Keeping children safe online is no different from keeping them safe in everyday life. A strong emotional connection between children and parents is one of the building blocks to nurture resilience in children through emotion coaching and by fostering emotional intelligence to help keep them safe.
Research has consistently indicated that children who are able to build a strong emotional connection with at least one parent and can communicate openly and honestly with them about difficulties have an inherent resilience when it comes to day to day life, including internet safety and use. This resilience is achieved through emotional intelligence* which refers to:
- an ability to identify and understand one’s own emotions
- successfully use emotions during social interactions
- use emotional awareness when solving problems
- keep distress from clouding one’s ability to think
- be in control of how and when feelings are expressed
Emotional intelligence is essential as it allows your child awareness and control over what he or she does. It results in lower levels of stress which is associated with better health and enables more satisfying friendships and lasting relationships. Emotional intelligence also gives children better ability to calm themselves and concentrate when faced with challenging situations and makes change easier to deal with.
It is distinct from intelligence, meaning that a child with low IQ and low educational achievement scores can have high emotional intelligence scores. Children who are emotionally intelligent will be less likely to communicate with strangers online or even to use the internet as frequently as they are more likely to be satisfied with their personal relationships and to be involved and positively engaged in extracurricular activities.
In terms of their online behaviour, children with high emotional intelligence are more likely to think carefully before posting personal information and imagery and could be buffered from cyberbullying. These children will be better able to focus on their positive qualities and be better able to dismiss any negative comments made about them.
Emotional intelligence is strongly linked to parenting. Dismissive or disapproving parental styles can impede the development of emotional intelligence. Dismissiveness includes offering advise (‘you should have’); telling a child not to worry; jumping straight into problem solving rather than focusing on how the child is feeling; distracting; and asking why the child did or said what they did which may make them feel that they are being judged.
Parents can assist in building their child’s emotional intelligence by becoming aware of their emotions, particularly lower intensity emotions (disappointment, frustration) and viewing these times as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching. Parents should communicate their acceptance and understanding of the emotion, help the child describe how they feel and possibly help them to solve problems, through helping them brainstorm on possible next steps. This method is referred to as ‘emotion coaching’ whereby parents do not dismiss or disapprove of the emotion children are displaying but can set clear limits about inappropriate behaviour. Utilising this emotion coaching approach from early childhood ultimately increases emotional intelligence which is the best buffer against internet-related safety concerns that no parental controls or settings can ever fully cater for, given we can never completely monitor every online conversation that our child has or all the information accessed over the internet.
Dr Carly Aquilina is a Psychologist and parenting specialist with extensive childhood and adolescent training and experience in Malta, Australia and the UK. She is contactable on firstname.lastname@example.org
*Adapted from Gottman, J. M. & DeClair, J. (1997). The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York: Simon & Schuster.