Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board
Psychologist John Gottman says that when you help your child understand and handle overwhelming feelings such as anger, frustration, or confusion, you develop his emotional intelligence quotient, or emotional IQ.
And, says Gottman, a child with a high emotional IQ is better able to cope with his feelings, can bring himself down from emotional high-wire acts, understands and relates well with others, and can form strong friendships more easily than a child with a lower emotional IQ.
How can you help raise your child’s emotional IQ? Gottman teaches a tactic he calls “emotion coaching,” a series of steps you can use to teach your child to analyze feelings and handle conflict. Here’s how it works:
Listen with empathy.
Pay close attention to your child when he says how he feels, then mirror what he’s shared back to him. If you suspect that your child feels abandoned because you’ve been spending lots of time with the new baby, for example, ask him if that’s what’s going on. If he agrees, you can say, “You’re right. Mommy’s been really busy with the baby.”
Then, use examples from your own life to show him you understand what he’s said. Tell him about how you felt when your own sibling got to go to the amusement park with your father and you didn’t, and how your own mom or dad made you feel better. This tells your child that everyone has these feelings, and that they will pass.
Help your child name his feelings.
With limited vocabulary and rudimentary understanding of cause and effect, toddlers often have trouble describing what they feel. You can encourage your child to build an emotional vocabulary by giving him labels for his feelings. If he’s acting disappointed about not being able to go to the park, you might say, “You feel sad about that, don’t you?”
You can also let him know that it’s normal to have conflicting emotions about something — for instance, he may be both excited and scared during his first week at daycare.
If your child seems sad or upset for no immediate reason, try looking at the big picture and thinking about what might be troubling him. Have you moved recently? Did you and your spouse have an argument in his presence? If you’re not sure what’s going on, watch and listen to him while he plays. If he makes the Mommy doll shout a lot, you’ll have a pretty good idea what’s bothering him.
Validate your child’s emotions.
Instead of saying, “There’s no reason to get so upset” when your child gets mad and throws a tantrum because he’s unable to put together a puzzle, acknowledge how natural his reaction is. Say, “It’s really frustrating when you can’t finish a puzzle, isn’t it?” Telling him his reactions are inappropriate or excessive will make him feel as if he should muzzle them.
Turn tantrums into teaching tools.
If your child gets upset when he hears that he has an appointment with the dentist, help him feel in control by preparing for the visit. Talk with him about why he’s afraid, what he can expect during the visit, and why he needs to go. Tell him about a time you had stage fright before a recital or were scared to start a new job and one of your friends made you feel better. Talking through emotions works the same way for children as it does for most adults.
Use conflicts to teach problem-solving.
When your toddler goes head-to-head with you or another child, make his limits clear, then guide him toward a solution. For example, you can say, “I know you’re upset with your sister for knocking over your block tower, but you can’t hit her. What else can you do if you get mad?”
Set an example by staying calm.
You’ll also want to check how you react to your child’s display of emotions. It’s important not to be verbally harsh when you’re angry. Try saying, “It upsets me when you do that,” rather than “You make me crazy,” so your child understands that the problem is his behavior, not him. Be careful to avoid excessive criticism, which tends to chip away at a child’s self-confidence.