How to Help Your Child Build Emotional Intelligence

Next time your little one (or your teen!) comes to you with some big emotions, be prepared to listen actively and with empathy. Build your emotional intelligence and your child’s with the help of these short videos.

Think back to the last time your child expressed hurt, anger or sadness. What was your response? It’s pretty typical for parents to try to minimize their child’s feelings because we believe that’s an effective way to help them cope. It’s understandable that we respond this way because it’s what we know from our childhood experiences. But does it help your child learn emotional intelligence?

“Teaching youth to trust their emotions begins when we invite them to notice their feelings, both the positive and negative, by giving those feelings ‘room to breathe,’” says Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist with The Family Institute at Northwestern University, in his article The New Self-Esteem: Feeling Worthy from the Inside Out. It sounds simple, but it’s rarely our first response, he says. “It’s the opposite of what we typically do. Our kids usually experience us trying to make their difficult feelings go away.”

Offering our kids the chance to name their emotions is a powerful way to connect with them, Dr. Cooper says, yet we’re often more concerned with fixing the problem or scolding them for expressing their anger. In our defense, busy parents are distracted and don’t always have the vocabulary to use to even begin labeling feelings. So how can we hope to learn this valuable skill?

A new series of videos called Talking to Kids You Love, developed by Dr. Cooper and The Family Institute at Northwestern University, offers parents, grandparents, caregivers and teachers real-life situations between child and adult. The 16 short videos are free to watch on The Family Institute’s website and are designed to help parents learn effective ways to communicate with kids — building emotional intelligence for both parent and child.

Familiar situations and words to use

Parents of little ones especially will relate to the video called When It Hurts. In the video, a child takes a tumble on her bicycle and comes running to her mom for help. Rather than cheer her daughter up, the mom wisely helps her daughter name her emotions by reflecting, “You’re really upset. Look at those tears!” This serves to validate her daughter’s feelings and learn to label what she’s experiencing.

This labeling is important, says Dr. Cooper.

“When we — or our children — can’t accurately label our feelings, we’re handicapped when it comes to making sense of moods and emotions, thereby lacking the understanding we need to guide actions, decisions, and beneficial course corrections,” he says. “A vocabulary of emotion words supports emotional intelligence, what some experts say counts more than conventional intelligence in building happy, successful lives.”

If this mom were to tell her daughter that she is OK, she’d be telling her daughter to suppress her own very real emotions. Watch the video and see if the situation looks familiar to you. How might you respond when your child gets hurt?

Empathic listening for every age

In a world where we, as parents, are primed to fix problems, helping your child name their emotions can feel like we aren’t doing much to help. But in fact, by offering empathic listening — reflecting, naming and validating emotions — we can set aside our own judgments and opinions so that we can truly support our kids, which helps them feel heard and understood. It’s so important for the parent-child bond.

In the video called Empathic Listening, a teen barrels into the room where her father is working on his computer. She’s angry about not making the team and has some choice words about the coach. Instead of offering advice or distraction, her dad says, “I hear how angry you are.” By reflecting what he is hearing, he isn’t telling his daughter how she feels. Instead, he’s actively listening to the anger in her voice and labeling her emotion — and, in doing so, he’s helping her build her emotion vocabulary.

While the video doesn’t feel like it has the happy ending we are accustomed to seeing, the daughter and dad strengthen their emotional bond and the daughter leaves the room knowing she can always come to her dad with problems and leave feeling heard and understood. Through his listening skills, the dad promotes his daughter’s self-esteem.

Developing your own emotional toolbox

Every parent has their own way of communicating with their kids, and not every method that is designed to build emotional intelligence comes naturally to parents — especially if they were raised with a completely different parent-child dynamic. But it feels affirming to have options for relating to our kids regardless of their age.

Talking to Kids You Love is a great place to start, and a great place to come back to again and again as our kids grow and develop their emotional intelligence. The videos are thoughtfully presented according to communication need and include situations such as responding to distress, modeling vulnerability, promoting self-confidence, listening that heals and more. Among the 16 short videos, parents can find many ways to lovingly respond to tough encounters and learn how to best support their parent-child relationship.

Learn more about Talking to Kids You Love and watch the videos at The Family Institute at Northwestern University at family-institute.org.

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