Emotional Understanding and Healthy Development
Emotional intelligence, or understanding and managing one’s feelings wisely, is really important for healthy development. Children can really flourish when they are able to recognize, reason, understand and manage emotions.
What are some examples of emotional intelligence in young children?
- Being able to identify and talk about one’s own feelings and feelings of others, such as happy, sad, anxious and angry.
- Understanding that feelings direct thoughts and behaviors: “When I’m sad, I might also cry” “When I’m happy I may laugh” “When I’m angry I may want to hit”
- Working on the ability to control or redirect feelings, for example “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” (this takes time and practice!)
- Learning how to get along with peers and others. “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”
The process of understanding and managing feelings and emotions usually happens quite naturally when children are given 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. Research shows us that there is a really healthy link between having emotions, feeling emotions, and cognitively identifying emotions. Dr. Dan Siegel explained it along the lines of “if you can name it you can tame it”.
Respect & Don’t minimize: Don’t squash children’s feelings and avoid telling them how they should feel. It’s not helpful to tell a child “this isn’t scary, don’t be afraid” and “this is nothing, don’t be sad” for example. Everyone’s feelings and reactions are different and valid. 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 and stop trusting their internal cues.
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! by Joseph Theobald
Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler
Lady Bug Girl and Bumble Bee 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. One game we like to play:
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 and see how the story develops!
Sing! Songs that talk about feelings and emotions like “If you are happy and you know it”. You can sing the same song for a wide range of different emotions such as “Sad and you know it, make a frown” and “Scared and you know it, hide your eyes” and “Mad and you know it, take a breath.” Many songs talk about feelings and young children tend to love musical activities!
Empathize & Support: It’s wonderful when children are happy, excited and generally feeling well. It can be, on the other hand very challenging when children become frustrated, anxious, angry or sad, especially in public places. Remember that 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. Here you can read more about supporting children during a tantrum with kindness.
Peace & Be Well,
For more wonderful reading please check out these resources:
Dr. Laura Markham of Aha!Parenting offers wonderful insight here on raising emotionally intelligent children
Eric Dawson has more wonderful play based activity ideas for Helping Your Child Understand Emotions
Janet Landsbury shares helpful information in No Angry Kids – Fostering Emotional Literacy In Our Children.