Helping Young Children to Build Emotional Intelligence



Experiencing a variety of emotions is an important part of the early childhood experience.  As parents, we want our children to always be happy but we cannot shield them from every experience that will cause a plethora of emotional reactions.  It is not our job to prevent them from feeling sad, angry, afraid or disappointed.  It is our job to help guide them through the many ways that they feel.   If we allow them to feel and then guide them, children learn that they can be in control and can cope.

The first and most important thing that parents and caregivers need to understand is that children’s feelings are real and need adult validation.  A child who is laughing finds something funny.  Likewise, a child who cries finds something sad.  We need to acknowledge that they are entitled to feel their emotions and give them the words to use to describe what they are feeling.  Adults tend to use approximately five words when naming emotions for children – happy, sad, mad, scared and upset.  Yet, we describe our own emotions with so many more words – frustrated, elated, terrified, annoyed, angry.  Our adult list of emotion words goes on and on.  We need to help our children to express their feelings with words by more precisely naming the emotion for them.  When your child is crying, it could be a sign of sadness, anger, frustration.  Say to your child, “I see you are frustrated” rather than the general words “mad” or “sad.”  Saying that you see the frustration accomplishes two tasks.  Your child will know that you recognize and validate that there is a problem.  The child will also start to identify that set of physical reactions as something called “frustration.”  Giving children a large emotional vocabulary helps them to more precisely communicate their feelings.

When children are feeling unpleasant emotions, they often feel out of control.  Crying is not fun.  It is acceptable to cry and it is also acceptable for them to know that when they are ready, they can regain control and stop.  The escalations of crying and temper tantrums have a physiology.  Children start to breathe with shallow breaths and their heart rate increases.   This sends a signal to the brain that there is an emergency and the brain releases hormones that intensify the reaction.  When children are crying, encourage them to make eye contact with you so they feel connected and less alone.  Encourage them to take deep breaths to reverse the physical process.  Teach them that they can control their breathing and, therefore, be able to stop on their own.   If we try to shield our children from every sadness, they never learn this important self-help skill.

When young children are angry, frustrated or otherwise feeling badly, adults need to help them to problem solve.  Critical thinking skills are developed may ways.  Children develop critical thinking skills while they play, build with blocks and do puzzles.  Children also develop those skills by solving an emotional dilemma.  Don’t solve it for them.  When the emotional outburst is over, strategize with your children.  Ask them questions like “What can you do so that doesn’t happen again?” or even just “What should you do next time?”  Make your children part of a decision making process so they develop the skills to make social and emotional decisions when you aren’t with them.

One of the biggest mistakes we make when trying to teach children to cope is dwelling on their last negative reaction.  We don’t want them to cry so we remind them of how they felt last time.  When we remind children not to cry, we actually perpetuate the notion that there is something to cry about.  Saying “Remember, don’t cry” raises a child’s anxiety level thus having the opposite effect both physically and emotionally.  Anxiety has the same physiology as frustration.  When we say “Remember not to cry this time,” anxiety sets in and their heart rates increase.  The brain reacts and they are no longer in control.  We should proceed with the confidence that all will be well and, even if it is not, the children will see that we are not afraid.  Having calm and smiling adults around them helps to reassure them that they can feel safe and secure.

Practicing emotional vocabulary and skills as preschoolers helps children to feel confident as they enter the elementary school years.  They will know it is just as acceptable to be elated as it is to be disappointed.  It is wonderful when they are joyful and it is fine when they are afraid.  They will leave their parents for the long kindergarten day better able to navigate the ups and downs of daily life in a larger world.


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Comments

  1. Quite good article. However, I would just elaborate when you say,

    "One of the biggest mistakes we make when trying to teach children to cope is dwelling on their last negative reaction. We don’t want them to cry so we remind them of how they felt last time. When we remind children not to cry, we actually perpetuate the notion that there is something to cry about. Saying 'Remember, don’t cry' raises a child’s anxiety level thus having the opposite effect both physically and emotionally. Anxiety has the same physiology as frustration. When we say “Remember not to cry this time,” anxiety sets in and their heart rates increase."

    Yes, their anxieties correspondingly increase, as it just raising "alarm" not just about what they feel but rather (and more trauma producing), the processing or feeling what they are feeling and thus the destructive message conveyed by the "reminder" by the parent is that they shouldn't feel-and-express what they are feeling (or process what they are feeling) so instead they become defensive. Those defenses against reprimand or admonition of safely processing and externally expressing what they are feeling is in fact what produces the greater core of (perpetuated) anxiety more than the situation at hand!

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