How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child

How to teach kids to recognize and express their emotions in healthy ways.

Kids with emotional intelligence have empathy.
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As a parent, you have a responsibility for encouraging your child to develop his intelligence. This means, of course, academic intelligence—but that’s not the only type of intelligence that matters.

Emotional intelligence is defined as a person’s ability to express and manage feelings appropriately while respecting the feelings of others. It’s a set of skills that children can begin learning at any age.

Benefits of Emotional Intelligence

Over the past several decades, studies have found emotional intelligence provides a variety of benefits that will serve your child well throughout her entire life. Here are just a few of the ways emotional intelligence is an asset:

  • High EQ is linked to high IQ. Children with higher levels of emotional intelligence perform better on standardized tests. They also tend to have higher grades.
  • Better relationships. Emotional intelligence skills help kids manage conflict and develop deeper friendships. Adults with high levels of emotional intelligence also report better relationships in their personal and professional lives.
  • Childhood EQ is linked to higher success during adulthood. A 19-year study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that a child’s social and emotional skills in kindergarten may predict lifelong success. Children who were able to share, cooperate and follow directions at age 5 were more likely to obtain college degrees and to begin working full-time jobs by age 25.
  • Improved mental health. Individuals with higher levels of emotional intelligence are less likely to experience depression and other mental illnesses.

The benefits of emotional intelligence make sense. A child who can calm himself when he feels angry is likely to do well in difficult circumstances. And a child who can express her emotions in a healthy way is likely to maintain healthier relationships than a child who screams or says mean things when she’s angry.

The good news is, all kids have the capacity to learn emotional intelligence skills. They just need adults to teach them how.

1. Label Your Child’s Emotions

Kids need to know how to recognize how they’re feeling. You can help your child by putting a name to her emotions—at least the emotion you suspect your child is feeling.

When your child is upset he lost a game, you can say, “It looks like you feel really angry right now. Is that right?” If he looks sad, you might say, “Are you feeling disappointed that we aren't going to visit Grandma and Grandpa today?”

Emotional words such as “angry,” “upset,” “shy” and “painful” can all build a vocabulary to express feelings. Don’t forget to share the words for positive emotions, too, such as “joy,” “excited,” “thrilled” and “hopeful.”

2. Show Empathy

When your child is upset—especially when his emotions seem a bit on the dramatic side—it can be tempting to minimize how she’s feeling. But dismissive comments will teach your child that the way she’s feeling is wrong.

A better approach is to validate her feelings and show empathy—even if you don’t understand why she’s so upset. If your child is crying because you told her she can’t go to the park until she cleans her room, say something like, “I feel upset when I don’t get to do what I want too.

It’s hard sometimes to keep working when I don’t want to.”

When your child sees that you understand how she’s feeling on the inside, she’ll feel less compelled to show you how she’s feeling through her behavior. So rather than scream and cry to show you she’s angry, she’ll feel better when you’ve made it clear that you already understand she's upset.

3. Model Appropriate Ways to Express Feelings

Kids need to know how to express their emotions in a socially appropriate way. So while saying, “My feelings are hurt,” or drawing a picture of a sad face could be helpful, screaming and throwing things aren’t OK.

The best way to teach your child how to express feelings is by modeling these skills yourself. Use feeling words in your everyday conversation and practice talking about them. Say things like, “I feel angry when I see kids being mean on the playground,” or “I feel happy when we get to have our friends come over for dinner.”

Studies show emotionally intelligent parents are more likely to have emotionally intelligent children. So make it a habit to clearly focus on building your skills so you can be an effective role model for your child.

4. Teach Healthy Coping Skills

Once kids understand their emotions, they need to learn how to deal with those emotions in a healthy way. Knowing how to calm themselves down, cheer themselves up, or face their fears can be complicated for little ones.

Teach specific skills. For example, your child may benefit from learning how to take a few deep breaths when she’s angry to calm her body down. A kid-friendly way to teach this involves telling her to take “bubble breaths” where she breathes in through her nose and blows out through her mouth as if she’s blowing through a bubble wand.

You might also help your child create a kit that helps her regulate her feelings. A coloring book, a favorite joke book, soothing music, and lotions that smell good are a few items that can help engage her senses and calm her emotions. Put the items in a special box that she decorates. Then, when she’s upset, remind her to go get her calm down kit and practice using her tools to manage her emotions.

5. Develop Problem-Solving Skills

Part of building emotional intelligence involves learning how to solve problems. After the feelings have been labeled and addressed, it’s time to work through how to fix the problem itself.

Perhaps your child is angry that his sister keeps interrupting him while he’s playing a video game. Help him identify at least five ways he might solve this problem. Solutions don’t have to be good ideas. Initially, the goal is to just brainstorm ideas.

Once he’s identified at least five possible solutions, help him assess the pros and cons of each one. Then, encourage him to pick the best option.

When your child makes mistakes, work through what could have been done differently and what your child can do to resolve any lingering issues. Try to act as a coach, rather than the actual problem-solver. Provide guidance when necessary but work on helping your child see that he has the ability to solve problems peacefully and effectively on his own.

6. Make Emotional Intelligence an Ongoing Goal

No matter how emotionally intelligent your child seems, there is always room for improvement. And there are likely to be some ups and downs throughout childhood and adolescence. As he grows older, he’s likely to face obstacles that will challenge his skills. So make it a goal to incorporate skill building into your everyday life. When your child is young, talk about feelings every day.

Talk about the emotions characters in books or in movies might be feeling. Discuss better ways problems might have been solved or strategies characters could use to treat others with respect. As your child grows older, talk about real life situations—whether it’s things he’s encountering in his daily life or it’s a problem you’re reading about in the news. Make it an ongoing conversation.

Use your child’s mistakes as opportunities to grow better. When he acts out because he’s angry or he hurts someone’s feelings, take time to talk about how he can do better in the future. With your ongoing support and guidance, your child can develop the emotional intelligence and mental strength he’ll need to succeed in life.

Sources

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Billings CE, Downey LA, Lomas JE, Lloyd J, Stough C. Emotional Intelligence and scholastic achievement in pre-adolescent childrenPersonality and Individual Differences. 2014;65:14-18.

Jones DE, Greenberg M, Crowley M. Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(11):2283-2290.

Rafaila E. Primary School Children's Emotional IntelligenceProcedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2015;203.

Turculeţ A, Tulbure C. The Relation Between the Emotional Intelligence of Parents and ChildrenProcedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2014;142:592-596.