When we think of emotional intelligence, we usually think of it as a skill that adults need, but emotional intelligence begins to develop in childhood. Nurturing emotional intelligence in children is important for their success in interpersonal and social relationships in adulthood. Parents, caregivers, and teachers are tasked with finding effective ways to help children develop emotional intelligence to prepare them for a successful future.
The concept of emotional intelligence isn’t new, but it has only recently become a hot topic, and many parents are wondering how to tap into their child’s emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ). Here, we will present a few tips on how to help children increase their emotional intelligence.
Recognizing Emotional Intelligence in Children
A child’s emotional intelligence varies depending on their age, so it’s important to understand how to recognize it. Emotional intelligence in children generally means they can recognize and understand not only their own emotions but also the emotions of others. In other words, emotional intelligence is a combination of self-awareness and empathy. An emotionally intelligent person is able to read a combination of body language, facial expressions, and verbal cues in other people and respond with empathy.
Of course, very young children are to some extent self-centered—their brains are still developing, and they are naturally focused on their own physical needs. Nor do they always understand why they feel the way they do; babies don’t consciously know why they are crying. As children grow, they learn that other people are different from them and that other people have different needs, and their capacity for altruism and empathy grows. Learning to share can be a key stage in this growth. Similarly, children can be capable of a surprising degree of self-awareness and introspection when they learn how to identify their feelings.
Though there is no single way to gauge a child’s emotional intelligence, there are a few easily observable markers. As a child’s emotional intelligence develops, they become more able to describe their feelings with words and express how they feel. A child’s emotional intelligence also increases as they come to understand how their emotions impact the people around them and affect the outcome of situations.
Common examples of emotional intelligence in children include:
- Expressing themselves to others: They are able to say things like, “I’m really mad because he took my toy!” or “I feel bad. I don’t know anyone in the class.”
- Listening to others: When their peers or parents tell them a story, instead of drifting off into an unrelated topic, they engage with the storyteller with active listening and questions.
- Self-regulation: A great example of this is when a child feels themselves becoming frustrated or angry and is able to take a step back to recognize their emotion and express it constructively, rather than lashing out. This can be incredibly difficult for plenty of adults, let alone kids!
How to Teach Emotional Intelligence to Children
It’s not hard to see why emotional intelligence is so important—the ability to express one’s feelings constructively and self-regulate is critical in nearly every facet of life, from the professional to the personal. Moreover, children with emotional intelligence are better equipped to deal with life’s challenges, such as interpersonal conflicts, stress, disappointments, and high-pressure social situations. Research on emotional intelligence confirms its importance. For example, one study on emotional intelligence by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence indicated that children with higher emotional intelligence tend to have better grades, stay in school, and make healthier choices overall. Other research has revealed that emotional intelligence is critical for success in four key areas: relationships, effectiveness, health, and quality of life.
Teaching children emotional intelligence means teaching them how to recognize their feelings, express them constructively, and identify what is causing these feelings. The five pillars of emotional intelligence that can be taught to children include:
- Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize our emotions.
- Self-Regulation: The ability to control our reactions to our emotions.
- Internal Motivation: The ability to think about and identify what’s causing us to feel the way we do.
- Empathy: The ability to understand the emotions of other people.
- Social Skills: Using emotional intelligence to build strong social relationships.
These five principles can be taught at practically any age, to a certain degree. For example, preschool teachers and parents can start by encouraging toddlers and other young children to use words to express their emotions. This can help children get in the habit of recognizing their emotions regularly and is a key part of what Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out, calls “name it to tame it.” In other words, naming an emotion allows the child to get a hold on it. Parents and caregivers can also talk about their own emotions honestly and directly, even when they’re afraid, sad, or angry. Empathy is similarly learned by example; children learn empathy when their caregivers show concern and try to comfort them after they fall on the playground, for example.
The Long-Term View of Emotional Intelligence
As parents, one of our greatest challenges is equipping our children with the skills they need to navigate life’s challenges. While academics are certainly important, emotional intelligence is also critical for success in life. Parents and caregivers must do their best to create an environment that helps children cultivate the best versions of themselves. Having high emotional intelligence continues to be a reliable predictor of future success, so it’s worthwhile for parents and caregivers to do all they can to develop this capacity in their children.
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