How to Help the Young Child Become Emotionally Intelligent

cranky-sad-crying-baby-toddler-face-18467267by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., Parent Coach

People with high emotional intelligence find it easier to be successful in life. They have better mental health, job performance, and leadership skills.

Young children are immature in every way, including their emotional development, but they are developing foundational skills in the early years. You can help your child, and enjoy living with them more, when you help them develop the competencies of emotionally intelligent people.

What can we do to help emotional, immature young children develop these important skills?

First, it helps to understand some of the components of emotional intelligence (EI).

  1. Self-awareness.  Emotionally intelligent people understand themselves well and have good self-awareness, while people who lack self-awareness don’t have any way of knowing how to make things better.  They tend to become depressed or to blame others for upsetting feelings they experience. 
  2. Self-management. Emotionally intelligent people also manage their feelings well, without hurting themselves or others. People who lack self-management are viewed as emotionally unbalanced. They tend to “act out” their feelings, taking out their sadness, frustration, and anger on others.
  3. Social awareness and social skills.  Along with understanding and managing themselves well, emotionally intelligent people have good awareness of, and ability to get along with, other people.

There are a lot of skills involved and it takes some time to develop them—you can help!

Simple ways to support the young child’s development of self-awareness and self-control:

  1. Let them experience the range of emotions and practice coping with them without trying to change how they feel about things. Like everything else they need to learn, self-awareness and managing emotional states requires practice.  Understand that you are not responsible for your children’s difficult feelings or upsets; everyone has them and we learn to cope. You can help your young child learn to cope with such feelings. Understanding our feelings is the first step in coping with them.

You may need to ignore the parenting advice about distracting and cajoling your child out of their feelings if you want to help them develop their emotional intelligence. If adults constantly try to distract young children from feelings of hurt or frustration, that robs the young child of opportunities to practice coping with those feelings.

Think about a time you were hurt or upset about something and your parent, partner, or friend said “you shouldn’t feel that way” or tried to joke you out of your feelings. It probably didn’t help the hurt or upset go away; instead, it let you know they didn’t want to hear it. Your young child will have a similar experience when you deny, dismiss, or try to talk them out of their feelings.

Sometimes, you just may not be up to handling your child’s hurt feelings after a long day.  But, whenever possible, instead of trying to distract your child from “negative” emotions, see it as an opportunity to help them with emotional development. Remember that your child needs practice understanding and managing these feelings. Look for opportunities to be a caring and supportive bystander. Being present with someone when they’re upset can be a very loving gift.

2. Acknowledge and name their feelings.  This is very simple but very powerful in terms of calming the child, strengthening your bond with them, and helping them develop emotional strength.  It involves paying attention enough to their feelings to say “You are so excited that Daddy’s home,” or “You think Rover is hilarious when he scratches behind his ear,” or “You are frustrated that I won’t buy that toy for you.”  (I will go into this in more depth in a future post.)

3. Strive to maintain order and predictability in the young child’s environment. Order and predictability bring calm.  If you look at your own experience, you will see that it’s true. When your car or your bedroom or your office are a cluttered mess, this stresses you emotionally. Research demonstrates that children and adults learn less and are less productive in cluttered environments.  Young children may be particularly sensitive to this effect. 

Practice naming your child’s feelings to help them develop the emotional competencies of self-awareness and self-management. Let me know what you learn!


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