Little Kids, Big Feelings. How To Teach Kids Emotional Intelligence 

We’ve all been there– you choose the wrong color cup for your toddler, the ladybug flies away, their ice cream falls off the cone…the list goes on. Something small happens and your child tailspins. 

What do you do? How do you help a child learn to deal with all their emotions in a healthy way that will set them up for long term success? We have some tips for you. 

Little kids have BIG feelings. They need your help to learn to deal with these feelings. They need you to guide and lead them to develop healthy emotional intelligence. 

What is Emotional Intelligence and Why does it Matter? 

Emotional Intelligence – the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. (dictionary.com) 

Emotional intelligence includes skills that are taught and can develop over time. 

Emotional intelligence leads to personal and professional success. 

So why should we teach our children emotional intelligence? Because we all want what’s best for our kids. We want them to grow up to be happy, well-adjusted, and successful members of society. 

It starts now when they’re little. Emotional intelligence isn’t something that has to wait. We can help our kids develop into their best selves with our daily interactions. Teaching them, leading them, guiding them, and demonstrating the intelligence we hope to see in them. 

Children Have Big Emotional Swings

I get it, it’s hard when a toddler is screaming about a broken banana or a preschooler is melting down because the tower of blocks fell over (again). These are insignificant to us, and oftentimes we can see that “disaster” coming because we have good insight into cause and effect. But to a child, this is unexpected and disastrous. 

Take a deep breath and imagine how they are seeing this event.

They expect to peel the banana and hold the very bottom and see the whole thing at once. Then it breaks, it can’t be fixed, and their little dream is shattered. 

They are making the tallest tower ever seen. They don’t know anything about engineering, they don’t have the motor skills to line up the blocks straight. They think it will work…then it comes tumbling down. All their hard work is gone and they don’t understand why. 

How should we respond in these situations? 

How can we build our children up through their struggle instead of frustrating them more?

The way you react to these little events helps shape how your child copes with emotions. You also model how they should treat others when faced with disappointments later in life. 

Stop Minimizing Children’s Emotions, Validate Them Instead

Don’t minimize their emotions. When we tell children they’re not hurt or their disappointment isn’t valid we are telling them they can’t understand their own emotions. They can’t trust how they’re feeling. 

As adults, we should validate children’s feelings rather than disregard them. 

Instead of…..
Try This
“You’re fine, stop crying”“I see you’re upset, want to tell me what happened?”
“Calm down!”“What do you need?”
“You’re not hurt, just get up.” “Ouch, show me where it hurts and tell me what happened.”

It’s hard. Nobody is perfect, but practicing these techniques will help you guide children through life’s little disappointments. With practice, they’ll be able to effectively label and communicate their emotions as they get older and the disappointments get larger. 

Help Children Label and Identify Their Emotions

Giving children the words and understanding to label their emotions is a powerful tool. They can’t control what they don’t understand. 

Children have to first understand what emotions they are having and how it makes their body feel. Only then can they begin to recognize these emotions early and work through them before they lose control. 

You as the parent can act as their emotions coach. 

Help your child identify their feelings:

  • Read books about emotions
  • Talk about your own emotions
  • Discuss other people’s actions and guess their emotions 
  • Talk about emotions that characters in a show may be having 

As their coach, you can also help them identify clues their body is giving them. 

  • Do they tend to get a tight or upset stomach at certain times? 
  • Does their body feel very busy before a certain event? 
  • How do they feel when they’re wrapped in a hug vs. running in the yard? 
  • Do their shoulders feel tight or are their hands or jaws clenched in a certain situation? 
  • Does their face feel hot and their heart beat faster after the neighbor kid breaks their toy?

Individualize Your Emotional Coaching. Each Child is Unique

Individualize your coaching and try to look for clues in your child so you can teach them. We are all different. There’s no book that can tell you everything you need to teach your children about their specific emotional responses. 

Some children may feel bubbly or excited before going to a birthday party. Other children may have a knot in their stomach, or tension in their shoulders before the same party. We are all unique and teaching your child to identify their specific emotions is important. 

It’s important not to judge their emotions, but to identify and allow your child to discuss the emotion openly with you. If your child is sensitive to noise and flashing lights, it would be reasonable for them to feel nervous or scared about a birthday party rather than excited. 

As you guide your child through increasing awareness of their emotions, you’ll gain wonderful insight about how they’re viewing the world. It will also help you as the parent set reasonable expectations or create an action plan that fits your unique child. 

Give Your Child Ways to Express Their Emotions Appropriately

Children have very intense emotions, just like adults do, but often they don’t know how to let those emotions out appropriately. 

Acknowledging negative emotions and allowing your child to express them does not give your child a free pass to do whatever they want. 

If we allow a toddler to break things or hit people when they are angry, there’s a good chance they will continue to use those poor coping mechanisms as they get older. There’s good news. Children get to make a lot of mistakes as they learn to deal with emotions. We have ample opportunities to teach them appropriate ways to work through their emotions– especially anger. 

There are ways for children to express emotions that won’t get them into deeper and deeper trouble as they get older. You as the parent can decide what options you would like to offer your child. What one family deems appropriate such as stomping their feet, another family may not allow. The important part is to find some options and teach your child these options before the next meltdown occurs.

Healthy Emotional Expression Gives Children an Outlet With Boundaries

Ways your child can express anger/frustration and help calm themselves down again

  • Punch a pillow
  • Yell into a pillow (or if you won’t upset the neighbors, yell outside!)
  • Scribble on a piece of paper with a crayon
  • Tell someone how they’re feeling (usually they have to calm down a bit first) 
  • They can ask for help if they’re frustrated by a task. 
  • Take some deep breaths
  • Count until they feel calmer 
  • Leave the area. 

How to Deal With Sadness or Disappointment

  • Sit together and allow them to cry. 
  • Talk about what happened
  • Share a story about a time you were sad and how you worked through it. 
  • Draw a picture 
  • Read together
  • Video chat with a loved one

After your child’s anger decreases and they reach a more calmer state, then you can talk more. Ask your child to say why he was angry, and talk again about what happened in that moment. Give your child a hug and move onto a different activity together.  Make sure you reassure your child and give positive attention for working through the emotions. Often after intense anger has passed, children want to be reassured and spend time together. Even though you may still be frustrated by the situation, try to spend quality time together to help them feel secure and recharge them. 

Helping Your Child Develop Emotional Intelligence is Worth the Effort

It’s ok to let your child express their emotions. It’s the best thing for them. By fostering emotional intelligence, you will help your kids develop the skills they need for a lifetime. 

Is it easy? Absolutely not. Not much about parenting is easy, right? 

Come alongside your child when they are feeling sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, joyful, silly, or any other emotion. Help them understand what they are feeling without judging their emotions. Praise them for expressing their emotions in a healthy way. Guide them when they need help. 

Validate their feelings, no matter what they are. You are helping them identify and trust their own emotions. By putting in the hard work now, you are laying a foundation for long-term success for your children. You are giving them techniques and tools they can use to process their emotions instead of bottling them up or exploding. As a teenager and then as an adult, these skills will help them at work, in relationships, and your grandchildren will even benefit from it someday. 

Remember, we all make mistakes. Every interaction is a new chance to model and facilitate healthy emotional development in your child. You can do it! 

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