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Emotional Intelligence

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

two boys of different race laughing together

Emotional intelligence entails understanding, using, and managing emotions in positive, healthy, and productive ways. This means being in tune with your own feelings and recognizing and understanding the emotions of other people. Emotionally intelligent individuals are able to better understand themselves and how their emotions and actions impact other people and other aspects of their lives. Having emotional intelligence helps us to form stronger connections with one another, communicate better, manage conflict, and support our own health and wellbeing. In school and at work, having emotional intelligence helps individuals work together, inspire and influence one another, and navigate social complexities. As a parent, educator, or mentor, you have the priceless opportunity to help develop the emotional intelligence of the children in your lives.

Emotional intelligence is associated with better physical and mental health (Schutte et al., 2007). Unmanaged emotions can result in higher stress levels which are linked to higher blood pressure, suppressed immune system, increased risks of heart attacks and strokes, challenges with infertility, and premature aging (Segal et al., 2020). Additionally, mental health challenges and disorders such as anxiety and depression are associated with unmanaged emotions (Schutte et al., 2007;Segal et al., 2020). Emotional intelligence and management also have a great impact on relationships. Unmanaged emotions or discomfort with emotions can make it challenging to form strong relationships. This can result in feelings of isolation which can contribute to further mental health challenges. Lower emotional intelligence and challenges managing and expressing emotions are also linked to violent behavior and domestic abuse (Winters et al., 2004). Understanding emotions and knowing healthy coping skills helps us better communicate our needs and feelings with others, thus allowing us to create stronger, closer, and healthier relationships. By fostering your emotional intelligence and the emotional intelligence of the children in your life, you’re taking steps to support the health, safety, and success of yourself, your children, and the SLO County community.

In order to best support the development of emotional intelligence in your children, you need to develop and model your own emotional intelligence. Children need to hear about emotions and healthy coping skills from you and they need to see you living up to your own words. Talk to your child about your feelings. Be mindful that they may be too young to understand all of the things that bring up emotions in you, but find age-appropriate ways to describe how you’re feeling and why. This teaches them how to describe their feelings and understand the causes of those feelings. Children’s experiences with how you approach and manage both your emotions and their emotions have lifelong effects on how they will view and manage their feelings. The following information is designed to help you promote your child’s emotional intelligence, but you should reflect on the skills and strategies described and incorporate them into your own life as well. Doing so allows you to set an example for your child of how to understand and approach their emotions and the emotions of others.

An important aspect of developing emotional intelligence is being able to identify emotions and put those emotions into words. Because emotions are a normal part of everyday life, there are plenty of opportunities to practice this. Below are a few charts that you and your child can use to explore emotional vocabulary. Demonstrate how to put emotions into words by describing how your child seems to be feeling and what makes you think that. For example, say things like “You seem sad about having to go to school today” or “It looks like you’re feeling a bit discouraged by how hard that math test was.” This helps your child develop their ability to talk about their feelings and it opens up an opportunity to freely discuss emotions with you. You can also use stories or games to talk about what different emotions are like and situations where you child may have felt those emotions. For instance, when watching a movie or reading a story where a character gets very happy, talk to your child about what feeling happy is like and what may have made that character feel happy. This is an additional way to broaden your child’s emotional vocabulary and it also helps them learn to recognize emotions and their causes in other people.

Beyond having the ability to name and recognize emotions, encourage your child to express how they are feeling. Have regular check-ins and conversations with them about their emotions. Take advantage of opportunities where they are feeling strong emotions and ask them how they feel and what they can do. Listen to what they say and validate their emotions. Let them know that it’s ok for them to feel whatever emotion it is that they’re feeling. Empathize with them and show that you understand why they may feel that way. Responses like “It’s not that big of a deal” or “You should have studied more/tried harder/gotten more sleep” minimize your child’s feelings and experiences. They’re left feeling like they shouldn’t feel the way they’re feeling and/or they shouldn’t share how they’re feeling with you. Instead, use responses like “That sounds hard,” “Tell me more,” and “It makes sense that you would feel that way” to validate their emotions and indicate that you’re there to listen and support them. By teaching your child that their emotions are valid and encouraging them to talk about their emotions, you’re helping them develop comfort and confidence in understanding and expressing their feelings.

Along with the ability to comfortably and accurately describe and express emotions, your child needs skills to address and manage their feelings. Some feelings will be felt more strongly than others, but regardless, children need to have strategies to work through them. Different coping strategies will work better for different children, emotions, and situations. You and your child may have to try out a few to find something that works. One strategy is to take slow, deep breaths. Breath in through the nose, hold the breath in, and exhale slowly through the mouth. Another strategy is to exercise or use movement. Try doing jumping jacks, running around for a few minutes, or another activity that your child enjoys. Listening to music and dancing along is also a great way to relieve some of the tension that comes with feeling strong emotions. Use things you know your child already enjoys. Another strategy is a skill that should be a regular part of how you and your child approach emotions- talk through what emotion is being felt and identify where that emotion is coming from. Whatever coping mechanism you and your child are trying, always be sure to talk to your child about what will best help them and make them feel supported. You’re there to help your child find ways to manage their emotions, but your child is the one who will know if something works for them or not.

Emotions are a normal and necessary part of being human. When we are uncomfortable with emotions and when we don’t know how to handle them, our health and the health of our community suffers. Emotional intelligence is vital to ensuring that we have our needs met and are capable of forming close, supportive relationships with one another. In order to support the health of our community and lead our children to have happy, healthy, empathic, and confident lives, we must work to develop their emotional intelligence as well as our own. This is something you can start today. When you next talk with your child, ask them how they’re feeling and have a conversation about coping mechanisms. This may feel unusual or uncomfortable at first, but these are not conversations that you should not put off or ignore. Every conversation you have will increase the comfort with emotions for both of you, thus helping both of you promote your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the community.

chart with faces that display emotions

wheel chart with faces displaying emotions and what the emotions mean

Additional Resources

Further Reading on Coping Mechanisms:

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