I look over at my student struggling with his homework. I hear a big sigh as he looks at the first problem. After the second problem, he throws his pencil down. When I ask if he would like help, he yells “this is stupid!” He crumples it into his backpack and refuses to talk about it again.

As a speech pathologist, how can I help?

Emotional competence is the ability to understand your feelings, express them appropriately, and self-regulate your emotions. This is important for both adults and children to practice. One of the top reasons I see meltdowns in children is communicative frustration. Many children do not have the vocabulary or language skills needed to label their feelings and express themselves. Children with language delays struggle even more so to use and understand emotional vocabulary.

Imagine this:

-Instead of yelling because the birthday party had to be moved indoors, your daughter says “I’m disappointed and sad, but I’m thankful my friends are still coming.”

-Instead of a meltdown when your toddler is overwhelmed, she’s able to spend time alone or ask for snuggles until she’s ready to re-engage.

-Instead of crying about a project, your child says “I’m nervous about the presentation today. Can I talk with you about it?”

You may be thinking – Yeah. Right. No way my child is moving on that easily. It’s true – these responses are signs of a developing emotional intelligence and, just like any other skill, take time and practice.

Strong feelings are normal. We can’t really control our initial reactions. As adults, we don’t discredit our friends for expressing frustration after a difficult day over a glass of wine. Why shouldn’t we respect the big feelings in our children as well? It’s our job to teach children how to work through these emotions – until they are old enough to drink wine with their friends too.

What is Emotional Intelligence (EI?)

The book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by psychologist Daniel Goleman is often cited when talking about emotions. He describes EI as having five parts:

  1. Self-Awareness—ability to know what you feel and understand how your moods/feelings may affect others and yourself
  2. Self-Regulation—ability to control how you respond to your feelings and potential consequences of your emotions
  3. Motivation—ability to accomplish goals despite negative or distracting feelings
  4. Empathy—ability to understand how others feel
  5. Social Skills—ability to develop and maintain positive relationships

So instead of my student having the breakdown described above, with emotional intelligence the scenario would look like this:

My student looks at the first problem. He sighs and realizes he’s getting frustrated. He wants to throw the pencil, but instead asks for my help and admits the problems are difficult and confusing. When I don’t immediately tell him the answers, he understands it’s because I really want to empower him and keeps trying. He doesn’t finish all the problems, but is honest with his teacher about his struggles and the work he attempted. When he finally finishes, he recognizes he feels proud of himself.

Why is Emotional Intelligence Important?

Children can experience more than just happy or sad. Without the skills to work through more complex emotions, our children are left powerless. It’s scary when you don’t understand why your body and mind feel that way and you have no words to explain it. Repressed emotions can result in negative thoughts and shame associated with feelings. Just by teaching a label for the way you feel helps children identify, reflect, and resolve their feelings.

Research shows emotional intelligence is correlated with more positive relationships, healthier habits, and higher quality of life as an adult. Others say the ability to identify and regulate our emotions could also contribute to other skills important in adulthood such as accountability, problem solving, effective communication, adaptability, collaboration, and cultural sensitivity. For children, studies suggest verbal ability and knowledge of emotions may be predictors of academic success in first grade.

How can I help develop Emotional Intelligence?

Assess your own emotional intelligence

It starts with us—we can’t teach and model positive strategies for dealing with emotions if we don’t first have self-awareness and ability to regulate our own emotions. Label your own emotions as they come up and talk about how you feel around your children. Praise your children for talking about theirs. “I saw you start to get angry, but then you took a deep breath and moved on to something else. You must feel proud of yourself.”

Allow expression

Little ones can’t separate their emotions from their “self” yet. Young children aren’t able to understand “sad” is a feeling that will eventually go away. Accept your child’s emotions by validating them. Help your child be aware and label their feelings while still reacting appropriately. For example, “I understand you’re really upset your toy broke. I can’t let you hit me even when you’re very mad. You can tell me how you feel when you’re ready.”

Disapproving, denying, or minimizing a child’s feelings won’t stop the feelings and may even force a child to suppress them in unhealthy ways. Your acceptance helps your child feel safe in his own emotions. This teaches children emotions are not dangerous or shameful, but that everyone shares the same emotions and you are not alone. “You’re mad your bubbles spilled. It’s okay to feel upset. Should we get more soap or put it away?”

Build Empathy

Discuss what others may feel. When you read together, talk about the characters and their feelings. Point out body language and facial expressions. “How do you think the bears felt when they found Goldilocks at their house?” “How do you think your sister feels when you don’t share?”

Find books to help develop Emotional Intelligence for kids HERE.

Problem Solve Together

A child needs to feel heard AND have skills to find solutions to their emotions. Research shows empathy alone is not enough to teach children how to manage their feelings. “You’re so disappointed you can’t play with your friends in the park today. I know you were looking forward to seeing them. Let’s think of something else to do that sounds like fun.” If your child can’t label how they feel, see if they draw it or describe it.

With time, practice, and patience you will see your child start to be smart with their emotions and be more prepared to navigate their world as they grow.

What signs of emotional intelligence have you seen in your children?

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