I want my children to grow up with a healthy emotional intelligence. Simply put, I want them to have a healthy range of emotions, know the vernacular so that they can express those feelings, and deal with unpleasant feelings in a safe way. That emotional education begins when they are still quite young and must happen regularly. Let me give you some insight into what’s working beautifully for our family!
First off, teaching emotional intelligence is a process. It’s an ongoing dialogue which we address, though informally, on a daily basis. My husband and I have made it so habitual that now it comes naturally to us. But in the beginning, it was just about practice.
There are a few different facets to how we teach emotional intelligence, and it will vary slightly depending on the age of your child. If you are starting with a very young child, like a one- or two-year-old, you may be using more visuals like pictures or wordless books. But even if your child is extremely young, that does not mean that you must “dumb down” your language, nor what you are teaching.
You might think that these discussions about emotional intelligence occur when our son is angry or upset. However, I have found that those moments of frustration and tears are not times to try to introduce a new concept. Rather, that is when you need to be recalling and reviewing concepts which you have taught when your child was calm.
For example, when we are eating breakfast or getting dressed (something mundane which doesn’t require a lot of my child’s concentration), I might seem agitated about something. Then I talk aloud with my child about what I’m feeling, including an appropriate name for the emotion, and what I can do. My son and I are now able to talk through appropriate and inappropriate responses to various emotions. When he’s in the heat of the moment, and I mention those options, they are familiar to him.
Don’t limit your vocabulary to simple words like “mad” and “sad”. My three-year-old understands concepts like sympathy, disappointment, and jealousy. If you raise the bar, I guarantee that your child can meet you there.
When you are introducing an emotion, you first need to label and classify it. What would you call it? Why? Talk through all of this with your child so that they understand, and can apply it to their own lives at a later time.
Example: my daughter recently had her first birthday, and while some people gave my son the presents also, he wanted to play with one of her new toys. She was using it and he did not want to wait for a turn. “Do you want the toy that your sister has? Wanting something that belongs to somebody else is called jealousy. It means that you wish you had something of theirs, and you are not satisfied with your own things. Does that sound like what you are feeling?” And then we continue from there. You can mention other examples, and then you need to discuss the right (and wrong) ways to handle that feeling.
“Should we take the toy if we want it? No, because how would that make your sister feel? Should we hit her? What do you think would be a kind choice when you feel jealous?” Some options I give him are: find a way to play together (thanks Daniel Tiger), ask for a turn, play alongside her, ask her to teach you how to use the toy, walk away so that you don’t see the toy and feel jealous.
Emotional intelligence just doesn’t kick in with the negative emotions, either. I want my kids to be able to identify “positive emotions” like joy, generosity, appreciation, and pride. For example, when my son does something kind like helping me with his sister, I tell him that I appreciate his help. And we have a quick conversation using context clues to help him determine what “appreciate” might mean. Now he knows that appreciation means I see a kindness, I recognize it, and I feel love and pride for him because of his choice.
You may notice that I have used the word “choice” more than once so far. That is intentional. My husband and I talk to our children about choices, and the consequences which go with them. If you are looking for ways to talk to your child to help them make the right decisions without ineffective punishment, look at this article I wrote about natural consequences.
There are many other strategies to use when helping your child through a difficult moment: expression through color and texture (think finger paint or play dough), vigorous activity, a warm bath, or even sitting in the sunshine. You know your child so think on their strengths and what brings them happiness. That’s a great place to start.
My goal here is to steer away from the idea that my child is not allowed to feel negative feelings. Of course he is, and to deny him that goes against common sense. However, because I know that he will inevitably feel things like rage and sorrow, I also need to equip him with the tools and the vocabulary to handle those feelings in a safe way.
I’d love to know what you thought about this article. Do you plan to try any of these strategies with your little one? What advice do you have for other parents?