Emotional Competence for Leaders of Children


Being an effective leader can be learned. You don’t have to be born one or come from an emotionally healthy, emotionally competent family to be one. Leadership, like any other skill, can be acquired, and when it comes to being a leader of children, it is most essential that we acquire it.

Leading children, whether you are their parent, their teacher, their coach, or another important person in their lives, includes all of the same skills needed in leading adults, except for one major difference: When leading a child you are dealing with someone who is still at an incredibly vulnerable phase of their emotional development.

What that means is that, whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or a coach, you need to always keep two things in mind: You need to consider not only the obvious agenda at hand, (e.g. the lesson for the day, the chores that need to be done, playing and winning the game), but also the OTHER agenda, which is the emotional growth and nurturing of the child. In other words, you are not just coaching to win an event, or teaching to get the highest test scores, or parenting for obedience; you are also, at the same time, affecting the emotional development of the child.

What does “affecting the emotional development of the child” mean?

It means that, as an adult authority figure, whether that be a parent, a teacher, or a coach, you automatically have, by virtue of your role, a VERY strong effect on a child’s emotional development. This is true whether or not you realize it or like it, which means that you effectively have two jobs when leading a child: 1) fulfilling the ‘obvious’ agenda as mentioned before (i.e. winning, teaching, disciplining, etc.), and 2) being an emotionally competent leader who is also focused on the development and welfare of that child.

So what does emotional competence consist of when dealing with children?

It means: 1) having and teaching good boundaries, 2) being a good role model in the way you behave and the way you treat them, and 3) learning to communicate effectively and empathically.

Let’s take these one at a time, starting with the most important one: boundaries. If we get this one right, the other two will follow naturally.

Having and teaching good boundaries with children means knowing what the roles are in a healthy adult/child relationship: you’re the adult and they’re the child.

In a healthy adult/child relationship we must remember that the welfare of the child must come before the agenda of the adult. This is because the adult has the power in the equation and, if left uninformed, can choose to use that power to either keep the proper relationship order (i.e. child agenda first, adult agenda second), OR reverse it. In other words, the adult can either be wonderfully nurturing and upbuilding to the child by preserving the proper roles in the relationship, or hurtful and traumatizing by reversing those roles and effectively taking the role of the child by claiming first priority above the welfare and development of the child.

Where we get into trouble with boundaries is when we routinely put our agenda ahead of the welfare of the child, thereby putting ourselves first and them second, i.e, switching the adult and child roles. This is where the term “parentified child” comes from. It means that the child was promoted to the adult position and the adult assumed the child position by routinely putting his/her needs ahead of those of the child.

We do this all the time, in both obvious and subtle ways, and often without even realizing it. For example, every time we instantly “blow up” at a kid, we’ve put our agenda (i.e. our rage and our need to explode) ahead of the welfare of the child, which might include teaching them what they did wrong and doling out appropriate punishment, if necessary, without the rage reaction.

Other examples of role-reversal in the adult/child relationship include:

Putting the needs of the coaching staff or athletic program ahead of the developmental needs of the child-participants, which include both the athletic AND emotional needs of the children. (Remember, we’re talking about children here, not dedicated All-Star college athletes or professional athletes whose goals and emotional development are more fully developed.)

Using humiliation or bullying (yes, adults do bully children) to power one’s way through a lesson plan rather than addressing the child as a person, with both respect and empathy.

Demanding immediate compliance at home, without regard to what the child’s agenda was at the moment by at least having a brief conversation with the child (e.g. “What are you doing right now?” vs. “Get over here right now!!!”)

These are all examples of breaking boundaries with children.

Before we leave the topic, it is important for adult leaders to know the difference between content and process. Even if the CONTENT of your agenda is appropriate (e.g. teaching, disciplining, competing), your PROCESS or STYLE in executing it, as discussed above, can be very wrong and very destructive to a child’s emotional and personality development. Poor process or style, which includes role-reversal, is what leaves the deepest emotional scars in children.

In summary, if you consistently keep your proper adult role at the forefront of your mind, you’re more likely to keep your behavior in check in the interest of the child’s welfare.

Next, let’s look briefly at being a good role model in the way you behave and in the way you treat children. Again, if you’ve kept the adult/child roles that we just talked about in the proper order (i.e. child’s agenda/welfare first, adult agenda second), you’re already a good part of the way towards being a suitable role model because you’re setting an example of the way it’s supposed to be.

On the other hand, children are also constantly watching you, even when you don’t realize it. They are observing your behaviors, especially around difficult or challenging situations. Are you quick to anger or to give up? Are you slow to forgive? Do you hold eternal grudges? Do you compete fairly? Do you show mercy? Do you generally behave with equanimity and gratitude, or do you give off a vibe of entitlement and pessimism?

Remember, besides the unconscious feeling of goodness and strengthening they can feel around you if the boundaries/roles are kept tight, children are also consciously observing and recording your personality and coping style and may very well mimic some of those things themselves as adults.

Finally, and following from the first two, is the importance of learning to communicate effectively and empathically with children. Again, if you’re doing the first two right, you’ve got this one down already.

Briefly, ask yourself these questions:

Do I Listen first, or do I comment first?

Do I Validate the child’s feelings or do I tell them how to feel?

Do I Ask some open-ended, exploratory questions in order to learn more about what the child is experiencing or trying to say?

Do I immediately take control or try to “fix” the situation, or do I hear the child out, converse with them, and help them come to a place of personal and emotional truth under their own power first?

Remember, part of your job with children is teaching and modeling for them how to have conversations. How many people in your life are good at this? How many simply do one of the above three things when you’re trying to tell them something (i.e. they immediately comment, try to fix, or tell you what to think and feel)? How do you feel around these two different types of people—both about them and about yourself when you’re around them?

Imagine being a child faced with an adult authority figure who always comments before Listening, who immediately tries to fix, and who constantly tells you what to think and feel? Think about what this would do to your outlook on the adult in terms of trust and respect, and what it would ultimately do to your self-esteem.

Remember, being a leader of children is the same as being an emotionally competent adult. It means keeping the different roles clear in your head and not usurping the child’s position of priority as though you were the child and they the adult. It means working on the way you deal with and behave around difficult and challenging situations in life so that you can model for them a healthy, competent way to live. And, finally, it means communicating with them using an exploratory, validating mindset rather than a commenting and controlling one.

But most of all, if you’ve chosen to take on the role of authority figure in a child’s life, whether as a parent, a teacher, or a coach, recognize that you are in debt to that child. Our culture often gets this one backwards, approaching children with the wrong (and ultimately harmful) mindset that they owe US.

In reality, we owe them, because we are the ones who wanted and who ultimately chose the role of parent, teacher, or coach. And, chances are, we are benefitting from these roles, whether financially, pride-wise, or whatever else.

In life, there aren’t many people that we fundamentally owe from the get-go; children, we owe.

So try to keep that debt clear in your heart, and your role as adult leader clear in your mind, so that you can be a tremendous force for good in their lives and for our future.

Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.



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