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Teaching Kids Emotional Intelligence

teaching kids emotional intelligence

Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence was one of the most influential books I read in college – I still have my marked-up copy from 2001! In the book, Goleman explains why emotional intelligence can matter more than IQ. Here are a few things I do to help my kids develop emotional intelligence:

  • Free play: I try to make sure they have time for free play every single day. This can actually be hard to do during the school year, but I feel like play is a very important way for my kids to process their day, everything they learned at school, and the emotions that they felt and witnessed during the day.
  • Pretend play: This is really part of free play, but small world and role playing are two pretend play mechanisms that kids use to explore emotions within a safe context. I’ve noticed that my kids’ toys are really whiney sometimes – and I’ll take that over my own kids whining!
  • Family time: Kids learn so much through healthy family interactions! When parents get upset, kids watch to see how parents express those emotions. When my kids see me navigating stresses in my own life in a healthy way, they are more likely to respond healthily to stresses in their own lives.
  • Picture books: Picture books are great ways for kids to safely explore emotions – and, so long as you live near a library, you can find great kids’ books on nearly every topic, from bullying to welcoming a new baby into your family.
  • Label emotions: As soon as an emotion has a name, it loses some of its power. Naming how a child feels is often the first step to moving past the intensity of the emotion towards problem solving. We use toys (like the Button Bot from ALEX Toys in the image at the top of this post) and pictures in books to talk about feelings and reasons characters might have these feelings. For younger kids, I like really defined emotions, but now that my kids are getting older I enjoy more neutral faces that can be interpreted in different ways by different kids in different circumstances so that we can explore more complex emotions. The Button Bot has different faces you can swap in and out; the one below could be interpreted as frustrated, scared, or startled, depending on your child’s story line:

exploring emotions with kids - emotional intelligence tips

How do you teach your kids emotional intelligence?

I am an ALEX Toys blogger and receive product from them as part of that agreement, including the Button Bot featured in this post. All opinions are my own.

MaryAnne is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

29 thoughts on “Teaching Kids Emotional Intelligence”

  1. Hi there, thanks for linking up with the parenting tips linky. What a great post, EQ is really important for children, and as parents we play a key role in helping our children understand how they are feeling and taking away some of the mystery for them as they are growing around those feeling and emotions. I love the button bot – what a great idea to use it as an aid to clarify and explain children and characters emotions as well. xx

  2. Marina Silva-Opps

    Very interesting article! Free play and family time are fundamental in the life of any child. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

  3. I came here from your recent post. Beautiful. Somewhere my being impatient, irritated-all-the-time being is changing Aarya too. I am sick of my behavior, and in my heart I have decided to change…. this just gave me enough reasons to start the changing in me and talk about emotions with him too. Naming the emotion – is the 1st step (thanks for the tips)

  4. Awesome post, I never really thought of this topic sad to say. But I think I do a lot of the things you mentioned naturally. However, i need to express my frustrations better especially in front of my child, I sometimes say to myself when he is frustrated and fussing and overly agitated, man he is really my child. But really it’s probably him mimicking how I usually deal with things when I am fed up and frustrated. Sometimes I forget little eyes and ears are on me.
    You’ve given me a lot to be sure I consider when reacting to things.

  5. Monitoring and expressing our own emotions properly is so important. You are very right about that. I always notice that my difficult days often become more difficult when I vent my frustrations in not so great ways as that anger gets reflected back to me by the boys. It is a good reminder to practice the type of emotional intelligence that I want them to have.

  6. Aruna - Young Yoga Masters

    I like the free play time, especially with different options that don’t include screens.

    Last week I wrote about acknowledging feelings, especially when kids ask for things. Acknowledging feelings helps smooth out the desires even when they are not fulfilled. I give an exams of how well it can work in the comment love.

  7. Emotional Intelligence was a watershed book for me as well. And thanks for the reminder of one of the reasons I make free play / pretend play a priority! Always good to get back to the root reasons why we do the things we do.

  8. What a good post. My three year old is incredibly advanced intellectually, but struggling with her emotions. I just had baby no 2, and am in the midst of that hormone/no sleep/emotional war zone, and have been hoping to find some resources to help her learn better emotion management. Just ordered the bot and the book! Hope it helps us both! I’m having such a hard time adjusting to my new life, and I’m ashamed to say I frequently model poor stress management :(

  9. What a great post and I love that Button Bot! I’ve never seen one before. My girls have just started naming their emotions on their own and I’m trying hard to encourage that and acknowledge whatever they tell me they are feeling. You are so right that it loses some of its power once it’s named and accepted.

  10. I really have a hard time with things like this – which is largely why I don’t allow my kids to go to public school. People always label kids as this or that. For example, put an IQ number on them to tell them how intelligent they are or aren’t. I think it stigmatizes them more than anything – parents too. Suddenly, there is something wrong with their kid and it needs fixing.


    My kids do not have emotional issues. They are very calm and loving. I think it’s because that is also how we are as parents. My husband and I never ever yell (or even raise our voices) at each other. We do not raise our voices at anybody else. I do not allow the kids to treat each other in a bad way – or even say anything to each other or anybody else that I would deem inappropriate.

    Kids look to their parents, plain and simple. They will treat others how the parents treat the kids and each other. The parents have to be the role models. Positive role models will help to raise positive and well adjusted kids. I firmly believe that.

    1. I think you are absolutely right – parents, more than anyone, have the power to have a positive (or, sadly, negative) impact on their children’s lives.

  11. I really found Emotional Intelligence to be an important book too! I love the points you bring up with how you teach your kids. At home, we talk a lot about what happened, how our day went and try to ferret out if they faced any issues. My kids are older so they can be more tight lipped if something is bothering them.

  12. So much of mindful parenting goes back to EQ. I’m a big fan of labeling emotions as a way for them to identify whichever emotions that they’re feeling as well as what others are feeling, leading to empathy.

  13. This is an awesome post. I totally agree that pretend play is a great way to discuss and experiment with different emotions. We have a lot of discussions about a proper way to express anger. Unfortunately, everyone in the family has a tendency to raise one’s voice when frustrated, and Anna is clearly learning from us. So before teaching emotional intelligence to kids it’s important for adults to work on theirs too!

  14. Love the ways you teach emotional intelligence, especially the one about kids seeing stress modeled in a healthy way. It’s such a good reminder to remember that little eyes are always watching and learning from us!

  15. You hit so many great points. I always try, even now, to get a few picture books at the library, I feel it just stimulates the imagination. There are some great ones out there, really clever, I can’t think of the authors offhand but of course you could always ask the librarian for suggestions.

  16. This is great. I totally agree EQ to some extent is more important than IQ. What a coincidence, I jsut published a post on emotional intelligence for kids too. Would love to hear your thought: http://ow.ly/hGl9Z

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