Emotional intelligence is key for effective divorce recovery in children. I am convinced by this. It gives children a tool kit with which to navigate the changes and big emotions they experience during and after divorce.

I remember on one occasion when I saw the magic of emotional intelligence. I was working with a ten-year-old boy who had come for divorce recovery counselling. His mother had said how withdrawn he was and how neither her nor her ex-husband could get anything out of him other than monosyllables.

In one particular session we were working with words we use to describe feelings of sadness. They were words that cover the whole spectrum of emotion from “feeling down” through to “grief”. As we played with them and his understanding of them grew, he started to describe how he identified with these feelings. He knew what these words felt like. Suddenly he had language to express what had been locked inside of him! Emotional vocabulary had given him the sweet release he needed to begin the journey of processing his parents’ divorce.

He had been experiencing big feelings of grief that he couldn’t make sense of. He didn’t feel like himself anymore – he said he just felt hollow. I could see that he was grieving the loss of the life he had loved before the changes divorce had brought. I was able to communicate this to the parents and we figured out a strategy to give him the support he needed.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a phrase you may have heard before, but perhaps you aren’t too clear on what it really means. A definition I rather like is from Psychology Today. It describes it as:

“The ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.”

The ten-year-old boy who discovered the emotional vocabulary he needed, learnt the first skill described in this emotional intelligence definition: emotional awareness. He was able to recognise and assess and name his own emotions. I get excited when I see the knock-on effect of this for kids of divorce. When they are able to recognise their own emotions, they are empowered to communicate this information. It’s a game changer. Caregivers can reciprocate and give the child the support and help they need.

If this ten-year-old boy is encouraged on his path of increasing emotional intelligence, his ability to manage and regulate his emotions will grow. He will become better at taking the initiative to find ways to adapt or communicate how he is feeling. Big emotions will transition from silence and slammed doors to helpful conversations.

How else can emotional intelligence help divorce recovery?

Besides helping a child with self-awareness and self-management, emotional intelligence is very helpful in relationships. One of the big adjustments after divorce is often the introduction of new people into a child’s life. New family members, partners, friends, neighbours, teachers and the list goes on … Consequently, they will have to engage and get on with these people, as well as possibly deal with conflict.

Navigating these new relationships can be heavy going, especially when there are big emotions attached. However, with good emotional intelligence a child would be able to cope reasonably well. They would naturally be more self-confident and socially aware, picking up on the cues of others and relating to them comfortably and effectively. Communication would be made easier too as they would be able to express themselves clearly and assuredly. This contributes to resolving those conflicts that are bound to arise.

Additionally, emotional intelligence gives the gift of empathy. A child with strong emotional intelligence can relate to how others are feeling and reach out to them. It makes them kind. Empathetic kids can also be great problem solvers as they can usually see everyone’s perspective and work towards a solution in a collaborative way.

This all contributes to maintaining good relationships which is only going to be a huge help for everybody’s divorce recovery process. Furthermore, it also brings peace of mind to parents who desperately want their kids to accept and enjoy the new people in their lives.

How can we help kids of divorce improve their emotion intelligence?

This all sounds great in theory, but the big question on your mind may be how can you help your kids grow into this ideal? Here are some ideas I would like to offer:

  •  Grow their emotional vocabulary. The Mending Chronicles of Liam and Emily is a super resource for divorce recovery and there is a huge focus on emotional vocabulary. There are attractive pages of emotional words to reference and an emotional vocabulary dictionary at the back. A comprehensive collection of emotional vocabulary printable PDFs and corresponding dictionary is available here. These are handy to have when kids are learning to use the right word to describe their feelings.
  • Provide a safe space. Kids need a safe space to be able to express their honest emotions. Part of growing in emotional intelligence is being able to practise using these words as they develop in their self-awareness. However, if you suspect that you will be triggered by your child’s emotions, arrange for another person to provide that safe space – grandparents or a therapist are potential options.
  • Validate their emotions. When your child builds up the courage to express how they feel, remind yourself that you need to stop, listen and accept that this is their reality in that moment. You can communicate that their feelings are important to you and that you acknowledge them. These opportunities bring healing and closeness.
  • Praise their efforts. Like all things we grow in, the first steps are usually clumsy. Your encouragement will boost their confidence to keep trying. Let them know you appreciate their efforts and how well they are doing.

Emotional Intelligence is not something we master straight away, it’s something we cultivate and mature in. Children are developing every day and absorbing knowledge all the time. If we can provide an environment that offers opportunities for emotional intelligence to grow, what a gift this would be to overcoming an adverse childhood experience like divorce.