Part of the joy of parenthood is seeing the world through your child’s eyes. Everything is new to them—but that newness can also bring a few challenges along the way. When children experience big feelings and emotions, they often don’t know how to deal with them until we show them how.
Developing a child’s emotional intelligence and identifying the emotional strengths of a child is critical to their development. A child with higher emotional intelligence and social emotional skills can pay attention, engage well in school, have a positive relationship with other kids, and are more empathic. Teaching children during early childhood to notice their and other people's emotions during early childhood and using those emotions to guide their thinking and actions enables them to manage their feelings better.1
Teaching your child about emotions can help them identify what they’re feeling and react in a way that helps them address the problem while maintaining control of their behaviors.
What is social and emotional learning? Below, we’ve put together a trusted guide that breaks down how to teach social emotional learning to your child, including how to identify, speak about, and regulate emotions.
Teaching Emotion Language
Teaching your children how to use their words to talk about their emotions can help them identify what they’re feeling and begin to take control of their responses. But with such a big topic, where do you start?
Try working through some of these ideas to help your child become more comfortable with talking about their feelings:2
- Teaching the names for basic emotions – When you notice your child feeling a specific emotion, try to teach them the word for that emotion. You can talk about positive emotions by saying something like, “I’m so happy to go to the park. Your smile shows me you’re happy too.” Or you can help them name more difficult emotions by saying something like, “Daddy had to go to work. I can tell that makes you sad. ” When you’re naming these emotions, it can also help to encourage children to join you in talking about how they’re feeling.
- Prompting them to be emotionally aware– Once your child has some emotional words in their vocabulary bank, you can invite them to identify their own feelings by asking what’s happening right now and how that makes them feel. You can also help build empathy by guiding your child to be aware of other people’s emotions and to notice shifts in their expressions and feelings..
- Practice talking about feelings throughout the day – Casually bringing up emotions throughout the day by identifying how you’re feeling and talking about how they feel can help them practice their emotion words in a calm, low-pressure situation. Additionally, teaching them about mindfulness can make it easier for them to reach for their emotion words when they’re upset about something.
- Talk through ways to handle emotions – When you’re talking about an intense emotion or negative feelings, you can use these moments as an opportunity to model how to handle that feeling. For example, you can say something like, “Remember when I got mad yesterday because I dropped my coffee? But I took a deep breath, and it helped me calm down.”
- Continue to teach your child more complex feelings words – Many caregivers start with core feelings like happiness, anger, sadness, or fear. Once your child has learned those, expand to more nuanced emotions like embarrassment, pride, excitement, or worry. Teaching your child more feeling words and expanding their emotional vocabulary gives them more tools to identify and respond to their emotions in productive ways.
- Offer positive affirmations – The first few times your child tells you how they feel, show them gratitude for sharing their emotions instead of immediately acting on them. This helps them want to repeat the behavior when you encourage the process of identifying their emotions. Consider learning more about different affirmations for kids and why they’re important.
Pro tip: If your child’s emotions have already prompted a full-on temper tantrum, it might not be the best space for them to talk clearly about their feelings. Instead, try waiting until later when they’ve calmed down. That’s normally a better time to talk about why they felt so upset and brainstorm ways to react differently in the future.2
Expressing Emotions in Healthy Ways
Part of teaching emotional intelligence involves teaching them how to express their emotions in a healthy way involves setting clear boundaries on behavior, like saying, “I’m not going to let you hit your sister” or “I’m not going to let you throw your toys at people.” However, if you only tell your child what not to do, you’re essentially asking them to push down their emotions instead of paying attention to what their feelings are trying to tell them.
Instead, try teaching your child more positive ways to respond to their emotions.
Here are some healthier, solution-oriented responses you can teach them to help express their emotions:2
- Using their words to explain their problem
- Asking for help if they feel frustrated because they can’t do something by themselves
- Telling a grown-up what happened
- Asking for a hug when they want attention or comfort
- Taking a deep breath
- Walking away from something that’s upsetting them
- Relaxing and then trying again when they feel better
- Thinking of a new way to try to do what they want to
The solution-oriented responses you teach your child may vary as they grow. Toddlers tend to face simpler problems than ten-year-olds. Luckily, as your child’s problems become more complex, so will their capacity to handle them. Some of these solutions, like taking a deep breath, can continue to help them their entire life.
Practicing Emotion Identification
You can also use games, social emotional learning books, activities, and some educational videos to help your children practice identifying emotions in themselves and others.
We recommend exploring some of these options with your kid:
- Make-a-face game – Make a face and tell your child to guess what emotion you feel. Once they’ve guessed it—or you’ve helped them guess it—tell them when you feel like this. Then ask them to make a face for you to guess. It’s okay if your child repeats the emotion you just performed—repetition helps them learn.
- Interactive reading – Select a picture book your child enjoys where the character experiences different emotions throughout the story. As you read the book to your child, stop at different points to ask your child what you think a character in the story feels. If your child seems interested in that emotion, you can ask them about a time they felt that same emotion. Or you can move on quickly to the next page. Choose the pace that makes sense for you and your child.2
- Educational feelings videos – Screen time can never replace one-on-one time, but sometimes it can supplement it. To reinforce your feelings lessons, try watching some educational videos on this topic designed to help your child learn about their emotions. For example, you can use video lessons to help teach your child about general feelings and specific emotions—mad, worried, scared, sad, and calm.
Fostering Emotion Regulation Skills
Learning to regulate their emotions can help children succeed later on in life—in fact, emotional skills predict success better than academic performance.3
From a young age, children learn intuitive ways of trying to dismiss things that make them uncomfortable in their environment.. For example, a four-year-old might cover their ears when they hear a loud noise. But with your help, they can begin attempting more complicated solutions to challenging situations. By age ten, most children can consistently develop the more complex solutions necessary for age-appropriate emotional regulation.
Here are some steps you can try following to help them learn how to regulate their emotions:
- Listen – Ask your child what happened or why they’re upset. Listen to them and validate their feelings.
- Identify – Coax them to identify and articulate what emotion they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it.
- Brainstorm – Once you’ve identified their emotion (and the problem) together, try to help them brainstorm solutions. When the problem is partly within their control, you can work towards solutions that could resolve it, such as encouraging your child to play a different game if there’s one that frustrates them, and then try the original game again later. When the issue falls outside their control, try to help them come up with a solution that can help them tolerate it, like listening to a song they like when they have to do a chore they dislike.3
Throughout the process, try to focus on praising your child’s efforts. Focusing your praise primarily on the end result—You fixed it! You’re so smart!—can discourage children from challenging themselves with new tasks where they might receive undesirable results. However, by focusing your praise primarily on the process—I’m so proud of how hard you tried!—you can help your child build resilience and recognize how they feel about their progress and accomplishments. If you use language that acknowledges their efforts, you’re helping encourage your child to have a growth mindset that can also help them identify and reflect on their own feelings, showing them that their opinion of themselves matters.4
Teach About Emotion with Slumberkins
At Slumberkins, we use our education and family counseling background to create tools that help families like yours raise resilient, confident, and caring children.
Whether you’re looking for a bite-sized, accessible educational video about social skills for kids, or a fuzzy friend that can help your child navigate their wonderful, big emotions, we’re here for you. Browse our collection today.
- Tominey, Shauna et al. "Teaching Emotional Intelligence in Early Childhood." National Association for the Education of Young Children. March, 2017. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/mar2017/teaching-emotional-intelligence
- "Teaching Your Child to: Identify and Express Emotions." Vanderbilt. http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/familytools/teaching_emotions.pdf
- "How to Strengthen Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence." The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/strengthen-childs-emotional-intelligence/
- Dewar, Gwen. "The effects of praise: 7 evidence-based tips for using praise wisely." Parenting Science. 2019. https://parentingscience.com/effects-of-praise/