How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Ages 1-3 | Health & Fitness

Paschal Psyche

It’s not easy being a little boy. At one point, his son feels as if he is the king of the world; the next he’s crying with rage and throwing a toy across the room.

Like many parents, you may find it difficult to deal with your young child’s outbursts of anger and frustration. But these times actually provide the best opportunities to teach a young child how to handle strong feelings and calm down. By helping him do this, says psychologist John Gottman, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, you’ll be teaching him the “emotional intelligence” he needs to have good relationships with adults and other children.

What is emotional intelligence?

A child with a high emotional IQ, Gottman explains, is better able to deal with their feelings, calm themselves, understand and relate well to other people, and form strong friendships than a child whose emotional intelligence is less developed. He is also better equipped to control negative impulses, even when things don’t go his way. Experts now believe that such skills can be taught at an early age, when children are more flexible in their emotional growth.

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Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the book emotional intelligence, thinks that the family is the first and best place to transmit these lessons. Instead of trying to coax a child out of anger or sadness, for example, her parents can empathize with her and teach her how to handle turbulent feelings that might otherwise seem overwhelming.

How can I teach emotional intelligence?

In the book Raising an emotionally intelligent child, Gottman, and co-author Joan DeClaire point out that such lessons begin as soon as a baby is born. By simply responding to her baby when she cries, is hungry, or wants to be held, she shows her that she can elicit a reaction if she expresses her feelings. By doing what comes naturally, talking and playing with your baby, you also teach your baby to communicate. After her son is old enough to talk, Gottman and DeClaire say, she begins giving him “emotional training” — lessons in analyzing her feelings and managing conflict. Here are the five steps they recommend:

  • Try to acknowledge your child’s emotions. Young children can’t always tell you what’s going on in their lives. If your child seems sad or upset for no immediate reason, it’s wise to look at the big picture and think about what might be bothering him. Has he been transferred to a new nursery? Did you and your spouse have an argument at your hearing? Young children often give clues about what they are thinking during make-believe play. Gottman recounts how his daughter told him while she was playing with her doll, “Barbie gets really scared when you get mad.” “In the important conversation that followed,” Gottman writes, “I assured Barbie (and my daughter) that I didn’t mean to scare her and that just because she makes me mad at her doesn’t mean I don’t love her.” A child’s fearful reaction can also be a clue that you sound too loud, scary, and unpredictable, giving him an opportunity to apologize for not managing his anger better and reassure him that you’ll try to speak more gently in the future.
  • Look at negative emotions as opportunities for intimacy and teaching. You can use all of your son’s feelings, both negative and positive, to teach him how to handle her emotions constructively. If your 3-year-old is afraid of going to the dentist, talk to him about it and try to calm his fears the day before, rather than waiting to see if he throws a tantrum at the dentist’s office.
  • Listen with empathy. Listen carefully to her child, then reflect what she tells you. Gottman gives the example of a little boy who is upset that his brother has received a birthday present in the mail. Instead of explaining why he’s fair, he advises, try saying, “You wish Grandma had sent you a package, too. I bet that makes you a little jealous.” After acknowledging his feelings, the toddler is more likely to accept the assurance that he, too, will receive a package on his birthday.
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Listening to your child does not mean solving his problem, dismissing him, or joking around to get him out of his bad mood. Use examples from your own life to show him that you understand what he has said. Writing about the boy being jealous of his brother’s birthday present, Gottman notes that the father may describe a time in his own childhood when he was jealous of someone who received more gifts or attention. This tells the child that everyone has these feelings and that they can be managed.

Help your child find words to express their emotions. Young children, especially toddlers and preschoolers, often have trouble describing what they’re feeling. You can help your child develop an emotional vocabulary by giving her labels for her feelings. If he’s angry, you could say, “You feel angry about that, don’t you?” It can also let you know that it’s natural to have conflicting emotions about something; for example, he may be both excited and scared during his first week at daycare.

  • Set limits while teaching problem solving. Part of helping your child solve problems is making clear the limits of her behavior and then guiding her toward a solution. For example, you can say, “I know you’re upset that your sister keeps knocking over your toy building, but you can’t hit her. What else can you do if you get mad?” If your child is out of ideas, give him a set of options to choose from. Anger management specialist Lynne Namka advises telling her son to first check his tummy, jaw, and fists for tightness, take deep breaths “to get the anger out,” and feel fine. for being in control. Then, says Namka, she helps her son use a strong voice to talk about her anger, beginning with something like, “I feel angry when _____________.” Children should know that it’s okay for him to be angry, as long as they don’t hurt other people for it.
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Your child may also want to talk to you about why he’s angry, draw pictures of what makes him angry, or act out his “crazy” story with dolls or toys.

What kinds of things should I avoid when trying to teach my child emotional intelligence?

Avoid behavior you don’t want your child to imitate. It is important not to be verbally harsh when you are angry. Try saying, “It annoys me when you do X,” instead of “You drive me crazy” or “You’re a bad boy,” so your child understands that it’s his behavior that’s the problem, not him. Be careful to avoid excessive criticism, which tends to undermine the child’s self-confidence.

It is also important not to spank your child. Although spanking can temporarily stop certain types of behavior, studies show that it damages a child’s sense of self-worth, imparts the idea that hitting is a way of solving problems and that “might makes right” and does not teach self-control in the long run.

Should I try to hide my child’s negative feelings?

No. Some parents ignore their own negative emotions, hoping to spare their children inconvenience or difficulty. But hiding your true feelings will only confuse your child. Calmly acknowledging that he’s upset, for example, shows your child that even difficult feelings can be handled.

How do I emotionally coach a challenging toddler?

As very young children begin to walk, they become more independent. The limits you impose on a young child can sometimes frustrate and anger him in his fight for autonomy. Although his vocabulary is still small, he is familiar with the words “no” and “mine,” and asking him to share a toy or put on a jacket can spark a big battle. Use conflicts like these to teach your child important lessons about sharing and cooperation. Show her how to take turns and praise her whenever she goes out of her way to share her things. When she’s expecting visitors, let her pick out some special toys that will be out of reach of others, and then put them away before the visitors arrive. Giving your child real but limited options can help him develop a feeling of independence. Instead of telling her to put on her shoes, for example, you can ask her if she wants to put on her sneakers or sandals. Avoid clashes of will as much as you can. Instead of telling your toddler, “You can’t play with that remote,” try diverting her attention to something else.

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What is the best way to teach EQ when disciplining my toddler?

When disciplining young children, discipline expert William Sears, MD, advises parents to encourage their children to talk about their feelings. Here are some of his tips:

  • Try to get down to your child’s level and make eye contact.
  • Speak softly, be brief, and use simple words and short sentences, beginning with the words “I want to…” Above all, maintain respect and use words like “please.”
  • You can use rewards to avoid power struggles. Give a child a chance to play if she gets dressed, for example.
  • Encourage your child to use words instead of body language.
  • Try to explain your reasons. Instead of asking, “Why did you do that?” start with “I want to talk about what you did”.

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of ParentingJohn Gottman, Simon & Schuster.

emotional intelligenceDaniel Goleman, Bantam Books.

The website, is hosted by Free Spirit Publishing, a publisher of nonfiction self-help resources for kids, teachers, and parents. The site features questions from kids and answers from experts on topics like privacy, teasing, and dealing with bullies.

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of ParentingJohn Gottman, Simon & Schuster.

emotional intelligenceDaniel Goleman, Bantam Books.

Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral DevelopmentT. Berry Brazelton, Da Capo Press.

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