Teach Emotional Intelligence to Children Through Play
Have you ever heard the term Emotional Intelligence? If you haven’t, here is what it means according to Psychology Today: Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as emotions of others. Wouldn’t you say that this is a very important skill to have? I know a lot of people like to pay attention to their IQ (Intelligence Quotient), but I would argue that someone’s EQ (Emotional Quotient) is even more important. People with high EQs are far more successful in social situations, lead much more fulfilling lives, have higher empathy, and overall better self-esteem.
Benefits of Increasing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence
- They become aware of their emotions and later of the emotions of other people.
- They learn to recognize and identify emotions – that can include how emotions feel in their body, what people’s facial expressions look like, what body language conveys what emotion
- They have language to describe their feelings (isn’t that what we all want from our kids?)
- They learn how to empathize with the feelings of others – it’s such an important skills for everyone to have. (If you want to learn more about Empathetic Parenting and how it can benefit your parent-child relationship, read How To Parent with Empathy.)
- They learn to manage and control their emotions – isn’t that magical when this happens and it happens much faster if you spend the time increasing your child’s emotional intelligence.
How I have worked on emotional intelligence with my son
Knowing all that, I, personally, try very hard to gear a lot of the teaching that I do with my children towards increasing their EQ. It’s such an important skill for me to teach my sons, especially my older one since he’s highly sensitive, that I spend a lot more of my day teaching about emotions, how our actions affect others, emotional regulation, and mindfulness, than I do teaching colors, numbers, or letters. Not to say that all the academic skills aren’t important, but, I think, that emotional skills supersede academics, especially in early childhood.
We accomplish as lot of our emotional intelligence learning through natural occurrences and play. There are constant situations that lead to talks about emotions. My highly sensitive son is on an emotional roller coaster every single day. Most of my time is spent trying to talk to him about his aggressive behaviors and of better ways to handle the situations. It’s a rough road but without my coaching, he may never be truly able to manage his overwhelming emotions (I mean, I still struggle with those. And I hope my son will be in a better place when he’s my age).
My preschooler is no stranger to being too rough to his brother and not respecting other people’s personal space. It’s not an uncommon behavior. Virtually all little kids go through this. And so instead of punishing him for that or yelling “No” at him (which is sometimes warranted in order to get his attention but not as a behavior modification tool), I spend the time giving a brief explanation about how he can tell that someone is not liking what he’s doing. I direct my son’s attention to his brother’s face and ask him questions about what he sees. Or I explain to him that his brother’s cries are an indication of his displeasure.
Even if it doesn’t seem like it clicks, I know that this information is getting stored in his brain for the future. Each time he practices this, the synapses in his brain strengthen, and he becomes better at identifying another person’s emotions and tailors his response. It’s such a useful skill.
I’ve been working on identifying emotions with him since he was about 2 years old. I named emotions for him starting from infancy. Yes, telling a baby they’re angry or sad, doesn’t really register in their brain, but it gives you practice. So when you’re child is older, you are already in the habit of naming and explaining emotions to them. I often would tell my son if he experienced anger, sadness, frustration, happiness, excitement or any other emotion.
By the age of 3, he was very proficient at telling us when he was angry, sad, happy or confused (his favorite thing to say when he can’t appropriately name what he’s feeling). It came in handy during his tantrums and meltdowns. Knowing how he’s feeling then helped guide the appropriate response. And I know it helped him make sense of the world around him. He could name his emotions, but he could also name mine. If he heard me yelling or talking in an angrily excited voice while discussing current affairs with my husband, he would often come up to me and say “Mama, are you angry?”. That simple question would lead me to stop for a second and then explain to him my feelings. So at 4 years old my son’s EQ is already well on its way.
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Emotional Intelligence is sometimes best learned with a cool head
But don’t just talk about emotions when your child is experiencing them. Depending on your child, they may be too overwhelmed with emotion to be able to hear you. The reason for that is called emotional flooding. Which is another name for a meltdown. And during that time, nothing is registering in your child’s brain. So save the explanations about emotion for later.
Instead, use playtime as a way to build emotional intelligence. We played a lot of role playing games with my son. I would draw different faces for him and ask him about the drawing . I would act out different scenarios and explain the feelings I was acting out. It was great fun for us and also a wonderful teachable moment.
But I also purchased certain games that are specifically created to teach about emotion and help increase emotional intelligence. I’ve used these games in the past with my ABA Therapy clients with great success. And even though these games are usually advertised as special needs games, they’re not. Because emotional intelligence is for everyone! And I highly recommend them to all the parents.
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Imaginative Play helps build your child’s emotional intelligence
Another wonderful way to raise your children’s EQ is through imaginative and role-playing play. Nothing helps work through feelings better than pretending to be someone else. And kids have such wonderfully rich imaginations. Nothing stops them. My son loves pretending he is Maui Hawk (he has fallen in love with Maui from Disney’s Moana) and gets to pretend to fly, smash, and hit. And he also has various other costumes like a construction worker, fireman (Marshall from Paw Patrol is his favorite), and pirate.
I’ve found all these wonderful costumes on Amazon. But if you’re crafty, you can absolutely make something yourself.
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Help Teach Emotional Regulation Through Breathing
One key aspect of emotional intelligence is not just being able to recognize, but to successfully manage your emotions. And as we all know, toddlers are just learning this concept and are not very successful yet. (If you want to find out why, read Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 Year Old). But there is a simple way to teach them to manage their emotions that all toddlers can do – manage their breath. It’s amazing how quickly we can calm down if we get our breath under control. It slows down our heart rate, allows our body to relax, and let go of the negative emotions.
We used these breathing balls to learn about breath control. We picked up this technique from our Mommy and Me Yoga class.
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Another wonderful way to teach breath control is through blowing bubbles, blowing through a straw into the water, or trying to blow a pom-pom across the floor. The more your toddler is able to experience the power of their breath, the more control they can have over it.
And don’t forget books
Books are a great way to teach about emotions, empathy, emotional regulation. It’s not unusual for your child to not want to discuss their own feelings but they are more than happy to act their feelings out through a book character or a puppet. It’s a technique used by many therapists who work with young children. We role play with other characters. So find a book that your child can relate to and talk about emotions in that book.
These books helped my son learn about different emotions and how to control them.
Final words on building your child’s emotional intelligence
I hope I’ve convinced you to dedicate more time to your child’s emotional development. I know that we’re all busy homeschooling and trying to teach out children academics at an earlier age. But just remember this, you can teach numbers to a child of any age, but it’s much harder to teach numbers to a child that can’t control themselves.