It’s natural for parents to be concerned about their children’s academic prowess and “IQ,” but these days, more are seeing the importance of developing emotional intelligence, or “EQ.”
“Being emotionally intelligent helps kids manage their feelings in constructive ways, resolve conflict, and solve problems,” said Donna Housman, a clinical psychologist with 30 years of experience in early childhood development. “The ability to manage one’s own emotions, and cope with the emotions of others, along with an increased sensitivity to how others feel, is key to developing empathy, compassion, understanding and acceptance of differences between and among us.”
Research also suggests that emotional intelligence is linked to greater success in school, stronger communication skills, better relationships, self-awareness, resilience, improved mental health, and other positive outcomes. The good news is parents can help lay the foundation for this success early in their children’s lives.
“A parent’s role is integral to the development of children’s emotional intelligence,” Housman noted. “Given that children develop within the context of relationships, parents’ responsiveness, support and reassurance is vital in helping children learn to effectively manage and cope with the vast array of emotions they experience on a daily basis.”
To that end, HuffPost asked Housman and other experts to share some simple, everyday ways caregivers can foster emotional intelligence in their children. Read on for nine suggestions.
Practice Identifying Emotions
“To help build a child’s emotional intelligence, parents can and should help their kids identify their emotions daily, and give them permission to have and experience those emotions,” advised Housman.
The more kids practice identifying and discussing their emotions, the more comfortable they will be managing them. Parents can make this part of their family’s everyday ritual.
“A simple tool is to ask the question, ‘What emotion or emotions are you feeling today?‘” said Ravi Rao, a pediatric neurosurgeon turned children’s show host. “We’ve been too conditioned to respond to ‘How are you?’ with an automatic ‘fine’ even when we’re not fine. A more specific question eliciting the child to talk about their emotional state builds self-awareness and confidence.”
“Model the skills that you want your child to learn. Kids are paying attention to what we’re doing, and we’re role models, whether we’re being intentional about it or not.”
– Kathy Kinsner, senior manager of parenting resources at Zero To Three
Parents can help kids practice identifying emotions in the characters they observe in books, movies or TV shows by asking questions like “Do you think that lady looks happy or sad?” Housman also suggested creating or printing out “emotions charts” to help kids recognize different emotions in themselves and others ― and understand that feelings are natural and constantly changing.
Set Aside Drawing Or Journaling Time
“Activities like journaling together can also help,” said Jean Paul Paulynice, creator of an 11-part social-emotional learning curriculum called Empowering Confident Youth. “At the end of every day, parents should sit down with their children and have them write down what happened to them, how they felt and how they dealt with their emotions.”
He suggested that parents periodically ask their kids to look back over their journal entries, note any behavioral trends and reflect on times when they might have overreacted to a situation or acted in a manner that they came to regret later. Younger kids can do this with art by drawing pictures of how they’re feeling and explaining the art to their parents.
Talk About Your Own Feelings
As with other fundamental lessons, kids often learn more from what their parents do when it comes to emotions than from what their parents tell them to do.
“Model the skills that you want your child to learn,” said Kathy Kinsner, senior manager of parenting resources at the infant-toddler development nonprofit Zero To Three. “Kids are paying attention to what we’re doing, and we’re role models, whether we’re being intentional about it or not. For example, if you’re having trouble placing an online order, you can say aloud, ‘I’m so frustrated. I’m going to get up and take a break and then start fresh.’”
If parents want their children to feel comfortable talking about their feelings, they should openly discuss their own emotions with their kids as well. On any given day, parents can describe how they’re feeling, label that emotion and demonstrate how to express it in a healthy way or use problem-solving to cope with it. For parents who struggle with their feelings, this may take some extra work, but it’s worth the effort.
“The more parents authentically and effectively deal with their own emotions and those of others, the more successful the children will be in developing healthier relationships, and achieving greater success at school, work, and in their personal relationships,” Housman explained. “When parents are more aware of their own emotions, sensitive and empathic to the emotions of others, both children and parents will feel better, relate better, and live better!”
Normalize Negative Emotions
Although it’s natural for parents to want to shelter their children from negative experiences or emotions, this actually does a disservice to their emotional development. Instead, parents should help their kids understand that all feelings are natural and normal, and it’s how we deal with them that matters most.
“You can make emotional intelligence a priority in your children’s development by doing what I call ‘Don’t Save Your Kids,’” said clinical psychologist John Mayer. “That means don’t overprotect your kids from life’s stressors. Don’t run interference between kids and life ― school, activities, teachers ― instead of letting them learn how to handle the emotional state this brings and the responsibility of it.”
Additionally, parents shouldn’t avoid talking about negative emotions, sweep them under the rug or let them bubble up, which can lead to unhealthy outbursts. Sometimes the fear of a negative emotion is worse than the actual experience of the emotion. When you’re having a tough day, you don’t have to go into detail if it’s not age-appropriate, but you should still be honest about what you’re feeling.
“The crucial steps to fully developing emotional intelligence include noticing the emotion, labeling it, and asking what to do about it.”
– Kerry Goyette, author of “The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence”
“We want to teach our kids how to honor uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety and frustration in a healthy way, so they don’t feel they have to suppress these powerful feelings,” said Maggie Craddock, a family therapist and executive coach.
Discuss Appropriate Ways To Express And Manage Emotions
“One crucial element of emotional intelligence is problem solving,” said Kerry Goyette, author of “The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence.” “Often, when we think about developing a child’s EQ, we think only about empathy. If a child is sad, we believe all we have to do is notice their feeling and commiserate. But we can’t stop there. The crucial steps to fully developing emotional intelligence include noticing the emotion, labeling it, and asking what to do about it.”
Once parents have created a positive feedback loop by helping their kids to recognize, label and discuss their feelings, they can move onto the next step of coaching them through how to deal with their emotions, if negative. The key is to do a lot of listening and question-asking to guide them toward ways of constructively expressing and managing the intensity of their feelings.
“If they’re angry, ask what are you going to do,” Goyette suggested. “Is there something they can change? Many parents step in and solve the child’s problem themselves, but that signals to the child that they aren’t capable of doing it themself. Instead, try coaching. You might ask pointed questions, and they might not figure it out all by themselves at first, but it helps them develop their sense of self-reliance.”
Parents can include kids in the healthy things they do to process intense emotions, like taking a walk or playing games in the backyard to blow off steam at the end of a stressful day.
Own Up To Your Mistakes
As imperfect humans, we all inevitably make mistakes, even if we’re trying our best. When it comes to emotions, parents should own up to the moments when they unintentionally blow up in front of their kids or otherwise fail to cope with stress in healthy ways.
“We want to consistently practice admitting our mistakes and taking action to correct behavior that may inadvertently hurt others feelings,” Craddock noted. “For example, when our spouse brings up a topic that triggers us in front of the kids, we may want to defuse the situation as kindly as possible and avoid power struggles when possible. Remember, you are always modeling relational skills in front of your kids, and you want them to internalize ways to deal with conflict that fortify their personal integrity rather than diminishing it.”
Admitting when you messed up and taking action to correct it shows kids that emotional intelligence is a lifelong skill that everyone can continue to cultivate over time. This also encourages kids to own up when they make mistakes as well, though sometimes you have to wait until the heat of the moment has passed.
“Revisit other ways to behave once everybody has had a chance to calm down,” advised Kinsner. “Say, ‘You were upset because you wanted to play with the truck. But hitting is not OK. What could you do next time? You can ask mom for help. You can ask for a turn. You can find something else to play with.’”
On the flip side, parents should also offer positive reinforcement when their kids do display emotional intelligence by recognizing their good behavior and maybe even offering a reward in some instances.
Expose Them To New Experiences And People
“Parents should seek to involve their children in new activities and experiences whenever possible, including daily opportunities for new learning experiences,” said Paulynice.
“This can include something as simple as reading a book or watching a documentary together or trying a new hobby. The idea is to expose the child to new experiences that will expand their horizons,” he continued. “Volunteering in the community, such as at a homeless shelter or a senior living center, will also help to build empathy and compassion, which is a critical aspect of emotional intelligence.”
As kids experience new places, people and activities, their minds broaden to understand other experiences and perspectives.
“Encourage your kids to be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” suggested psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “Encourage conversations that allow each other to express feelings in a nonjudgmental way.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic may limit certain kinds of opportunities right now, parents can also make plans for future activities, turn to digital options, and get creative at home. It’s important to show kids that people can make a difference in others’ lives through their own efforts and displays of support.
“Make empathy a verb in your family,” advised Craig A. Knippenberg, a therapist and author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.”
“What’s the point of having emotional intelligence without putting it to use to help others?” he added. “When parents demonstrate kindness to those in their world, that kindness becomes contagious to their children. Teach empathy.”
Have Fun With Emotions
Knippenberg also recommended making emotional learning experiences fun for kids throughout their development.
“Feeling charades is a great time for your preschool child,” he said. “Watch a Disney movie with the sound off and analyze what is occurring. Include a study of your animal companions and the many ways animals demonstrate emotional and social intelligence.”
“Reading stories together and talking about the emotions the characters are experiencing not only normalizes emotion by acknowledging others have the same kinds of feelings as us, but also helps children better understand cause and effect, and helps build empathy.”
– Donna Housman, clinical psychologist
“For middle and elementary school students, watch ‘The Princess Diaries’ to see how the main character develops her emotional intelligence,” he added. “For young teens, when in a restaurant, try figuring out what other diners are feeling or talking about.”
He noted that unsupervised, unguided play also gives kids the chance to practice emotional and social skills, like how to support a friend in need or creative negotiate a conflict, on their own without adult guidance.
Read Books About Feelings
There are many excellent children’s books that specifically deal with feelings and emotional intelligence, but parents can use pretty much any story to teach these lessons as well.
“Reading stories together and talking about the emotions the characters are experiencing not only normalizes emotion by acknowledging others have the same kinds of feelings as us, but also helps children better understand cause and effect, and helps build empathy,” Housman explained.
Scotty Iseri, who created an emotional learning-focused podcast called “The Imagine Neighborhood,” recommended that parents ask kids to discuss the emotions they observe in the media they consume.
“When reading a book, or listening to a podcast, asking questions like, ‘Why do you think she is crying right now?’ or ‘Why do you think he felt that way?’, are ways to show children that you’re interested in and concerned with the emotions of other people,” he said.
Parents should also consider sharing personal stories that illustrate lessons about emotional intelligence, said author Siamak Taghaddos, whose children’s book, “The Mountain and The Goat,” focuses on cultivating a resourceful mindset.
“Share stories of how the little things matter,” he suggested. “Talk to kids not about EQ itself, but about how they, as parents, used examples of it that kids can learn from. Whether it’s how they dealt with a tough situation they faced, or how they helped someone with a problem by putting themselves in their shoes, or why they chose a certain color for a design to help improve a product, anything that shows kids how the little things matter. Stories that show caring about others are fundamental.”
Our kids have had an exceptionally bad hand dealt to them the past few months. They’ve been separated from their entire social structure, their classrooms and all sense of normalcy. And parents have certainly struggled (to put it mildly) to keep up. So how can parents use this time at home ― whatever that looks like ― to teach their children other important life skills and foster their emotional intelligence? Enter EQ Not IQ, a package from HuffPost Parenting.