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The Prophetic Way to Build a Child’s Emotional Intelligence

By Nur Choudhury

Essentially, emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, apply and manage the emotions of oneself as well as others in positive and constructive ways. By effectively noticing and reacting to emotions sympathetically and patiently, we can communicate effectively, reduce potential conflicts, overcome difficulties, and approach those around us with empathy and kindness.

Emotional intelligence is an invaluable attribute to have, and not only brings immeasurable benefits to your personal lives but our professional, academic, and social lives as well. It is crucial to motivating ourselves when it comes to realising our true potential as well as fostering meaningful social interactions with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. Attaining real emotional intelligence depends upon the following factors:

1. Self-Awareness: An individual intrinsically understands what they are feeling in the moment, as well as understanding how their mood can affect others they interact with.

2. Self-Regulation: An individual has complete control over the way they react to their emotions, and they will consider the consequences before acting on any impulsive emotions.

3. Motivation: Despite any negative emotions they may be experiencing, an individual can look at the wider picture and see their long-term goals.

4. Empathy: Understanding how other people feel, and how an individual’s emotion-based behaviour can affect the emotions of others.

5. Social Skills: An individual can effectively manage interpersonal relationships and understands which behaviours will elicit a positive and constructive response from other people.

Emotional intelligence is not a skill that someone is born with, but it is a skill that is honed and developed throughout childhood and adolescence and then into adulthood. Within Islam we are encouraged to exercise emotional intelligence through our conduct, whether it is through refraining from arguments, speaking gently and kindly, or maintaining relationships with kin as well as neighbours.

The following hadith provides us with several Prophetic Parenting gems when it comes to teaching our children about emotional intelligence. We are going to be exploring the indispensable insights which can be inferred from this hadith:

Anas reported: “The Messenger of Allah used to come to visit us. I had a younger brother who was called Abu ‘Umair. He had a sparrow with which he played, but it died. So, one day the Prophet came to see him and saw him grieving. The Prophet asked, “What’s the matter with him?”, the people replied, “His sparrow has died”. The Prophet said, “Abu Umair! What happened to the little sparrow?” (Abu Dawood)

1. Spend time with children

At the beginning of the hadith, Anas says that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) had come to visit them, and this small detail is of immense significance to our discussion. As parents, it is expected that there will be times when we are so consumed with fulfilling the duties of our various responsibilities that we will struggle to give our children enough time and attention. In the 21st century, we are constantly being pulled in so many directions that our parenting is inevitably affected.

However, if we are to look at the example of the Prophet, then there is no denying that he had the most demanding of schedules and responsibility of unimaginable importance. Nevertheless, he still made time for children. In the collections of hadith, there are numerous anecdotes narrated by many of his companions describing the most heart-touching of moments between the Prophet and children.

The solution to this is not that we should abandon the rest of our responsibilities, but that we should create time during which we will provide our children with our undivided and complete attention. This is paramount to establishing a strong and lasting relationship with our children.

Even if it is for just an hour or two, it is crucial that we enjoy quality time with our children on a one-on-one and regular basis. By doing this, our children will learn by example the importance of attending to and taking care of others, no matter how vulnerable or young they may be.

2. Understand their emotions

When the Prophet sees Anas and Abu ‘Umair, he notices that Abu ‘Umair is in a state of grief. Even though the Prophet was no doubt preoccupied with the difficulties and challenges associated with his role, he still made sure to take care of the emotional needs of those around him. From the outset, he is attentive and empathetic, and he immediately acknowledges that Abu Umair is not in the happiest frame of mind.

Childhood is a tender phase of life, during which a child is learning to navigate the various emotions they are experiencing as they grow and become more aware of not only their internal emotional states but the emotional states of those around them. A child will emotionally react to various stimuli in ways that may be different from but no less important than an adult.

As parents, it is our duty to assist and support our children when it comes to identifying their emotions, understanding why they are feeling like this, and then helping them process these emotions. We should never attempt to belittle or overlook their emotional pain, and rather we should validate them by giving them the level of attentiveness and concern that we would for a physical injury.

3. Listen with undivided attention

Upon seeing that Abu ‘Umair is in emotional distresses, the Prophet makes a point of asking what has happened. He does not wait for the child to approach him and neither is he asking out of formality or obligation, he is speaking from a place of genuine concern and empathy. To some extent, we have all experienced feelings of discouragement and disappointment when we have approached someone for guidance or advice, and the reality is that their promise of listening to us was little more than lip service.

When a parent provides their child with a supportive and non-judgemental space for them to approach them, then it is much easier for a child to come forward when they are struggling to comprehend their feelings. By being emotionally available, you are ensuring that your child will always find safety and comfort with you whenever they are going through any troubles. And you do not even have to say anything, because a sympathetic ear is often all that a child needs to feel validated and supported.

4. Do not deny their feelings

The people explain to the Prophet that Abu ‘Umair is grieving is because his sparrow has passed on. It would have been easy for the Prophet to just tell the child to not cry because it is just a bird, or perhaps even that the bird is in Paradise. Such statements, however, fail to acknowledge the child’s emotions and are more an attempt to go for the easiest and simplest solution.

Instead, we should sit with our children and engage in a meaningful and attentive discussion with them so that they can identify and then process their emotions. Often, parents will hold back from providing such a response because they are worried that by acknowledging the emotions, they are only going to make it worse. The reality, however, is that the opposite is true.

A child who hears their parent acknowledging and attaching a name to what they are experiencing is deeply comforted and assured that what they are feeling is not unusual or strange. As an influential and irreplaceable figure in their life, you are recognising their inner experiences by identifying your child’s emotion, for example by saying something as simple as “That sounds frustrating”.

Even when it comes to overcoming the loss of a loved one, fundamental to the grieving process is talking about whoever has passed on, no matter how painful it may be at first, and remembering the wonderful memories that you hold of them in order to process what you are going through.

5. Do not explain and rationalise

By asking the child why he is grieving, the Prophet is providing him with the space to voice his emotions without interruption. By immediately leaping to explanations or rationalisations of emotion to reduce its significance, we are preventing a child from really connecting with and understanding how to manage their emotions.

If we are to examine the story of the pet bird dying, for example, then we should refrain from saying phrases along the lines of “everything has to die someday” or “you can always get another”. These are attempts to explain and rationalise the situation when this is the last thing that a child wants or needs when they are experiencing such distress. Instead, they just need an attentive and sympathetic ear to listen to them as they talk about their loss, identify their emotions and why they are feeling this way.

This is by far the most effective means through which we can create an environment for our child to process their emotions. Imagine if as an adult you were to lose a loved one, and someone says that “everyone will pass on someday”. It may be a logical statement, but it is the last thing you are looking for when your emotions are threatening to overwhelm you.

When you have just lost something, which is dear to you and the grief is still a raw wound, you are reaching out for comfort, sympathy, and understanding – not explanations or rationalisations. Explaining and rationalisation will come at a later stage in the grieving process, but not at the start.

A child who has just lost their pet bird does not need to know that a bird was bound to die soon or that it can be replaced. They just need to know that the emotions they are feeling are a perfectly normal and expected part of life and that they should not be brushed away or concealed at the earliest convenience but processed with the support of loving and attentive parents.

Conclusion

The Prophet perfectly modelled empathy in every interaction and conversation, and children were certainly no exception. Long before psychology was a science, he had an intrinsic understanding of the importance of emotional intelligence within children, which he taught through his exalted conduct. In the hadith, he guided Abu ‘Umair through his emotions so that he could develop the ability to identify, understand, and then respond to them effectively.

As parents, we also have a responsibility to help develop emotional intelligence within our children – it is after all within the home that our children will experience and observe their first interpersonal relationships. By nurturing emotional intelligence within our children, we are ensuring that they will be self-aware, self-regulating, self-motivating, empathetic, and develop the social skills required to flourish in life.

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