaches stress the importance of creating rules and policies. Others stress the power of “bystanders” and encourage young people to step in and interrupt bullying behaviors they see happening around them. Another important, and often overlooked, strategy for addressing bullying is developing emotional intelligence by helping kids respond from the “inside out.”

A growing body of research shows the importance of developing emotional intelligence – for children, youth and adults. Emotional intelligence includes developing self-awareness and an increased ability to notice and navigate our thoughts and emotions – particularly when we’re experiencing stress.

Stress is a part of life for everyone; for some young people, one source of stress is witnessing or being targeted by bullying and other hurtful behaviors. Ideally, we want kids to always be in settings that are free from hurtful, mean-spirited words and actions – but unfortunately that’s not always possible. You can help young people develop resiliency to bullying and other stressful situations by increasing your own emotional intelligence so that you can model and share this information with them.

Here are several ways to increase emotional intelligence in children, youth and adults:

  • Develop an understanding of the “inside-out” nature of our experience. Most of what we experience in our lives is a result of our state of mind – including our thoughts about that experience. And interestingly, it’s often our thoughts that trigger strong emotions in us.
  • Become more able, more often to witness your “thought world.” Practice slowing yourself down in the face of hard situations, taking notice of your state of mind and thoughts. Notice the quality of your thinking in that moment. Are your thoughts sped up, churning and spinning, or is there more space between your thoughts? Is your state of mind muddy and cloudy, or more settled and clear?
  • Responding to hard situations happening around us when our thoughts are rapid and spinning often produces less than positive results. Witness yourself with compassion in that moment, trusting that your thoughts will settle and that you will be able to respond from a calmer, more centered space over time. We’re likely to experience much more positive results if we can respond to difficult situations when we have a more settled mind and when we’re feeling more centered and balanced.
  • Practice noticing and naming your feelings – and notice where you’re feeling them in your body. Naming the core feeling you’re having can be very helpful. Core feelings include angry, sad, scared, peaceful, powerful and joyful. Naming our feelings can increase self-awareness of what’s happening for us so that we can make decisions about how we want to respond to hard situations. Think about feelings as messengers that can provide signals about what we need in that moment.
  • Remember that part of the reality of life is that our moods go up and down. It’s not uncommon to experience high moods and low moods several times within a week – and sometimes even within a given day. When we’re in a higher mood we’re likely to feel happy, inspired or creative. When we’re experiencing a low mood, we’re more likely to feel cynical or hopeless. Noticing our moods and not believing our thoughts when we’re in a low mood are extremely important parts of developing emotional intelligence.
  • Don’t believe everything you think! When we believe or get attached to our low mood, churned up, muddy thinking, we are more likely to feel justified in bringing our feelings, words and behaviors to others because we believe they are “causing” us to feel badly.
  • Explore ways to calm yourself down and shift your focus when you’re in an upset or low mood. While you can’t control your thoughts, you can shift your focus toward something that helps you feel more grounded. Examples include breathing deeply, noticing something in nature or feeling yourself firmly grounded in your chair.

Being the target of (or witnessing of) hurtful, mean-spirited, bullying behaviors can be extremely stressful for young people and adults. Developing emotional intelligence can help us respond to these and other hard situations from a calmer, more centered space. By allowing ourselves to settle, our mind to clear and our state of mind to return to balance, we can tap our deepest and wisest selves as we respond to hard situations. Tapping into our resiliency – the innate ability we all have to gently self-correct and thrive in the face of change and challenges – is an important life skill for children, youth and adults.

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