Children who have a high level of emotional intelligence can better manage their feelings and cope with distress. They are more resilient when faced with adverse life circumstances. And they are more confident, have higher quality and more mutually beneficial relationships, and increase general well-being.
When a child’s emotional intelligence is nurtured, there are also benefits for parents. Their children are better able to express themselves and their needs. Subsequently, they are better able to regulate and self-soothe. This means fewer tantrums!
Of course, with all of these benefits, parents should want to raise an emotionally intelligent child. But how do we go about doing that? Here are some ways to develop the emotional intelligence of a child:
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
Allow them to feel all the feels.
Every emotion has a purpose. When we avoid or prefer nice/positive emotions over challenging or unpleasant emotions, we devalue our needs and experiences. As a parent, you don’t want your child to feel sad or be upset. But we need to help them understand that feelings are normal, valid, and acceptable. Avoidance of feelings can also lead to negative outcomes, like using other (less adaptive) ways of coping with distress, feeling emotionally numb, or overly reactive.
Help your child understand that negative emotions serve as opportunities to get their needs met. But they also give you (as a parent) the chance to create a strong emotional bond. When we name and identify their needs, we demonstrate we understand and truly “see” our children. Once they know the purpose of the emotion (i.e., what need is being unfulfilled), we can support them to get the need met and reduce the emotion’s intensity.
Raising an emotionally intelligent child starts with being an emotionally intelligent adult. Before parents can support their children to manage their feelings, they need to understand and be aware of their own emotions and reactions to things. As you go through your day, narrate your internal experience. And when you identify feelings your child is experiencing, name those too.
It’s also helpful to model coping in response to big or uncomfortable feelings. For example, “I’m feeling so sad right now because someone said something mean to me. It’s okay to feel sad, but I’m also going to put on my favorite music that helps me feel happy.” Or, “I can see you are mad that your sister took your toy without asking. It’s normal to feel frustrated, I understand.” It is important to ensure you don’t rush the feeling (see the previous point). But it is equally important to support coping and the understanding that feelings aren’t permanent or anything to be scared of.
When children don’t understand what is happening in their body (the physical sensation of an emotion), it can be pretty scary for them. They can feel out of control. When we give the feeling a name and help give them context as to why the emotion has occurred, they are less likely to become overwhelmed or distressed (cue fewer tantrums!).
Develop problem-solving skills.
It’s a balancing act to help your child learn to accept a feeling and intercept with coping to help them counteract or support themselves when distressed. The aim of coping is not to remove the emotion or avoid it. Rather, it is to balance the feeling out with something else or to reduce the intensity. Ensure that your child is owning the discussion when you talk about coping. Not all coping strategies work for every person. They need to have some say or learn how to connect with their needs to support themselves to manage dysregulation.
So, spend some time with your child to find out: do they need space and quiet to deal with feelings? Do they want cuddles and close contact? Or do they need to expend some energy? Their coping strategies might also differ between different emotions or at different times. You can create a picture together with images of coping strategies. Or make a list of things (depending on their developmental stage/ability) and have it somewhere visible for them. That way, in a moment of intense emotion, you can point out the sheet and access their coping strategies in real-time. This is helpful in moments of distress as they are unlikely to have a rational conversation with you about what they need.
If your child is part of the problem solving, they will feel more efficacious (self-belief in their ability to meet goals or achieve something), resilient, resourceful, and responsible. All of these things also help them feel more in charge and in control of their world. This, in turn, reduces distress and a sense of being overwhelmed.
Accept the feeling, but not the behavior.
It’s important that even if you are empathic and understand why a particular behavior has occurred (i.e., breaking a toy because they are mad) doesn’t mean you have to accept or allow it. It’s important that you still have limits and firm, consistent boundaries. If you don’t have clear boundaries or rules, it can actually exacerbate your child’s distress. They like predictability; it helps keep them safe. When they feel safe, they feel calm and contained.
Let them know you accept the feeling but support them to understand what a preferred behavior might look like so they have a strategy for next time. For instance, “I can see you are so mad you broke your toy. It’s not okay to break the toy, but I can tell you needed to use your energy and body to get the feelings out. Do you think we could squeeze some playdough to rip up some paper together instead?”
Supporting an emotionally intelligent child includes plenty of playtime! Children learn to express themselves primarily through play, in particular free play. When children have big, uncomfortable things happening in their world, they (if given the opportunity) will play out the scenario. This helps them to process what is going on, which helps them make sense of things. They also practice new skills, including responding to or coping with emotions.
You might see your child drawn to their dolls or action figures and playing out schoolyard social dynamics or playing out arguments they have seen. You might see them putting on their dress-ups and playing an empathic role (doctor, nurse, vet, etc.) to enact self-soothing or practice protective, caring behaviors. Or you might not even see a direct pattern or correlation in the play, but trust that play is your child’s primary communication tool, and it serves a purpose.
Free play also has no pressure or outcome, so they can practice new skills without feeling self-conscious. They also develop empathy when they play characters or different roles. They practice the skills of “stepping into another person’s shoes” and considering another person’s needs, thoughts, and/or feelings.
Having high emotional intelligence won’t fix every issue your child will face. But ongoing support for your child emotionally will help build a stronger parent-child relationship. And it will set them up with a multitude of skills that will benefit them for their entire life.