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Helping Children Develop Emotional Intelligence

“I know you hear me, but are you listening?” These words still ring in my head from my childhood. I remember my dad saying this to me during his many “life lectures,” as I endearingly refer to them.

The dialogue went like this:

Dad: “Are you listening?”

Me: “Yes, dad, I hear you.”

Dad: “I know you hear me, but are you listening?”

The meaning was lost on me as a child and teenager. But now, as a parent myself, it holds so true. While my dad’s goal, no doubt, was for me to learn some poignant life lesson, I have found myself wondering…How often are we listening to our kids? We surely hear them! But are we listening?

Kids express their emotions differently than adults. They often show us how they’re feeling with their behaviors or moods, more than telling us with their words. Young children may have a tantrum to express feeling frustrated, confused or overwhelmed. Older kids may isolate or appear irritable when feeling insecure, overwhelmed or depressed. They lack both the ability to identify their emotions and to verbalize them effectively. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) can be defined as the ability to understand, manage, and effectively express one’s own feelings, as well as engage and navigate successfully with those of others. Unlike IQ, which does not change significantly over a lifetime, EQ can evolve and increase as we learn and grow. EQ does not peak until middle adulthood; however, young kids, even infants, can begin to develop EQ. When kids understand how they’re feeling, they are better able to manage those feelings appropriately. When kids can manage their feelings appropriately, they are less likely to react negatively to those feelings.

The best way to help children develop EQ and improved emotional expression is to model it for them. This begins with listening to not only their words, but also their behaviors. Next, validate what they’re expressing. Then, offer support to help them express their emotions appropriately.

Here are some helpful steps to get you started:

1. Listen. Listen to what your child is saying and be aware of their behaviors. Take what they are saying as true, even if you think they are overreacting. Many times, we immediately disregard what our child is trying to express because the way they are expressing it is, in our view, disproportionate or irrational. This disregard only increases their negative emotion. While they may be acting completely irrational, it’s important to acknowledge what they’re expressing and not discount it.

2. Validate. Validate the emotion they are expressing. Label it for them (e.g., “You look really frustrated right now” or “I get it; that sounds really scary”). This helps them connect a word/emotion to the way their body is feeling.

3. Support. Support the child in the moment by suggesting a helpful coping strategy. For example, if the child is frustrated and becoming angry or aggressive you may say, “I can tell you feel frustrated. You can always feel mad but you can’t get mean. Let’s try blowing up a balloon or squeezing a lemon. When I feel frustrated this usually helps me feel calmer.” Then demonstrate the coping strategy and have them try it with you.

4. Model. Model appropriate emotional expression. Whenever possible, share aloud how you’re feeling. Then, model an appropriate response to that feeling. For example, “Oh man, I thought I had sauce to make spaghetti for dinner tonight but we’re out. Ugh, that’s frustrating. Oh well, I’ll just go with the flow and make something else for dinner. No biggie!”

The more you practice these helpful steps, the more EQ your child will develop.

The good news is, we have an impressive influence on our children and how they express their emotions. We can help them be calmer, less impulsive, happier kids! The bad news, maybe, is it’s up to us to help them achieve this. EQ is developed, not innate. So, we need to be able to teach and model what we’re expecting our kids to demonstrate. Have you heard the old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do?” That doesn’t fly with kids! They learn by watching us, their peers, their favorite characters on TV. Be cognizant of what they’re learning and create an environment where emotional expression is valued.

If you’d like more specific information on how to help your child develop Emotional Intelligence, or if you’d like additional parenting support, contact Art It Out Therapy Center. Art It Out offers individual therapy for kids and adults, social skills groups for kids, parenting classes, and couples therapy. Visit

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