Many of us care less about what our children grow up to be and more about who our children grow up to be. Imparting emotional values of empathy, gratitude and mindfulness, among others, can set our kids up to be caring, self-aware adults.
Teaching these skills early not only benefits kids but the whole family as well. "Teaching emotional intelligence ripples through families beautifully because it helps everyone be more intentional about emotional cues and needs," says parent and health education specialist Sheena Hill, creator of Parenting Works. "It also sets families up for success because it helps shift the focus from compliance and control to curiosity and cooperation—parents who are more regulated have kids who are more regulated, and this organically leads to fewer power struggles."
While kids (and adults) will still have outbursts from time to time—we're only human—incorporating the following ideas can help you support your little ones in their emotional learning and allow you to practice your own self-regulation, too.
1. Read books together
We all know how important reading is for language development but it also helps kids understand feelings and situations by providing stories, lessons and context for emotional learning.
"Books are an easy way to start conversations," Hill says. "While reading—or afterwards—you can pause to discuss how the characters could have been feeling. Include questions like, 'What gave you a clue they were feeling that way?' 'Why did they feel that way?' 'How would you feel in that situation?'"
She notes that younger kids may not have the emotional vocabulary to fully articulate or pick up clues so you can add what you notice in a particular story to keep the conversation flowing.
2. Play connective games
According to Hill, the best kind of games for teaching emotional intelligence are connective games that inspire laughter, movement and sensory stimulation.
Child and teen development specialist Dr. Robyn Silverman, host of parenting podcast "How to Talk to Kids about Anything," agrees. She says she's had a lot of success with a game she plays with young kids and school-age kids called "How Am I Feeling NOW?"
"After detailing the different types of emotions such as happy, sad, angry, scared or disgusted—and what those look like—we have partners or groups work together to guess as many feelings in 10 seconds," she explains. "One person shows the facial expression, sometimes with body language too, and the other person or group guesses. The kids find this hilarious—especially the feeling 'disgusted,' as you can imagine."
3. Practice calming down when they don't need to calm down
When it comes to mindfulness, teaching kids how to understand and embody their own feelings, instead of promoting shutting down or calming down can help them learn how to self-regulate. Practicing these tools proactively is key for setting them up for success when they're having moments of big feelings (i.e. screaming in your face).
"In other words, trying to introduce breathing exercises when your child is losing it is not the right time," Hill says.
She recommends these Feelings Flashcards by Todd Parr and this My Calming Strategies poster from Generation Mindful, which provides a visual about things you can do when you're feeling like melting down. (Handy for parents and children alike!)
But you don't need anything fancy to help kids connect their feelings and their bodies. Hill says that something sensory, like a calm down jar, squeeze ball or bubble wrap, and a breathing reminder like blowing a pinwheel or feather work great.
"The most important thing you need is your own commitment to supporting their practice, which means your own support," she says. "I encourage parents to first focus on their own skills so they can stay regulated while supporting their child."
Early childhood educator Jennie Monness, founder of Union Square Play, has witnessed the power of self-regulation firsthand. "When my 3-year-old has a frustrating moment, instead of trying to talk over her loud cries, whines or even tantrum screams, I sometimes just sit, close my eyes, and take deep breaths, even sometimes saying 'this feels really hard'," she says. "It may not help her in the moment, but I promise you that I have seen her do the same thing before losing herself emotionally to a tantrum. It holds so much more weight sometimes to just demonstrate rather than 'teach'."
4. Teach gratitude by expressing gratitude
The holidays are a great opportunity to model empathy and share gratitude. A group project that everyone can participate in, like this Thankful Turkey activity from Busy Toddler, can provide a tangible reminder of appreciation.
"Since children are more hands-on in their learning, developmentally speaking, experiential activities are an ideal way for kids to join in the fun, and help keep adults present too," Hill says. "Activities reinforce the team mentality and the fact that skills are essential for everyone."
Silverman adds this practice doesn't have to be limited to the holidays. You can use a seasonal thankfulness activity as a jumping off point for starting a daily gratitude practice, like sharing "roses and thorns" or a high and a low during dinner.
"When someone expresses a 'rose' they can share what they are thankful for that day and puts them in the habit of highlighting their gratitude," she explains. "When someone expresses their 'thorn' they are able to receive empathy from others. They can also share empathy when they hear others express their thorn. It's a great practice that allows children to see that everyone, both young and old, experiences frustrations and kindness each day."
5. Role play to help talk out conflict
For tougher situations—like fights among siblings or friends—try reenacting scenes from the other person's perspective to teach empathy, forgiveness and other relationship skills. While this practice isn't conventionally fun-fun, it can provide a more heart-centered, hands-on approach to conflict that will resonate with kids.
"Sometimes this can be in a discussion, like 'Imagine you were your brother hearing 'I hate you,' how would you feel?' and other times you can do an actual reenactment, switching roles or having kids play the same role with the parent as 'sportscaster' explaining the facial expressions and emotions you see," Silverman says.
After the re-enactment, encourage kids to do a do-over and ask how they could behave differently. "Do-overs are a great way for kids to learn the right way to go about complex situations in a low-risk setting," she says.
6. Talk about feelings in everyday activities
Teaching mindfulness and presence is an ongoing practice and these lessons are easy to incorporate in your day-to-day life. "Take a walk in nature, listen to music, eat mindfully," Silverman suggests. "It's fun to debrief after, too."
Have everyone take turns and answer questions about their sensory and emotional experiences using questions like: What did you notice? What was different during this experience that you didn't realize before? What did you like? What did you feel in your body? Where did you feel that?
Practicing awareness of feelings in these everyday activities helps everyone appreciate the little moments together more and creates body awareness to promote self-regulation when needed.