Emotionally intelligent children not only recognize and manage their own feelings, they are also able to understand emotional states of others.
Emotional intelligence is also important for healthy development, especially in the early years.
“In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and abilities to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships.” –John Gottman, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
When children are able to recognize their own emotions, they are also more likely to be able to express what they need in order to keep their cool. For parents this is good news because it not only promotes healthy development it also means less tantrums, less power struggles and less whining.
Here are some examples of emotional intelligence in young children:
- Being able to identify and talk about one’s own feelings
- “I so happy!”
- “I am MAD at you!”
- “I’m sad.”
- Understanding that feelings direct thoughts and behaviors:
- “When I’m sad, I cry”
- “When I’m happy I laugh”
- “When I’m angry I sometimes want to hit”
- Working on the ability to control or redirect feelings (this takes time and practice):
- “When I’m angry I may want to hit, BUT hitting is not ok so I will stomp my feet and say I am angry instead”
- “I am frustrated right now and I am going to go calm down so I don’t spit at you”
- Learning how to get along with friends
- “I feel happy to play with Johnny.”
- “I feel upset when I am made to share with Johnny. I will say I am not ready and offer him something else”
How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child
To raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child, provide your child ample opportunity to:
- authentically feel a range of feelings
- have a chance to reflect on their feelings and decisions
- problem solve as they grow and learn
- observe others experiencing a range of emotions and feelings
- interact in different social situations
- experience negative feelings without being offered a quick fix (no bribes to make crying stop for example)
While children are able to feel their feelings authentically, to adapt to social expectations and grow well adjusted, children do rely on us parents for guidance, both to learn and to regulate emotions and feelings.
So, What are some ways parents can help children understand and manage feelings and emotions?
Talk & listen: Discuss feelings and emotions as they arise, not to lecture but to give your child important information about connecting how they feel to how they are reacting and also what they are observing in others. Using Time In instead of Time Out can help this process as well.
Research on emotional intelligence shows that there is a really healthy link between having emotions, feeling emotions, and cognitively identifying emotions.
For example, If a child can say they are mad (name their feelings), they are less likely to spiral into a tantrum. Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline, summarizes this ability as “name it to tame it”.
Respect & Don’t minimize: Everyone’s feelings and reactions are different and valid. Avoid telling your child how they should feel.
For example, if your child complains they are scared, reflect that back to them “You feel scared” or “You are scared right now?” While well meaning, it is not helpful to tell a child “this isn’t scary, don’t be afraid.”
If we tell children how to feel and that differs from what they are actually feeling, they will begin to feel confused about their own feelings.
Books: Read books that have rich story lines and characters that experience a range of emotions, from difficulties to triumphs. Talk about the stories and how the characters were feeling, thinking and deciding. Some books my kids and I love that have a range of emotions and feelings:
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
by Mo Williams
Marvin Gets MAD! (Bloomsbury Paperbacks) by Joseph Theobald
Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler
Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy
by Jackie Davis and David Soman
Play: Play is such a natural way for children to experience and explore a range of emotions and there are games that you can create to specifically talk about feelings too. A simple way to do this is to use dolls, stuffed animals or puppets to act out some scenarios your child can relate and to. These playful moments are a great way to model positive emotional regulation.
Here is one game I played often when my children were younger:
Bumping, Bumbling, Happy Bears
Two bears run around happily singing then one gets a bit louder and bumps into the other. The bear that bumped can say “Oh Bear, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you? May I give you a hug?” then he hurt bear may cry a bit and say “When you bumped me I felt startled. It hurt me. Can we sing and dance but watch out for each other?” Then the bears can dance around and play. Repeat the story and invite your child to be one of the bears, or both the bears.
Discipline without Shame: Don’t spank, isolate or shame your child as a means to teach them better behavior or how to control their emotions. Such an approach to discipline will not help your child learn how to really address, recognize and better manage their emotions. It is also modeling an “out of control” manner of dealing with frustration and anger.
Emotion Coaching and Empathy: When children become frustrated, anxious, angry or sad, especially in public places, more than anything they need empathy and reassurance that you love them. Compassion and empathy even during meltdowns and anger tend to support children so they may move through their feelings and restore back to a state of wellness and balance. This also models to children how to deal with strong emotions.
Peace & Be Well,