My eyes welled up with tears as I watched the images flash across the screen of my laptop. It was a video of my husband’s parents, both of whom passed away recently, laughing and joking around with family at my Father-in-law’s 80th Birthday celebration.
As I was caught up in the memory and flooded with a fresh wave of grief, I felt a little hand gently rest on my arm. I looked down to see my newly turned 2 year old daughter, Elle, with a concerned look on her face. She stared deeply into my eyes and said, “Mom, you okay? You sad? Need a hug?”
I scooped her up into my arms and held her tight, thankful for keen emotional awareness and the way her gentle care ministered to my soul.
“Yes,” I said, “I just miss Papaw Joe & Mamaw Joe. Thank you for hugging me. That helps my heart feel better.”
She smiled back at me and wrapped her arms around me again, letting me know that not only did she notice my feelings, but she cared about them too.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is a powerful tool not just for relationships, but in overall life success as well. Although IQ (intelligence quotient) has been a huge focus for predicting success for decades, research actually suggests that emotional intelligence is a significantly better predictor of longterm success than IQ. This includes better physical health, more wealth, likelihood of career success, and fewer destructive behaviors like crime and addiction.
Emotional intelligence involves the ability to recognize and correctly identify emotions, practicing empathy, as well as exercising self-control and healthy emotion regulation.
Why is Emotional Intelligence Important?
As a counselor, I have witnessed firsthand the value of emotional intelligence in both children and adults alike. One of the most difficult things for many of the people I have worked with, is being able to identify, validate and respond to emotions, both their own and those of other people. This barrier creates issues in their relationships, their jobs, their personal journeys of healing, and even their physical health.
Teaching emotional intelligence to children (yes, it is a learned trait), is actually fairly simple. One of the best ways to do it is called emotion coaching. Simply put, it involves using common, everyday moments to teach or “coach” your child in identifying emotions, their triggers, and how to respond in a healthy fashion.
5 Simple Ways to Teach Emotional Intelligence to Kids
1. Practice Feelings Faces
This is a fun game for toddlers & preschoolers that boosts their ability to recognize emotions and fosters emotional intelligence.
How to Play: Name a feeling and have your child do the face that matches that feeling. Make sure YOU do the appropriate face as well so your child can both see and feel what that face looks like. Check out the suggestions below according to age:
Age 1: Happy & Sad
Age 2: Happy, Sad, Mad, Scared, Surprised
Age 3: Happy, Sad, Mad, Scared, Surprised, Confused, Frustrated, Excited
Age 4+: Find a good emotion chart (search for a free one online) and pick as many as you want!
*Be careful not to add too many new ones at once, as this may confuse your child. Add one or two new ones at a time and wait until your child masters them before moving on. This is not about memorization. Focus on progress over perfection.
2. Name & Respond to Your Child’s Emotions
One of the MOST IMPORTANT ways to help your child develop emotional intelligence is simply to recognize and validate their feelings. The earlier you start this, the better. Even as babies, you can begin to identify and speak out loud what they are feeling.
Just make sure you meet their need and soothe them immediately. This is also an important part of their learning process.
Babies are not born with the ability to self-soothe. This is a skill they learn directly from caregivers who soothe them. The more you respond to your child’s needs in a timely fashion and with gentle soothing, the better they will become at soothing themselves and regulating their own emotions as they grow older.
A common misconception is that the best way to teach children to self-soothe (such as when falling asleep) is to leave them to do it on their own. On the contrary, just because a child stops crying or goes to sleep does not mean that they self-soothed. What they learned, instead, is that their need or emotion did not matter and their caregiver did not come when they needed help.
The best way to teach a child to self-soothe is to invite them into your peace. As you step in to gently hold, rock, shush and speak softly to your child when he or she is upset, you are teaching them that their feelings DO matter and how to soothe themselves.
Even as young as infancy, you can start teaching them about emotions.
Example: “Are you feeling sad? Mommy’s right here to snuggle you.”
OR “You look happy! Daddy’s happy too! I love to play with you!”
3. Recognize Characters’ Feelings in Books
One of my favorite ways to teach emotional intelligence is through stories! As you read books to your child, ask them how a certain character is feeling. If they don’t know or guess incorrectly, simply share the correct emotion and move on. It may go something like this…
Example: “Oh! Look at Sally’s face. She must be feeling ___________.” If your child guesses happy when it should be sad, simply say, “A happy face looks like this [model a happy face for your child], I think Sally is feeling sad right now [model a sad face].”
Use the above age guide to know what feelings to focus on. For babies and toddlers not yet able to speak or identify, go ahead and just tell them the answer instead of asking.
First Example: (Reading to your 1 year old) “Oh look! Sally is feeling sad. She is sad because it’s raining and she can’t play outside.”
Second Example: (Reading to your 2 year old), “Look at Sally’s face (point to Sally). She must be feeling __________. She is sad because it’s raining and she can’t play outside.”
Third Example: (Reading to your 3 or 4 year old), “Oh look! Sally is feeling _____________. Why do you think she is sad?”
Every child is different and will learn at different rates. If your child is having a hard time understanding certain emotions, just go back to a previous level and work there until they are strong in recognizing those emotions, then you can move on. The most important thing is that you are helping them to identify and name emotions. If they get it wrong, correct them in a gentle way. This is not about memorizing, it’s a deeper form of recognition.
You can respond with, “Hmm, maybe. But a ______ face usually looks like this [model the face they guessed]. It looks to me like Sally is feeling __________ [model the face Sally is doing.]
4. Validate & Name Other People’s Emotions
Another great way to increase your child’s emotional intelligence is recognizing other people’s emotions. This not only builds emotional awareness in your child, but fosters empathy as well.
Example: When you’re at the grocery store and you hear a baby crying, stop and identify what’s happening. “Do you hear that baby crying? It sounds like she is sad. Maybe she wants her Mommy to hold her.” [Be careful to do this out of ear shot of the actual person to avoid awkward situations.]
5. Name Your Own Emotions
You are your child’s #1 teacher. So be sure to name your own emotions for your child as well.
Whether you’re feeling happy or excited about something or feeling angry or frustrated, use this as an opportunity to help your child understand and identify emotions.
It also helps if you tell them WHY you are experiencing that emotion, so they can learn what causes various emotions. (Focus on age-appropriate emotions.)
Example: “Mom is feeling frustrated because she dropped a box of cereal all over the floor and now she has to clean it up.”
It’s important to remember that kids can misunderstand the cause of your emotion and even think they are the cause. Even if they ARE the cause of your negative emotion, it’s important to focus on WHAT happened without blaming or shaming the WHO (your child).
Example: Your child spills their orange juice at breakfast and you accidentally respond with a burst of anger.
WRONG RESPONSE: “Mom is angry at you because you spilled your juice.
RIGHT RESPONSE: “I’m sorry for yelling. Mom is feeling frustrated because there is juice all over the table and it’s pretty messy. I know you didn’t mean to spill your juice, and that’s okay. Here’s a paper towel. Why don’t we work together as a team to clean up the mess?”
What Comes Next?
Learning to recognize emotions is the FIRST step of building emotional intelligence. The next steps involve learning to recognize what triggers these emotions and learning how to respond to or regulate them.
As your child gets older and better at recognizing and identifying emotions, you can broaden these exercises by asking questions like “What caused ________(PERSON) to feel _______(EMOTION)?” and then “What’s a healthy way for ________(PERSON) to respond when she feels ________(EMOTION)?”
Taking everyday moments like these to teach your child about emotions through listening, identifying, validating and responding in healthy ways is often referred to as “emotion coaching.”
We spend a lot of time as parents focusing on our child’s IQ (academics, grades, homework). But teaching them emotional intelligence or EQ (emotional quotient) has been demonstrated to be even more important to their lifelong success and happiness!
The good news is that a little intentionality in your daily interactions with your child, using simple teaching moments like these 5, will go a long way in building emotional awareness that will benefit your child and everyone around him or her.
Note: These exercises are also very helpful for kids who are on the autism spectrum!
Like this article? You may also enjoy:
- The Heart of Positive Discipline
- 8 Reasons Discipline is Way Better than Punishment
- 5 Ways to Connect with Your Kid in 5 Minutes or Less
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