Adults know emotions are an important, though highly challenging, part of life. They can take us by surprise. They can change the course of an entire day. They can build or destroy relationships. And if not given the proper care and attention, they can lead to serious problems.
Regulating emotions can be difficult even for the most even-keeled adult. For children, it can be incredibly confusing and often counter-intuitive. Emotional intelligence (EI) is a critical skill for children to learn, but doesn’t come naturally. They must work to learn, develop, and maintain it throughout their lives.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, emotional intelligence “involves the ability to process emotional information and use it in reasoning and other cognitive activities.”
Psychologists John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey believe that this skill requires four key abilities:
- The ability “to perceive and appraise emotions accurately.”
- The ability “to access and evoke emotions when they facilitate cognition.”
- The ability “to comprehend emotional language and make use of emotional information.”
- The ability “to regulate one’s own and others’ emotions to promote growth and well-being.”
How to Gauge Emotional Intelligence in Children
Emotional intelligence will look much different in children than it will in adults. An emotionally intelligent child should be able to:
- Recognize and name emotions
- Express emotions verbally
- Listen well to others
- Perceive inciting incidents that might have led to their emotions
- Consider the feelings of others and exhibit empathy
- Self-regulate emotions
On the flip side, children who have not yet developed emotional intelligence might:
- Have difficulty identifying emotions
- Avoid talking about emotions
- Struggle with impulse control
- Display explosive or violent responses
- Struggle to understand why their reaction wasn’t appropriate
How to Nurture Emotional Intelligence in Children
Emotional intelligence is crucial to helping children function and thrive. You can help your child develop EI by integrating these creative techniques into your family culture:
1. Teach by Modeling
First and foremost, children learn through observation. This can put a lot of pressure on parents. And it’s true, it’s a weighty responsibility. However, parenting provides the perfect opportunity and reason to learn to regulate your own emotions in a healthier way. If you struggle with modeling healthy and acceptable emotional responses, consider speaking with a licensed professional who can give you the tools you need to help you and your child.
2. Label Emotions
Children should be able to recognize and differentiate the emotions they feel. One resource that some of our pre-k Atlanta private school teachers have found helpful is a mood chart. These printable charts feature simple faces or emojis labeled with the emotions they reflect. When your child struggles to verbally communicate their feelings, bring out the mood chart and have them point to the emotion or emotions they’re feeling.
3. Discuss Appropriate Reactions
Recognizing emotions is only half the battle. Emotions lead to reactions, and not all responses are appropriate. For example, a child who throws food across the table because they don’t like what is being served for dinner is responding inappropriately to their emotions of anger and disappointment. Be sure to praise your child when they respond appropriately to difficult emotions, and ask them how they could have responded better if they acted inappropriately.
Here at our Christian private school, we believe the Bible can be an excellent resource for teaching children wisdom in handling emotions and reactions. The book of Proverbs, in particular, has many practical things to say about appropriately regulating emotions.
4. Practice Active Listening
When children don’t feel that they’re being heard, it can cause their emotions to snowball. If your child tries to express their feelings, ensure they have your full and undivided attention. In the same way, children should learn to actively listen to others to understand someone else’s feelings better.
5. Allow Children to Learn through Trial and Error
As adults, we won’t always respond ideally to emotions. So, it’s understandable that children will also struggle to react appropriately to every big emotion. When an inappropriate response is given, try to show your child patience and understanding rather than blaming them. Children should never feel that their feelings are wrong. Instead, they require a safe environment where they can learn to regulate their emotions through trial and error with gentle guidance.
6. Teach Self-Regulating Techniques
Children must learn to self-soothe and self-regulate their emotions to respond appropriately. Self-regulating techniques for children could include:
- Taking three deep breaths
- Counting to ten
- Asking for some time alone to cool down
- Verbalizing their emotions
7. Tell Stories
Stories provide excellent opportunities for children to learn about emotions and responses. Give your child real-life examples of when you responded appropriately or inappropriately to a situation. Talk about the feelings you experienced and what caused you to feel that way. In addition, look for books that show characters handling emotions. After a character makes a choice, ask your child to consider if it was an appropriate or inappropriate response.
8. Encourage Pretend Play
Imaginative play allows children to react to challenging emotions and practice interpersonal skills such as communication, regulation, and empathy. This kind of play often comes naturally for children, especially as they interact with their peers. Parents can also encourage this kind of play by giving children an imaginary scenario and asking them to act out a response to it. However, unlike charades, their act should include verbal responses.
9. Emphasize Conflict Resolution
Empathy is crucial to emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution is one of the best ways for children to develop it. When your child responds inappropriately, discuss how their choice affected those around them and encourage them to make things right. Similarly, when you display an inappropriate emotional response in front of your child (which we all do), model conflict resolution by apologizing and discussing what you could have done better.
Emotional intelligence will shape how your child responds to life’s most complex situations. It will determine their choices, relationships, and play a significant role in their mental health. Parents who nurture healthy emotional awareness and regulation in the home give their children the tools needed to thrive in a life full of emotional highs and lows. We hope these tips and tricks will help you empower your child to grow their emotional intelligence in a healthy and lasting way.