Teaching Children to be Emotionally Intelligent

My oldest child was 3 months old.  It had been one of those days.  I was tired of being wet all the time, with milk, infant pee, blown-out diapers, spit-up, you name it.  I was tired of being tired.  I was still adjusting to having my life revolve around a tiny human.  And on that particular day, my tiny human was also tired.  But he wouldn’t sleep.  He was cranky and fussy and screamed for most of the day.  Typically, Cub was a very peaceful and easy baby, so this was unusual and something I hadn’t learned how to respond to with patience. 

My heart leapt with happiness as I heard the key in the doorknob.  My husband was home!!  I literally met him at the door, shoved Cub at his chest, and said, “Here.  Take this.”  I walked off into the bedroom and collapsed on the bed.  Jon was still standing in the threshold with his messenger bag over his shoulder, one hand filled with mail and one hand now filled with Cub.  From the glimpse I caught as I high-tailed it down the hallway, Jon looked bewildered, but calm.  Within seconds, Cub was no longer crying.  Keep in mind, this pint-sized, screaming terrorist had been going at it for several hours by this point, and within 30 seconds, in the arms of his dad, he was calm.

Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.”  It is a necessary skill.  Though, as a side note, I would add that we aren’t actually able to manage someone else’s emotions, that’s up to them.  We simply don’t have that power.  But, the ability to identify someone else’s emotions and the ability to identify and regulate your own emotions are essential to living a life with any semblance of wellness.

Given that emotional intelligence encompasses such essential skills, we, of course, would want to know how to teach these skills to our children.  Especially our emotionally intense children who experience BIG emotions. 

Countless parents arrive at my therapy door, gently guide their children into the room, and look at me expectantly.  They generally tell me their child’s strengths, struggles, and behaviors that they want changed.  They generally tell me that they’d like me to teach their child how to “cope with things better.”  Essentially, they’re asking me to develop their child’s emotional intelligence.

At this point in the session, I usually respond by saying something like, “Yes, for sure we want to help your child learn how to regulate emotions.  How do you regulate your own emotions?”

This will often catch a parent off guard, but at its core, this is the essential question.  How developed is the emotional intelligence of the adults around this child?

The truth is, children often learn by what’s been modeled.  We cannot expect our children to have high emotional intelligence if we do not model it to them.

Which brings us back to 3 month old Cub.  Of course he calmed down as soon as Jon took him.  Jon was calm.  Jon was regulated.  Jon provided an environment in which Cub could regulate himself.  I had been tired, in a bad mood, impatient, crying alongside of him.  He fed off of that and remained dysregulated. 

We cannot expect children to do what we cannot do.  We cannot expect to magically teach our children how to identify and effectively regulate their own emotions when we are dysregulated.  Especially for our emotionally intense children, our empathic children, our children who feel the energy of a room but cannot verbalize what that energy means.

How do we teach a child to be emotionally intelligent?  We work, first, on improving our own emotional intelligence.  I talk about emotions every day.  I have a master’s degree in this stuff.  And I need to continuously work on my own personal emotional intelligence.  No one is fully and completely enlightened.  We all have ways we can grow.  And that’s where we need to start.

Start with mindful awareness of your own emotional experiences.  Start with accepting your emotions without judgment.  Start with finding healthy and well ways to express your own emotions; ways to calm them and ways to release them. 


When we first regulate ourselves, only then will our children learn how to be emotionally bright.g

Check out this month's blog hop at Hoagie's gifted, for more great articles about Emotional Intelligence!