You guys know emotions and emotional/nervous system regulation are some of my favorite things to talk about, so I’m excited to focus on it as it relates to our kids today. Our emotional intelligence, our EQ, is our ability to express our feelings and manage them well – manage them in a healthy way – while being respectful of the people around us and their feelings too.
And having a high EQ is way more valuable than having a high IQ, right? Like think of your favorite people to be around, your favorite people to work with, your favorite leaders – they likely all have a high EQ. That’s what makes them so great to be around!
But high EQ is also linked to high IQ. So kids with higher emotional intelligence do better on standardized tests and earn higher grades. Learning how to regulate likely helps kids focus better, regulate nerves and stay grounded during tests, and have the discipline to study – it’s all tied together, right?
One of the greatest payoffs of high EQ is also better relationships. Better relationships with their friends in childhood, and then as they learn and practice emotional intelligence as they grow, they’re developing the foundation for a beautiful partnership in marriage. Great communication flows from high EQ. Commitment stems from a high EQ. Learning to navigate conflicts and disagreements – high EQ.
A 19-year study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that a child’s social and emotional skills in kindergarten may predict lifelong success. Children who were able to share, cooperate, and follow directions at age 5 were more likely to obtain college degrees and to begin working full-time jobs by age 25.
The benefits of emotional intelligence make sense. A child has the skills to calm themselves down when they’re feeling upset is likely to do better in challenging circumstances. And a child who can express their emotions in a healthy way is likely to have healthier relationships than a child who screams or says mean things when they’re angry. Even in preschool.
The good news for us parents is that all of our kids have the capacity to learn emotional intelligence skills. They just need us to coach them and help them to co-regulate until they can do it on their own.
So here are 3 ways we can encourage our kids as they grow in emotional maturity:
1. Help Build Their Emotional Vocabulary
Have you ever heard the expression, you’ve gotta name it to tame it? Helping our kids grow their emotional vocabulary so they can identify how they’re feeling and name it, really helps them grow their EQ. This is something, especially as they’re young, that we can get in the habit of doing. Just calling out and verbalizing what we’re noticing. You know how when they’re really young and we want to just talk narrate the whole day – like now I’m getting you dressed. This is your left leg going into your pants – just talking a lot around them to help them grow their vocabulary? It’s the same thing with their emotions – just verbalize what we’re observing. So maybe it’s – wow I see you’re getting really angry with your brother because he’s not sharing that toy. Or I see you’re really sad that you’re not in the same class as your best friend anymore. Or are you feeling a little nervous about your test tomorrow?
Kids need to know how to recognize how they’re feeling. You can help your child by putting a name to her emotions—at least the emotion you suspect your child is feeling.
Emotional words such as “angry,” “upset,” “shy” and “painful” can all build a vocabulary to express feelings. Don’t forget to share the words for positive emotions, too, such as “joy,” “excited,” “thrilled” and “hopeful.”
And there’s so much value in them learning to identify and name their own emotions, but this is also fostering an awareness in them of others’ emotions which is really the foundation for empathy and compassion.
2. Validate Their Feelings
It’s what I was saying earlier – reminding our kids that all of them is welcome. All of their emotions are ok. There’s no judgment of emotions here. If that’s what your body is feeling right now, let it out. I love you.
You don’t want to minimize what they’re feeling, even if it feels to us that they’re overreacting. Maybe to us, it doesn’t make any sense to lose your ever-loving mind over not getting the green cereal bowl. But to their little nervous system, it does! When your child is upset—especially when their emotions seem a bit on the dramatic side—it can be tempting to minimize how they’re feeling.
But dismissive comments will teach your child that the way they’re feeling is wrong. A better approach is to validate their feelings and show empathy—even if you don’t understand why they’re so upset. Even in modeling empathy, we’re coaching regulation by staying regulated ourselves.
So we want to acknowledge their frustration and anger, and then coach them through coping & self-regulation skills they need to express their emotions safely. Because if we do the opposite, which is how you might have been raised by your parents – judging and encouraging us to suppress our emotions. Are you seriously going to cry over that? It’s not a big deal, why are you so angry? Big girls don’t cry. That encourages the suppression of emotions which is really unhealthy for our bodies – our nervous system needs that release.
3. Teach Them to Express Their Emotions
There are only two things we can do with our emotions – we can either recycle them or release them. We’re in and out of beings. Everything that goes in must come out. And our emotions are energy in motion – emotions. So they’re not meant to go in and get suppressed. We know the pressure cooker that creates when we’ve witnessed someone lose it for something seemingly minor or unrelated, right?
So when we feel emotions, or when our kids feel emotions, there are two things that can happen. We either greet them with judgment – this is bad, wrong, unacceptable, not appropriate, etc. and shove them right back down where they came from. Or we can greet them with compassion and understand that this is our body and our nervous system communicating with us, and allow those emotions to express and pass.
And this is intuitive for young kids, right? We don’t see a lot of 1 year olds judging and suppressing their emotions. It’s much more likely to happen as they get older and certainly in adulthood. So what gives? What changes? Well, a lot of it has to do with whether our caregivers, or whether we, now as the caregivers, either encouraged the expression of emotions or repressed it, right?
So something I tell my kids is that all of them are welcome. All of their emotions are welcome. And all of them and all of their emotions being welcome doesn’t mean that they can do or say whatever they want, so I help them learn how to express their emotions in a healthy way, but also a socially appropriate way. So it’s totally ok for them to be super bummed if I say they can’t buy Hawaiian Punch at the grocery store. Not cool for them to start yelling and throwing things in the middle of the store, right?
Is this easier said than done? Sometimes, but it really starts with us modeling the healthy expression of our emotions for them. Studies show that emotionally intelligent parents are more likely to have emotionally intelligent children. So, make it a habit to clearly focus on building your skills so you can be an effective role model for your child.
Episode 4 of this podcast is all about teaching our kids self-regulation tools, and it’s a really great place to start if you’re looking for tools. Knowing how to calm themselves down (down-regulating), pump themselves up (up-regulating), or move through their fears can be complicated for little ones.
Maybe it’s a few deep breaths when they’re angry to calm their body down, maybe it’s shaking their body to release some anxiety, maybe it’s a hug or holding your hand. And if you’re at home there are so many things you can do to help them regulate their feelings. A coloring book, calming music, their favorite blanket – all these things can help them regulate their emotions.
And what if you are in public and those big emotions come up? One of the most powerful things we can do as a parent just acknowledges the emotion. Wow – I see that not getting X is making you feel really mad, huh? Sometimes I feel angry when things don’t go my way too. I really get it. And then sometimes I just ask them – what does your body need right now? And sometimes they’ll be regulated enough to tell me – I just want to scream! Or I just want to hit my pillow! And I’ll bring them somewhere it’s safe to do that. Or other times, they’re too dysregulated to tell me anything – their hulk brain has completely taken over. And in those moments, it’s just taking charge as the parent and removing them from wherever you’re so they don’t hurt themselves or break anything. So maybe that’s taking them outside, to the car, to another room – wherever, and then letting them release the emotion safely and helping them regulate.
And that’s the key – we want to encourage emotional release. Tell them, it’s ok to cry. It’s ok to be angry. It’s not ok to throw things or hit people when we’re angry, but here’s what we can do instead – go scream into a pillow, go outside and run around the house, jump in the pool and thrash around. And here’s the thing – actually encouraging our kids to feel those emotions and release them – it only takes our bodies about 60-90 seconds to release. So instead of them thinking about what’s upsetting them for hours and it spiraling and them starting patterns of suppression that lead to anxiety and other physical manifestations of suppressed emotions – if they learn to really feel the emotion and let it release, they’re over it in about a minute, they can regulate, and everyone moves on.
Here’s something when I started this coaching journey I really needed to really warp my head around and then really embody that uncomfortable emotions serve a purpose. Our body is trying to do something through our emotions. It’s trying to communicate with us. If you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, anxiety is a normal emotional response that is meant to alert us to danger. But, sometimes we experience fear and anxiety when our body is trying to protect us from things we no longer need protection from. Think of the anxiety you might feel going into a job interview or giving a speech on a stage – you might feel a lot of anxiety from that. And that anxiety is trying to protect you – from feeling disappointed if you don’t get the job, from feeling embarrassed if you fumble with your words on stage, from rejection if the audience starts booing or whatever. So we can share that with our kids – if we take a moment to reflect, all of our feelings – even the seemingly big bad ones – all have a higher intention in trying to protect or serve us in some way. Just having that awareness – teaching that to our kids as they grow – is really powerful. Because that’s how you learn to do scary things through fear, anxiety, self-doubt – all the things. You realize its highest intention, thank it for trying to protect you, and then remind it that you’ve got the skills, maturity, support system, etc. that you’re ok – you don’t need it protecting you in this situation anymore. You’ve got it.
Teach your child that just because she feels nervous about something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. For example, if she’s afraid to join the soccer team because she’s nervous she won’t know any of the other kids, encourage her to play anyway. Facing her fears—when it’s safe to do so—will help her see she’s capable of more than she thinks.
Sometimes kids become so used to avoiding the discomfort that they begin to lose confidence in themselves. They think, “I could never do that, it’d be too scary.” As a result, they miss out on a lot of opportunities in life.