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5 min read

Things are different than when we were kids.That's true in a lot of different ways but, during this period of my life, I especially notice it in the way children are treated.Thirty to forty years ago, it wasn't common to spend time talking to children, especially young children, about their feelings.The term emotional intelligence (how we perceive, express, and regulate our feelings) wasn't even coined until 1985!And for those of us who weren't raised in households that openly talked about feelings - we're doing double the work.Not only are we trying to teach our children healthy ways to express their emotions and self-regulations skills, but we have to develop these skills for ourselves too.As Brené Brown has said, "We cannot give our children what we don't have."

If you grew up in a family that always said things like...

  • "stop crying, you're fine"
  • "big kids don't cry"
  • "There's nothing to be scared of"
  • "Just cheer up"

...then you have to consciously do the work to undo those ways of thinking.It's hard. It's really hard to dig deep and find the patience to navigate through a tantrum without screaming back or immediately sending our children to their room.And not only is it incredibly challenging, it's the kind of thing that can take years until we see the "pay off".We don't just teach emotional language and self-regulation skills once and then our children wake up the next morning reporting "I feel a little grouchy today because I didn't get a good sleep last night. Can I have a hug?"I WISH!It takes years of practice have an advanced emotional vocabulary like that.But collectively, these individual moments, decisions, and lessons are what set our children up for success.And every year, there seems to be more research that tells us - it is worth it (1, 2, 3, and a quick search in Google scholar brings up many more).

Why Emotional Intelligence Is SO Important For Children

High Emotional Intelligence helps in almost every aspect of childhood, from academics, to social skills, to communication.

Here's the 5 main ways:

  1. It helps children identify and understand their feelings, fostering self-awareness from a young age. It's this self-awareness that helps us communicate better, build stronger relationships, and drives self-improvement.
  2. Enables children to better communicate and articulate their feelings. Oftentimes the frustration a child experiences stems from not feeling understood.A child that can tell us exactly how they feel (and why) is much less likely to get caught in a loop of frustration and overwhelming emotions:I feel mad > Dad doesn't understand why I'm mad so now I'm frustrated > I'm more mad that dad doesn't understand > and so on...
  3. Helps their development of self-regulation skills. Once a child can name their emotions and talk about them, they can begin to regulate how those emotions are displayed.Instead of anger manifesting itself as crying and screaming, it's expressed through language.
  4. Develops empathy. When a child can understand their own emotions and why they occur, they can begin to extend this to others too. Higher empathy also helps with conflict resolution because our children can see things from the other individual's perspective.
  5. Higher emotional intelligence is linked to better academic achievement. This meta-analysis from 2019 looks at 42,529 students. It found that a child's ability to understand and manage their emotions led to better academic performance and social relationships at school.


What You Can Do: From Birth to Three Years Old

You can start helping children develop their emotional vocabulary from birth by providing them with words to describe how they may be feeling.

For example:

"I understand that you don’t want to get your diaper changed. I’ll go as quickly as I can and you’ll feel much better once you’re all cleaned up"

or

"Daddy dropped something. The noise startled you and you jumped! It startled me too!"

They have to learn how to recognize and identify their emotions before they figure out how to manage them appropriately.

For children as young as one, you can also look at faces of people (babies, children, and adults) expressing different emotions and name them. You can download these free emotion nomenclature cards.



We also have these books and puzzles in the shop:

What You Can Do: From Three to Six Years+

For children with a larger vocabulary and those talking in full sentences, you can begin to talk about how emotions FEEL, i.e. our heart beats really fast when angry, we cry when sad, butterflies in our stomach when nervous/excited, etc.

Because they’re still young, they may not be able to tell you how their emotions feel but you can tell them how they feel in your body, in an age appropriate way:

"When I’m feeling angry, I can feel my heart beating hard in my chest. I take a few deep breaths and it helps me to feel more calm."

You're their best role model so the more you practice using a diverse emotional vocabulary, the more likely your child is to develop it too.

Here's 4 more ways to help your child identify and recognize emotions:

  • Talk about how characters in books and tv shows are feeling. For example, if you're reading a book, you might notice that one of the characters is crying. You could point it out - "it looks like he's crying". You could ask a question - "why do you think he's crying?" This helps your child to learn that they aren’t alone in how they may be feeling, while strengthening their emotional vocabulary.
  • Give them your undivided attention when they’re expressing an emotion to you (or they’re telling you a story about someone else's feelings). You want to send the message that all feelings are valid and that you’ll support them.
  • Don’t immediately try to "fix" your child’s emotions or problems. It might not seem intuitive because you want your child to be happy but children need to experience their feelings. This helps children learn how to manage their emotions and eventually realize that most feelings, even big ones, are temporary.

We also have these games and books and in the shop, designed to help build a child's emotional vocabulary:

And if you are one of many parents trying to break old cycles, you might also enjoy the book "Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience" by Brené Brown. In it, she talks about eighty-seven different emotions. Many people are surprised to learn we have so many!

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