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13 phrases to build your child’s emotional intelligence

Childhood is filled with challenges for both parent and child. While children are learning to manage their emotions, parents are learning ways to help their little ones. It can definitely be hard to keep our own cool when our child is losing it, let alone find the words to help them through it.

But our children have much fewer tools in their toolbox to help control big feelings. And in order to provide them with new tools, we need to put in some time and words to show we are there for them and will help them through this.

This can be an even bigger challenge when we too are missing some tools in our own toolbox. We may have picked up some habits from our own parents without having realized it, but we have the opportunity to change the path for the next generation by making some changes for ourselves and our little ones.

There are a few keys to helping children build their emotional intelligence.

Reflect

Give a name to the feeling you are noticing in your child, as this helps give children the labels to their feelings, and will make it easier for them to express feelings later.

Dr. Daniel Siegel suggests the idea that we have to “name it to tame it.” He explains how labeling the feeling can help active the more rational part of the brain, while getting the emotion center of the brain to calm down. Once children also learn to identify feelings in themselves, they are more likely to become aware and attuned to the feelings in others and be considerate of how to respond to them.

We cannot assume we know exactly what they are feeling, but we can help by suggesting some words:

  1. “I wonder if you are feeling really angry.”
  2. “You seem to be feeling sad.”
  3. “I hear how upset you are right now.”
  4. “This is really hard right now.”

Explain + validate

You can validate your child’s experience by helping state what just happened. Focusing on distracting or minimizing their experience (e.g., “Get up. You’re fine”), may feel like it works in the short-term, but it may make it more difficult for them to know what to do with these big feelings in the long run. And we know that distracting only “works” while they are young.

Additionally, sometimes adults may unintentionally minimize their child’s feelings because it can just be plain uncomfortable to see our child have such big feelings or for it to happen in a public setting where we may worry that others see our child’s difficulties as a reflection on our parenting skills.

These big feelings are not a reflection on our parenting. By putting words to what just happened we help our child feel understood and make sense of their feelings. This will help them boost their coping as they grow.

You might say something like:

  1. “You fell and your knee got scratched. Ouch!”
  2. “You really wanted to play at the park longer and now it’s too dark.”
  3. “It would be so much fun if we could play all night.”
  4. “You really want that toy too.”

Cope

Helping your child cope with the big feelings now, is like giving them a tool that they get to use for the rest of their lives. They may not know how to use it right away, since like anything else it will take some practice.

Your child may not even accept the coping that you offer and may need some space (while still being supervised), but that is because they are still trying to get a handle on their feelings.

You will figure out what your child needs, but here are some things you can suggest:

  1. “We can take some deep breaths together, so it can help you feel better.”
  2. “When you’re ready we can try to put the tower of blocks back together.”
  3. “I will move over to the couch and I am here for you when you want a hug.”
  4. “I can help you with your scratched knee.”
  5. “Would you like to ask her if you can play with that toy once she is done? We can play with this while we wait.”

By putting reflections, explanations, and coping skills together you are giving your child the foundational skills to manage emotions as they grow up. Most important of all, though, is demonstrating healthy coping when you are finding yourself getting upset or bothered and giving yourself space to cool off. Like anything… it can take practice.

Dr. Azine Graff is a Clinical Psychologist and Co-Founder of Harmony in Parenting, which is based in Los Angeles and offers groups, classes, therapy and consultation services informed by the latest research on child development.

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