According to the dictionary, emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Many adults do not have a healthy level of emotional intelligence because they have never been taught. It may come more naturally to some than others, but what seems to be overwhelmingly true is that it is a skill that needs to be taught and developed over time.

In this article, helping build emotional intelligence in children is being discussed, but to do that, parents must be willing to grow in this skill, as well. Emotional intelligence can even matter more than one’s IQ, according to Daniel Goleman. One can be as smart as they come, but unless one can understand, manage, and express emotions effectively and know how to interact with others in healthy ways, that intelligence is nearly meaningless.

Parents often push their children to succeed academically, athletically, creatively, or even spiritually, but neglect to help them succeed emotionally, which could be the most important skill of all. If they don’t build emotional intelligence as children, they could have a long history of poor, toxic relationships, jumping from job to job because they are unable to handle themselves appropriately in the workplace, or battle depression and anxiety, and other mental illness.

How parents can help build emotional intelligence in their children

Model it for them

This is the most effective way to teach them – show them. If a parent struggles to understand and effectively manage his or her emotions, then he or she needs to work on this for themselves first, and then model it for their children. This is not something one can grow on his own. Seek the help of trusted friends and a counselor to help grow in emotional awareness and management, and then pass on what you know to your children.

If you are angry, show your kids how you calm down by doing it in front of them. If you are sad, show your kids how you express sadness by crying in front of them sometimes. Don’t do this to get comfort from them because it is not their job to help you feel better. However, showing them what you do when you feel a certain way can help them know what to do when they feel that way, too.

Practice empathy statements

Empathy is the ability to show that you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, feel what they feel, or express that you want to understand how they are feeling. Your children feel emotions just like you do, and their emotions are just as valid. Parents sometimes will say, “You have a great life! What do you have to be depressed about?” or “You have no idea what it’s like to be stressed.”

These are not empathy statements and they can lead a child to believe that his or her emotions do not matter. Though children may not feel stress about the same types of things that you do, they do feel it. They feel anger, sadness, and fear and hurt.

They don’t always know what it means, but a way to begin the conversation is to sit with them, make eye contact, and say something like, “It seems to me that you may be feeling ______ (name of emotion) by what you are saying right now. Is that right?” This statement invites them to share more vulnerably with their parents and safely express their emotions.

Teach them proper ways to express their emotions

When you notice your child acting out in anger or expressing themselves inappropriately (yelling, throwing things or being physically aggressive, name-calling, withdrawing, etc.), help them calm down first by practicing relaxation skills with them – taking deep breaths, walking away from the situation to calm down for a moment, or by simply hugging them as they calm down.

Then talk about what they can do with their frustration or fear or sadness. They can talk about it with you or a safe person, use an “I” statement to be assertive with the person they are upset with, use art to express it safely, yell into a pillow, cry, etc.

Help them label their emotions

You can do this with an empathy statement or by simply teaching them the names of emotions. Feeling wheels (which you can find easily online) are a great place to start. You can also find some feeling faces online to show them to help them name each one.

Another terrific way to help them learn the names of various emotions (the feeling words – anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, happiness) is to ask them in books or movies how a character appears to feel based on their body language and facial expression. This teaches them not only to accurately recognize their own emotions but also to recognize the emotions of others.

Welcome their emotions

Never treat children like their emotions are too much or not valid or unwelcome. Instead of learning to manage them effectively, these behaviors will only lead them to push them aside, stop thinking they matter, suppress them, and avoid them. Parents will often say, “You are OK” or “No don’t feel like that” to help a child feel better, but it is an example of downplaying their feelings.

They will also stop feeling like you are emotionally safe. When people suppress and avoid their emotions, they eventually erupt to the surface in unhealthy ways. No problems are ever solved by neglecting emotions, and by dismissing your child’s emotions, you teach them that they should dismiss them, too.

Allow their emotions to be present, but don’t allow them to express them in inappropriate ways. A straightforward way to do this could be to say (for example), “I understand that you are mad at your sister for taking your toy. It’s OK to be upset with her, but it is not OK to hit her when you are mad. Can you tell her why you are mad at her?” An example of downplaying this anger would be, “Stop it now! Stop hitting! I don’t care how you feel! You are acting terrible right now!”

Help them learn how to manage interpersonal conflict

When you see (or hear about) your kids and their siblings or their peers getting into arguments or there are hurt feelings, spend some time first listening to your child share the story and how it makes him feel. Then work together to problem-solve an effective way to handle the conflict.

For example, your child comes home and tells you a kid is being mean to her at school. You can begin by asking her to tell you exactly what is going on, how she feels about it, and how she has tried to handle it on her own already.

Then brainstorm more ideas together about what else could work in that scenario, like being assertive with the mean kid, talking to a safe adult at school about the situation, staying away from that kid, etc. A side note – if parents do not manage their own interpersonal conflict well, kids won’t either.

Do kind things for others with your children

This builds empathy in children, which is not a natural skill (especially for young children and teenagers). These ages are traditionally more egocentric and self-centered, so empathy is not easy for them. One way to help is to do kind things for others with and in front of your kids. Bake cookies for the sick neighbor or donate old clothes to people in need. Have your kids purge their old toys to give away or volunteer time at church. Show them how to serve others, how to consider others’ needs. This will take them far in life and helps gets their eyes off themselves for a time.

Establish consequences

When kids do not handle their emotions appropriately after you have been working to teach them, then allow consequences to come into play. For example, if your child still yells at his sister when he is mad, his consequence could be that he loses his TV privilege for the day.

Only offer consequences for misuse of anger or hurt feelings, but if a child is sad or scared, allow them to experience the natural consequences of mishandling those emotions. For example, if your child is scared to try out for a team, their consequence is that they must miss out on the wonderful experience of being a part of the team.

The goal is not perfection. Just like you do not handle emotions well all the time, your kids won’t either. Show them grace and patience as they learn, but always be there for them. Be consistent and kind. They will catch on in time.

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