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Emotional Intelligence

The Multigenerational Impact of Emotional Intelligence

The pioneer who prioritizes psychological health creates lasting positive change.

Key points

  • Until physical safety is present, it may be difficult to prioritize emotional health.
  • It takes courage to be the first in one's family to invest in psychological understanding.
  • When one person prioritizes emotional development, their whole family will benefit.
iStock/michel tripepi
Source: iStock/michel tripepi

My father grew up as the youngest of six within the only Jewish family in Eureka, South Dakota, population 1,500. He was a first-generation immigrant; his father had escaped Russia in 1906, traveling to the United States by ship, steerage class, after his two brothers were murdered because of their Jewish faith.

Like many immigrant families, starting anew in a new country with a new language and new customs, the focus was on survival. Physical stability was prioritized. The family invested all their energy into securing the family business (the Bender General Store), investing in a home, having enough food, and protecting one another.

While they clearly cared about one another, there was no time or energy to consider emotional needs. My grandparents didn’t ask my father about his classes at school, his basketball games, or his feelings. If my father cried as a child, my grandfather called him a “knish” (a classic Jewish savory pastry with a soft filling); it wasn’t a compliment. My great-grandmother’s advice when faced with a dilemma: “If you have a problem, tell it to a stone.”

Each generation has an opportunity to build upon the gifts of the one prior. My grandparents provided the priceless gift of safety. But during young adulthood, my father felt a longing inside, a small but growing want for a greater understanding of the human condition. Given his family of origin and lived experience, this wish was courageous and revolutionary — that feelings could matter and deserved time, attention, and compassion.

Following his interest in physiology, my father became a physician. While working in the public health service, he came across Lewis R. Wolberg's book, The Technique of Psychotherapy, which outlines the power of talking therapy to relieve emotional distress. It was an epiphany. Here, here it was. This was the world he had been searching for but wasn’t sure existed — a world that described and appreciated the multifaceted complexity of a person, a world that prioritized emotional awareness and responsiveness. He decided to become a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst and practiced for 58 years, loving his work and the meaning and purpose it provided him.

My childhood couldn’t have been more different than his. My father regularly asked about my thoughts, my interests, and my feelings — a stark contrast to his childhood experience. I internalized the message that what I felt and what I thought were significant and important.

As a parent, my father prioritized the importance of feelings. When I was upset and crying, I was not labeled a “cry baby,” “waterworks,” or a “knish”. Instead, my father would sit next to me with a compassionate look: Suz, you are just like me when I was a kid, you are a Tender Bender, he would say. The label created a compassionate construct; tears weren’t shameful. My strong emotions meant I was like my adored father, who always had the words to comfort me when I felt overwhelmed. I can only imagine how my identity formation would have been different if he had chosen less sensitive and more disparaging words to describe my difficult moments. The term “Tender Bender” is now familiar to all of his grandchildren, and they even use it to tune in to friends in distress (“In my family, we call this a Tender Bender moment” ) My father’s personal investment in emotional intelligence was akin to throwing a stone in a pond, with positive reverberations within his work and his family, across generations.

When I was a child, my father’s emotional skill set seemed almost magical. Even as an ongoing recipient of his empathic listening, it wasn’t an intuitive process for me to emulate him. My “Wolberg moment” occurred when I was introduced to the wonderful parent guidance book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, during my child psychiatry training. It provided the map I needed — clear guidance on how to listen in the way my father managed so effortlessly.

The first chapter “Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings”, explains the power of tuning in and acknowledging a child’s emotions. Let’s say a child comes home upset about an interaction with a friend. It is so easy to minimize the experience, “It will be okay; this too shall pass”, or provide advice, “Have you tried exercising when you feel mad?” While well-intentioned, these reactions are generally less helpful than listening carefully, and naming the feeling: “It makes sense you feel disappointed when Clara didn’t want to come over to play today.” This is the calming validating approach my father used. As I teach child psychiatry trainees, I emphasize that this chapter is a must-read. Engaged empathic listening is the seed of everything we do in mental health.

In my psychiatric practice, I am privileged to work with patients with many different backgrounds who have ties all around the world. Often, my patient is the first in their family with the time and energy to invest in emotional health, a story not unlike my father’s. We talk about their parenting struggles and they may say “I don’t know how to respond to my child, but I want to be different than my parents.” I recognize the courage of this moment. It may feel anxiety-provoking to talk openly and honestly about emotional vulnerability, especially if one is the first in the family to do so. Like my father, they are searching for a new way of interacting and understanding others. And when one person’s psychological understanding increases, the whole family benefits. As my patient and I work together, I share, “It’s important to recognize you are a pioneer. You are trail-blazing as you learn more about yourself and how to parent in a psychologically attuned manner. Your investment will not only positively affect your family, but also the generations to come.”

In loving memory and in honor of Dr. David Bender MD 1931-2024.


Bender, RE & Bender KM (2019). Still. Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University Press.

Wolberg, LR. (1954). The Technique of Psychotherapy. New York, NY. Grune and Stratton.

Faber A. & Mazlish E. (2012). How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk. New York. NY. Scribner.

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