As caregivers and educators, it’s easy to get so swept up in worrying about our kids’ academic intelligence that we overlook emotional intelligence. However, a child’s emotional intelligence is just as crucial as grades and test scores.
Emotional intelligence refers to how we manage our feelings and respond to the feelings of others, which may be more difficult for a kid.
So, how do you help build emotional intelligence for kids? It’s all about supporting their emotional growth by showing them that all emotions are okay.
Encouraging kids to talk and think about their own feelings openly is the foundation for true emotional literacy. If that sounds tricky, don’t worry—we’ve put together this guide to show you how to make emotional wellness part of daily life.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional intelligence (EI, or sometimes EQ) means having the ability to understand, use, and manage our own emotions in positive ways. It also means being able to understand and relate to the emotions of others and express empathy and consideration.
Emotional intelligence is made up of several key factors:
- Self-regulation and self-control
- Understanding the emotions of others
- Picking up on social cues and responding appropriately
For most, EI can help people overcome setbacks and build the social skills to form strong relationships with peers and loved ones.
Why Do Some Kids Struggle With EI?
Young children may find emotional regulation difficult when they don’t know how to identify and express their needs. However, frequent outbursts or disruptive behavior can be a sign of underlying influences. Here are a few factors that are commonly linked to challenges with EI:
- Parenting styles that include “psychological control,” inconsistent discipline and punishments, and harsh discipline1
- Trauma and neglect are strongly linked to problems with identifying and describing emotions2
- Neurological differences like ADHD, auditory processing disorders, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)3
The good news is that emotional intelligence isn’t set in stone. It may not come as naturally to everyone, but anyone involved in child care, parents, caregivers, and educators all have their part to play in nurturing an emotionally intelligent child.
How Do I Teach Emotional Intelligence for Kids?
Studies have found that caregivers have a powerful impact on how much emotional intelligence young children display. Parental responsiveness to a child’s emotions and emotion-related coaching are strongly linked to higher emotional intelligence in children. Educators can have an impact, too—social-emotional intervention programs in schools have been shown to significantly improve children’s emotional skills and mental health.4
So, how can you help kids develop stronger EI? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that much of it relies on your own EI skills. To help children build high emotional intelligence, adults need to:
- Help kids identify and connect with their emotions
- Demonstrate healthy communication habits by practicing them ourselves
- Model appropriate ways of coping with setbacks, negative emotions, and problems
- Encourage a growth mindset
Let’s take a closer look at each of those pieces in turn.
#1 Help Them Understand Big Feelings
Children often experience emotions intensely, but they don’t yet have the emotional vocabulary or understanding to express feelings.
Even as adults, we often find ourselves not sure how to say what we’re thinking and feeling—now imagine being a preschooler just beginning to dig into the world of big emotions without the words to talk it through. It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the picture is.
Adults can help children learn to process big feelings by:
- Creating a safe space – Show children that they are allowed to express every different emotion without fear of judgment by listening carefully and reacting calmly when they act out their feelings. A comfort corner can be a positive space for children to learn and process their emotions.
- Labeling emotions – Teach kids the names of lots of different emotions and talk about what they feel like to improve emotional awareness. Try learning from a colorful wall chart with faces and names of feelings to help with teaching emotions, or use a set of feelings flashcards to practice emotion words in a fun way.
- Using stories – Books are an excellent way to explore lots of different feelings and ways of coping with emotions. Provide a wide variety of books featuring characters learning to manage feelings like sadness, loneliness, anger, worry, and so on.
- Using imaginative play – Our Kinspiration Kits lets kids act out different scenarios and practice how to handle them. Puppets, dolls, and dress-up supplies are all helpful in encouraging children to try out different roles and feelings, ultimately nurturing their emotional intelligence skills.
#2 Model Ideal Communication Habits
Children learn about the world and how to behave in it by observing people around them. Whether you’re speaking directly to a child or to others in their presence, show them how to be a good listener by practicing habits like:
- Engaging fully – Whenever possible, give your full attention to conversations. Set your phone down, turn towards your conversation partner, and make eye contact (if that’s comfortable for both of you). Show interest in what they’re saying by nodding, smiling, and keeping open facial expressions.
- Listening to understand, not respond – Make it your goal in conversations to understand the other person before being understood yourself. Before you respond, paraphrase what you heard them saying to be sure you have it right to encourage self-expression.
- Reflective listening – To delve into what is reflective listening, take active listening one step further by telling the speaker what you observe about how they’re feeling or acting. Reflective listening can help kids learn what emotions look and feel like. Try phrases like, “I can see that you’re frustrated,” “You seem very sad,” and “You’re so happy about that.”
- Withholding judgment – Try to listen to the feelings and thoughts that are being expressed to you without labeling them as good or bad. Emotions just are—the goal of talking about them is understanding, not judging.
#3 Demonstrate Healthy Coping Mechanisms
One of the most challenging parts of emotional intelligence at any age is learning to cope with big feelings in healthy and appropriate ways. Don’t hold yourself to perfection—we all slip up. But do aim to model constructive ways to manage feelings whenever you can to encourage social emotional learning. Practice habits like:
- Mindfulness techniques – Next time you’re stressed, show your child how to do a simple deep breathing exercise or a few simple yoga poses as a way of relieving physical tension. Mindfulness for kids does not have to be difficult. Noticing the feelings in the body and what the body needs (i.e. a hug, a deep breath, or to stomp extra energy out) is a great way to practice simple steps to tune into the present moment.
- Taking a break – Show kids that it’s okay to step back from a challenging task or difficult conversation and take a moment to calm down. The next time a conversation is heating up, whether it’s with your child or your partner, suggest a quick break for a glass of water or a walk around the block before continuing. Be sure to check out our Conflict Resolution collection for more tips on managing conflict in healthy ways.
- Getting active – Physical activity is one of the best tools to cope with the excess adrenaline our bodies release when we’re stressed, angry, or anxious. Even if you’re cooped up in a classroom or stuck in the house on a rainy day, there are lots of quick, easy physical activities we can do in small spaces to blow off steam. A few jumping jacks, imaginary jump rope, wall push-ups, or dancing to a favorite tune can quickly put a bad mood back on track.
#4 Develop Growth Mindset And Problem-Solving Skills
Emotional intelligence and a growth mindset are closely connected. A growth mindset is the belief that our abilities aren’t set but can be strengthened and improved with enough time, patience, and practice. With a growth mindset, we tend to view setbacks as challenges to overcome and learn from.
The opposite view, a fixed mindset, says that our abilities are unchangeable. Fixed mindsets lead us to give up when we’re faced with problems or when things don’t go to plan. Instead of thinking about what went wrong and coming up with strategies for next time, a fixed mindset says, “I can’t do better—it’s just the way I am.”
As you can imagine, a growth mindset is incredibly beneficial for kids. You can help kids develop a growth mindset by5:
- Praising the effort – Try to use phrases that focus on what the child did, not who they are. For example, instead of “You’re so smart,” try “You really studied!” Instead of “You’re so artistic,” try “You worked hard on this!” Focusing on effort makes it less likely that kids will see setbacks as personal failures.
- Using growth-oriented language – Encourage kids to see their abilities as something they can build. Even if you mean well, avoid phrases like, “You’re just not a runner” or “Not everyone can be good at…” Instead, try phrases that focus on moving forward: “You’re still learning” or “Hmm, what could you try next time?”
- Teaching about the brain – Our brains are amazing things. They can grow, strengthen, create new connections, and change depending on what we think about and do. Talk with your child about how visualizing things they want to accomplish can help their brain practice and prepare for doing it in real life.
- Encouraging problem-solving – Allow children to make mistakes and learn from them. When problems and mistakes happen, ask open-ended questions to help kids think about what they could try next time. Emphasize looking forward to the next try rather than feeling bad about the try that didn’t work.
- Talk about asking for help – We don’t have to handle everything alone to be strong. Use our Growth Mindset collection to start a conversation about how it’s okay to reach out to others for help and support.
- Normalizing mistakes and big feelings – Making mistakes is normal and part of the learning process. When you normalize mistakes, it helps kids not focus on the set-backs for feeling shame or overwhelming feelings about messing up. Caregivers can model this attitude by admitting when they make mistakes and showing how to reset and repair to move forward.
Build Your Child’s Emotional Wellness with the World of Slumberkins
Emotional intelligence is a journey, not a destination. It’s a skill we all continue to develop our whole lives. You and your child are on this road together for the long haul, and you’ll both learn a little more each day.
Slumberkins is here to support you on this journey with a whole world of tools and toys designed to make emotional wellness engaging and fun.
From books that explore every shade of emotion to snuggly characters that kids can relate to, our resources are created with every child’s emotional growth in mind. Ready to start nurturing emotional intelligence in your child? Explore the world of Slumberkins and discover new ways to embrace all those big feelings today and every day.
- The Family Journal. Parenting styles and children’s emotional intelligence: What do we know? https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258193465_Parenting_Styles_and_Children's_Emotional_Intelligence_What_do_We_Know
- Psychological Bulletin. Child maltreatment and alexithymia: a meta-analytic review. https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2023-78411-001.html
- Frontiers in Psychology. Alexithymia and autism spectrum disorder: A complex relationship. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6056680/
- American Psychological Association. Using praise to enhance student resilience and learning outcomes. https://www.apa.org/education-career/k12/using-praise