5 Steps To Nurture Emotional Intelligence in Your Child

So you want to raise an emotionally intelligent child and and you're wondering where to begin? Start with these five steps.

1. Acknowledge your child’s perspective and empathize.

Even if you can't "do anything" about your child's upsets, empathize. Just being understood helps humans let go of troubling emotions. If your child's upset seems out of proportion to the situation, remember that we all store up emotions and then let ourselves experience them once we find a safe haven. Then we're free to move on.

Empathizing doesn’t mean you agree, just that you see it from his side, too. He may have to do what you say, but he’s entitled to his own perspective. We all know how good it feels to have our position acknowledged; somehow it just makes it easier when we don’t get our way.

 

“It’s hard for you to stop playing and come to dinner, but it’s time now.”

“You wish you could have me all to yourself, don’t you?”

“You’re so disappointed that it’s raining.”

“You want to stay up later like the big kids, I know.”

“You’re mad your tower fell!”

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Feeling understood triggers soothing biochemicals; that neural pathway you’re strengthening each time he feels soothed is what he’ll use to soothe himself as he gets older.
  • Children develop empathy by experiencing it from others.
  • You’re helping your child reflect on his experience and what triggers his feelings. For little ones, just knowing there’s a name for their feeling is an early tool in learning to manage the emotions that flood them.

2. Allow expression

Little ones can't differentiate between their emotions and their "selves." Accept your child’s emotions, rather than denying or minimizing them, which gives children the message that some feelings are shameful or unacceptable.

Disapproving of her fear or anger won't stop her from having those feelings, but it may well force her to repress them. Unfortunately, repressed feelings don't fade away, as feelings do that have been freely expressed. They’re trapped and looking for a way out. Because they aren’t under conscious control, they pop out unmodulated, when a child socks her sister, has nightmares, or develops a nervous tic.

Instead, teach that the full range of feelings is understandable and part of being human, even while some actions must be limited.

 

“You're so mad your brother broke your toy! I understand, AND it's never okay to hit, even when you're very mad. Tell your brother in words how you feel.

“You seem worried about the field trip today. I used to get nervous on field trips too, in kindergarten. Want to tell me about it?”

"You're so frustrated! Nothing seems to be going right for you this morning...I wonder if you just need to cry? Everybody needs to cry sometimes. Come snuggle with Daddy and you can cry as much as you want."

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Your acceptance helps your child accept her own emotions, which is what allows us to resolve our feelings and move on, so she is better able to regulate her own emotions.
  • Your acceptance teaches your child that her emotional life is not dangerous, is not shameful, and in fact is universal and manageable. She learns that she is not alone. She learns that even the less pleasant parts of herself are acceptable, which means that she is wholly ok, just the way she is.

3. Listen to your child’s feelings.

Often, your child just needs a chance to feel heard while she expresses her feelings. Whether your child is 6 months or sixteen, she needs you to listen to the feelings she’s expressing. Once she feels and expresses them, she’ll let them go and get on with her life. In fact, you’ll be amazed at how affectionate and cooperative she’ll be once she has a chance to show you how she feels. But to feel safe letting those feelings up and out, she needs to know you’re fully present and listening. Assured that it’s safe, children have an amazing ability to let their feelings wash over and out, leaving them relaxed and cooperative. Your job? Breathe through it, stay present, and resist the urge to make those troublesome feelings go away. Your child instinctively knows how to heal herself.

 

“You seem so unhappy right now. Everybody gets upset sometimes... I’m right here. Tell me about it.”

“You are so sad and mad you just want to scream and yell and cry. Everybody feels that way sometimes. I’m right here listening and see all those big feelings. You can show me how mad and sad you are.

“You are so mad you’re yelling at me to go away. I’ll move back a little. But these feelings hurt and scare you, and I won’t leave you alone with these upsetting feelings. I’m right here and you’re safe. You can be as sad and mad as you want, and when you’re ready, I am right here to hug you.”

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

The nature of healthy human emotions is to move through us, swamp us, and then pass away. When we fend them off or repress them, emotions get stuck inside us rather than finding healthy expression. But children are terrified of their strong emotions overwhelming them, so they try to fend them off until they feel safe enough to experience them. Because emotions are stored in the body, tantrums are nature’s way to help young children vent. When we help our children feel safe enough to feel and express their emotions, we not only heal their psyches and bodies; we help them trust their own emotional process so that they can handle their own emotions as they get older, without tantrums or repression.

4. Teach problem solving

Emotions are messages, not mud for wallowing. Teach your child to breathe through them, feel them, tolerate them without needing to act on them, and, once they aren’t in the grip of strong emotion, to problem-solve and act if necessary.

Most of the time, once kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. This leaves an opening for problem solving. Sometimes, kids can do this themselves. Sometimes, they need your help to brainstorm. But resist the urge to rush in and handle the problem for them unless they ask you to; that gives him the message that you don't have confidence in his ability to handle it himself.

 

“You’re so disappointed that Molly can’t come over because she’s sick. You were really looking forward to playing with her. When you’re ready, maybe we can brainstorm ideas of something else to do that sounds like fun.”

“You’re pretty frustrated with Sam not giving you a turn. Sometimes you feel like not playing with him anymore. But you also really like playing with him. I wonder what you could say to Sam, so that he could hear how you feel?”

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Kids need to express their feelings, but they also need to know how to shift gears to find constructive solutions to problems. That takes practice and modeling on our part.
  • Research shows that simply empathizing with our kids is insufficient to teach them to manage their feelings, because they still feel at the mercy of their emotions. Teaching kids to honor their feelings as signals about things they need to handle differently in their lives empowers kids.
  • All children need coaching to learn to express their needs without attacking the other person.

5. Play it out

When you notice a negative pattern developing, recognize that your child has some big feelings she doesn’t know how to handle, and step in with the best medicine: Play. For instance:

For instance, maybe your four year old always wants Mommy. Instead of taking it personally, help him work through his feelings about how much he prefers Mom by playing a game where poor bumbling Dad "tries" unsuccessfully to keep him away from her. Dad gets between Mom and son, and roars “I won’t let you get to Mom….Hey, you just ran right around me!...You pushed me right over!...You are too strong!....But this time you won’t get past me!”

Your four year old will giggle and boast and get a chance to prove he can ALWAYS have his mom. He'll also discharge all those pent up worries that make him demand her.

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

All children experience big feelings on a daily basis. They often feel powerless and pushed around, angry, sad, frightened, or jealous. Emotionally healthy kids process these feelings with play, which is how little ones of all species learn. Helping your child “play” out his big inner conflicts lets him resolve them so he can move on to the next age-appropriate developmental challenge.

Your child can’t put his deeper emotional conflicts into words; that’s tough even for most adults. But he can play them out symbolically and resolve them without even needing to talk about them.

Laughter releases stress hormones just as well as tears -- and is a lot more fun.

Want More?

Teaching Emotional Intelligence When Emotions Run High
Helping Your Child with Anger
Books to Help Your Child Develop Emotional Intelligence

Photo: Thank you Crushed Red Pepper!

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

AHA! NEWSLETTER

"Dr.Laura's daily emails are the perfect way to start the day with love and compassion"
-Misti

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings

CONNECT WITH DR.LAURA ON...

DOES THIS KIND OF PARENTING WORK?

My daughter reacts so much better when I empathize and stay patient. And now I get to model that behavior instead of letting my frustration get the better of me.

WHAT I'M READING

Reviews of the best parenting books l've found over the years