Building Emotional Intelligence in Children


Jun 15, 2017


Over the past two decades, emotional intelligence – often shortened to EQ or EI – has become a not-so-secret elixir of success. It is credited with building brain circuitry and increasing academic and professional performance, health, relationship satisfaction and personal happiness. And while all of these claims do have studies to back them up (there have been 3,000+ studies relating to EQ since the concept was introduced in 1990), what gets lost in all of this focus on achievement is what level of EQ parents can expected from kids and at what age, and how parents can foster emotional intelligence in children.

What is EQ?

EQ, as laid forth in Daniel Goleman’s seminal 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence, is the ability to feel and recognize our own emotions, perceive emotions in others, understand all of these emotions, and use this knowledge and understanding to guide our thoughts and actions, particularly when it comes to conflict and problem solving.

The catchy thing about EQ is that it can be learned – particularly in early childhood. As with most skills, the foundations of emotional intelligence are laid when kids are young. And while emotional intelligence in kids naturally increases with age (as people mature and have more relationships of all kinds), to capitalize on a lot of the benefits, it’s helpful to have a solid start by the time kids are school-aged.

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What level of emotional intelligence in children can parents expect?

EQ, like most knowledge, scaffolds; layers are built upon previous layers. In other words, you have to have the basics down in order to navigate the harder stuff. And even once you have the basics down, a child may not cognitively be ready for the next step; he may need a little bit of time to grow and practice.

Parents can think of it like maths. A toddler may memorize 2+2=4, but isn’t cognitively capable of understanding, yet, what that actually means in terms of amount. By the time he is primary school-aged, he will be, and that knowledge is fundamental to him understanding multiplication years later, after picking up many more maths skills in the intervening time.

Similarly, a toddler may first connect that when he cries, his parents ask him if he is mad. But he may not connect the word to his internal feeling until he’s a little older. Later, as a preschooler, he might be able to say, “I am mad,” instead of crying to express his anger. And many years later, he may be able to parse whether his anger is actually justified and how he can deal with the situation in a constructive way.

Emotional intelligence for children doeesn’t follow a clear-cut, biological development timeline, but as schools increasingly incorporate EQ skills into their curricula, a rough outline has emerged. Assuming a child has the appropriate guidance from parents or teachers, this is an approximation of progress, as summed up by Goleman:

To give just one example of a remarkably detailed and comprehensive curriculum, in the early elementary years students should learn to recognize and accurately label their emotions and how they lead them to act. By the late elementary years lessons in empathy should make children able to identify the nonverbal clues to how someone else feels; in junior high they should be able to analyze what creates stress for them or what motivates their best performance. And in high school the SEL [social-emotional learning, a synonym for building EQ] skills include listening and talking in ways that resolve conflicts instead of escalating them and negotiating for win-win solutions.

(A full breakdown of the curricula detailing EQ for kids by class level – and thus, what kids are capable at various ages, given the right guidance – can be found here for classes 1 to 5 and here for classes 6 to 12.)

What raising an emotionally intelligent child looks like

Parents can do different things at different ages to help kids build EQ skills that, in turn, allow them to pick up new ones. Prior to kids starting school, parents can:

Name the emotion the child is experiencing.

Parents can start as early as they want, saying things like, “Are you crying because you are hungry?” “Are you frustrated because you want food?” “Are you yelling/crying because you are mad I won’t let you play with the plug point?” Later, parents can turn these questions into statements, such as, “I know you’re mad because you wanted carrots not peas,” or, “I know you’re sad because dadi had to leave, but she will be back.” This builds the child’s vocabulary and ability to express and internally identify what he is feeling.

Use a mood meter.

Part of an early childhood EQ curriculum developed by Yale University calls for the use of a ‘mood meter,’ an easy way for kids to express their emotions. This can be particularly helpful for kids who struggle with recognizing or expressing their emotions, whether because they’re more visual in their expression or because they have a condition like Autism Spectrum Disorder, which can make such things difficult. Here’s an example of it – children (and parents!) can use a magnet or clip to show how they are feeling.

A ‘mood meter’ created by Yale University’s RULER program, courtesy the US’ National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Encourage pretend play.

By age 3, kids will start acting out situations and imitating people they are familiar with – for instance, pretending to be a dad putting a baby to sleep, a mom leaving for work, or a doctor giving a check-up. This gradually extends to more imaginative play as the child grows and develops – and parents can engage in the pretend play with the child to role play different emotions and model appropriate responses.

At all ages, parents can do the following things, tailoring the depth and nuance of conversation to the child’s maturity and capability:

Discuss the feelings of characters in book and movies.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, a professional organization for early childhood educators in the US, developed a script parents can use for teaching emotional intelligence to children by discussing characters’ feelings. It includes questions like: “What happened that made the character feel ____ ?” “What happens that makes you _______?” “What did the character do when he/she felt ________ ?” “What could you do to help a friend who is feeling _________?”

As children grow, you can ask more nuanced questions, such as: “Do you think the character knew he/she was made when he/she decided to _______?” “How could he/she have reacted differently?”

Discuss the feelings of others.

Discussing the feelings of people in the child’s life, in scenarios the child is part of, also helps them build empathy. For example, when your child takes a toy from another child, or helps spread a rumour, ask how they think their action made the other child feel. (If they flounder, you can prompt them by asking questions: “Do you think taking the ball made her feel good?” “Do you think saying that bout him made him feel confident?”)

Many parents ask kids to put themselves ‘in another’s shoes’ and imagine how they would feel in said scenario in order to build empathy. While this may have a time and place in helping kids become empathetic, a recent study has found it can also be distressing and physically stressful, particularly if it becomes the child’s long-term habit of emotional engagement.

“Rather than saying to a child, ‘How would you feel if that were done to you?’ maybe we should be saying, ‘Think about how that person is feeling,'” suggests Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology and co-author of the study led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Anneke E.K. Buffone.

Discuss your own feelings.

Research has shown that for children – of all ages, but especially older children – modelling the behaviour we want to see in them is one of the most effective parenting techniques. This is true for teaching emotional intelligence to children, too. By talking about your own feelings and how they effected your actions, you are showing your child it is okay to do that – and giving them an example of how.

Discuss responsive courses of action.

Helping kids think through acceptable and effective responses to their and others’ emotions is a critical part of building emotional intelligence in children. It teaches kids how to use their EQ skills for the good of themselves and others.

Emotional intelligence in kids has been touted as the way to end bullying and violence, and while it can definitely contribute to that goal, the reverse is also true: being tapped into others’ feelings doesn’t necessarily mean we respond in their interest. Without learning acceptable and constructive responses, we may just get really good at manipulating and preying on their emotions.

A 2014 study found young women with high emotional intelligence were more likely to bully, among other negative actions. As Science of Us reported in 2014, “Young women … tend to internalize negative emotions and may be channeling this energy into forms of delinquency that require more emotional understanding, such as bullying and social exclusion.”

“When you think about manipulative behavior or Machiavellian ways of relating, for that to be a successful social strategy, you have to have some degree of emotional intelligence,” said [Alison Bacon, PhD, a psychologist at Plymouth University and the study’s lead author]. “You have to understand what effect your behavior is going to have on other people, in terms of their thoughts, or feelings or emotions … otherwise you won’t have the social skills to pull that off.”

While young men tend to externalize their feelings and engage in other kinds of delinquent behaviour when troubled, they are just as capable of misusing emotional intelligence.

Cut back on screen time.

EQ improves as we age, because it gives us more practice interacting with people. Screen time – whether texting with friends, watching videos, or playing video games – actively prohibits that kind of interaction, practice and learning.

There’s solid research behind this. In the summer of 2012, researchers took a group of kids ages 11 to 12, who spent daily an hour texting friends, two and a half hours watching TV, and roughly an hour playing computer games, into nature with no access to digital devices. They did summer camp activities together. At the beginning of the week, before the camp activities started, the kids took a test designed to measure their EQ – identifying facial expressions and tones of voice. At the end of the week, they took it again – and their scores improved by 33%.

Building emotional intelligence in children is not a magic bullet – if your child has a good level of EQ already, developing more won’t change his score from a B to an A, or make an already happy and secure child happier. But EQ is an important skill – and arguably one he needs to build as or more thoroughly than most school subjects in order to be set up for success and happiness in life.


Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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