Emotionally intelligent children are better adjusted, more resilient in the face of stressors, and have greater empathy. We want these things for our children, which is why it is important to focus on parenting to develop emotional intelligence. We can cultivate emotional intelligence in our children by frequently talking about emotions and naming complex emotions. Bonus: talking frequently about feelings with our children creates a stronger relationship bond between you.
The first place that children learn about emotions is from their parents and caregivers. The process of teaching emotional intelligence begins incredibly early; In the first few months of life, children can recognize basic emotions in faces, such as happiness and anger.
But it’s never too late to increase your child’s emotional intelligence.
First, talk about your emotions. Talking about your own emotions to your child is called emotional modeling. If you aren’t the type of person who usually talks about emotions, this can feel like having a stream of consciousness conversation at first. You’ll get used to it. Say things like, “I feel so happy right now because it is sunny.” Or, “I am really frustrated right now that you aren’t putting your shoes on.” The goal is to name your emotions frequently throughout the day – both positive and negative – and tie those emotions to something. When you do this, you are teaching your child that emotions are related to events and experiences. You are also normalizing talking about emotions. Celebrating your own emotional highs and lows makes it much more likely that your child will feel comfortable sharing their own emotions with you. This is invaluable – especially when they begin dating.
Second, talk about your child’s emotions. In addition to talking about your own emotions, ask your child frequently how they are feeling. This can happen in two ways. You can simply ask your child how they are feeling. Or you can label your child’s emotions for them. For example, you may say, “Wow! You seem happy! What is making you feel like that?” or “You are upset that we are leaving the Zoo. I can tell because you are rolling around on the floor of the penguin cove.” This helps children label their emotional state and develop the vocabulary to describe their emotions. It also helps your child begin to evaluate why they are feeling a certain way.
Third, try to assess other people’s emotional states. An easy way to teach emotional intelligence is to talk about other people or character’s emotions with your child. When reading stories, talk about how each character feels. In a movie, you may pause it and talk about the feelings involved. By encouraging your child to take the emotional perspective of others, you are developing empathy. You can also encourage your child to guess at your emotions. I like to give my children developmental-psychologist pop quizzes in emotion. When experiencing an emotion, I sometimes say to my children, “Look at my face. How do you think I feel?” Take for instance the kitchen dog washing incident of 2020. When prompted, my children correctly identified anger over annoyance or rage.
Finally, be nuanced in your discussion of emotions. Talk about emotions in a complex way. We are not simply happy, sad, or angry. We can be elated, euphoric, excited, depressed, heartbroken, rageful, disgusted – there is a wide range of emotions that are more nuanced than simply happy or sad. By using nuanced, colorful descriptions of emotions you are increasing your child’s emotional IQ.
These strategies for developing emotional intelligence in your child should be started in the first year of life and continued into adolescence. But it is never too late to start having these conversations or for increasing your attentiveness to emotions. By developing your child’s emotional intelligence, you’ll have an easier time having difficult conversations with them, when those topics arise. Plus, your child will be better equipped to name and manage their own emotional states.
I am an award-winning scientist, educator, author, and a mom. I help parents accomplish their goals for themselves and their families.
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