Teaching children how to become emotionally intelligent (EI) is a win-win for both parents and kids. Developing emotional intelligence within a child at a young age teaches the child how to recognize the emotions they’re feeling and choose appropriate reactions. While teaching and practicing EI with children is not a magic wand to parenting, it can help produce better outcomes when emotions are running high.
Below are 5 steps to begin building EI in kids.
Step #1: Recognize emotions.
No matter the age, recognizing emotions seems to be the most difficult piece of emotional intelligence. As a parent, you can expect to spend the most time during step 1. Recognizing the emotion that is triggering a behavior or feeling takes intention and practice. One reason it can be so difficult to recognize the emotion is because our behaviors do not always correlate with the feeling. Emotions precede behavior, so notice the emotions your child is exhibiting prior to the behavior.
For example, your 4-year-old is screaming because she doesn’t want to go to school. Instead of assuming that she is just “acting out”, or “not listening”, try to stop yourself and think, there is an emotion behind this outburst. Is she tired, scared, hungry, confused, worried, or disappointed? Nothing needs labeled or fixed yet. Simply be aware that a wide range of emotions can be the cause of the reaction.
Step #2: Model emotions.
It is important to show your emotions, even anger, in front of your children. Modeling different emotions shows children that it is healthy to have feelings. While it might feel natural to want to hide your feelings from your children, it can do more damage than good. Appropriately modeling emotions with correlating appropriate reactions teaches children how to deal with their feelings.
EI In Practice:
Driving in rush hour traffic can get the best of any parent. Instead of saying things your kids should not repeat, try modeling your emotions by saying “I am upset that they cut me off!” followed by your continued safe driving and calm behavior.
Step #3: Connect first, then correct.
Emotional “outbursts” rarely come at an ideal time. Taking time for a teachable moment in the middle of the grocery store while everyone is staring seems less than ideal. However, it is the in-the-moment opportunities where the real magic happens. As tempting as it may be to tell a child not to be upset, take a pause. Listen to what your child is saying, observe their behavior, and validate their feelings. Understanding must precede any advice or direction that comes next. It is important to a child’s development to accept all feelings. However, accepting all feelings does not necessarily mean accepting all behaviors. Help your child recognize emotions. Empathize. Prompt them to talk but do not interrogate. Addressing the emotion as the child is experiencing the feeling allows you to help them accurately label the emotion. Which takes us to step #4.
EI In Practice:
Successfully navigating a grocery store meltdown is no small task. During the next cookies and crackers aisle showdown, try seizing the moment. Try, “You’re allowed to be frustrated, but its not ok to behave like this.” (I accept the feeling, but not the behavior) Or, “I know you’re disappointed that you cannot have more cookies, but we already have some at home.”
Step #4: Label Emotions.
Depending on the age of the child, finding the words to describe how they’re feeling might be difficult. Sometimes new emotions can even feel scary to a child when they cannot seem to explain what they feel. After you’ve listened to your child and provided them space to talk, try to help them label their emotions. Labeling emotions is a powerful parenting tool and has been proven to soothe emotions. By validating their feelings and labeling their emotions they will feel relieved that you understand. They may still be unhappy with the outcome but they will be understood, and that is the key.
EI In Practice:
Instead of saying, “Stop whining that your brother got candy at school,” try “I know you are upset because your brother got candy and you didn’t.”
Step #5: Set limits and problem solve.
Finally, set the limits. Once your child can confidently recognize and label their emotions, you can be firm with the rules. Teach your child that feelings are accepted but poor behavior is not. Help them understand when a behavior is inappropriate and that it will not be tolerated. Problem solving is the final piece. Ask your child to think of other ways they could react in the future. Obtaining your child’s input in developing the solution is the best way to ensure a better outcome in the future.
EI In Practice:
Let’s put it all together with the classic playroom knockout example. Big brother has just spent 30 minutes creating his latest Lego village only to be destroyed by his tornado of a little sister resulting in shoving match. Cue parent: “I’m sorry your village was destroyed. I know you’re mad that your sister knocked over your Legos but it’s not okay to shove. Instead of shoving your sister, what could you do next time you are mad?”
Developing strong emotional intelligence in your child or yourself takes practice. It takes a commitment to self-reflection and to redirecting innate impulse reactions. But like most things, the more you practice the easier it becomes. Before you know it, your child will be modeling behaviors for you to follow instead!