Nurturing Emotional Intelligence: How to Discuss Emotions with Your Children

Apr 07, 2024

Emotional intelligence is a crucial skill for navigating life’s ups and downs, and as parents, one of the most valuable gifts we can give our children is the ability to understand and manage their emotions. Even studies document that strong emotional skills are a better predictor of a child’s success in school than their academic abilities.

Engaging in open and supportive conversations about feelings helps children develop empathy, resilience, and healthy coping mechanisms. Here is a guide to help you start those conversations and nurture emotional intelligence in your children.

Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment

One of the first steps to accomplishing the goal of helping your child be resilient and emotionally stable is to create an environment where your child feels safe expressing their emotions. This includes:

1. Active Listening: Show genuine interest and empathy when your child shares their feelings.        Practice active listening by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and summarizing what they’ve said (e.g., “So it really hurt your feelings when your brother took your toy.” “It sounds like you were really disappointed when I told you no, is that right?” “I can tell that made you sad.”

2. Validation: Let your child know that all feelings are valid and acceptable. Avoid dismissing or minimizing their emotions, even if you don’t fully understand or agree with them. You may feel like their emotions are irrational or over-the-top, and you are probably right, but your child is still feeling that way. If we brush it off, or minimize it, it makes our kids feel like we are not really listening or do not truly understand them. You CAN validate their feeling without that meaning you agree. For example, your partner may not understand the stress you feel at work (or even think you are being sensitive), but we desire for them to be a good listener and give support, NOT tell us it’s not a big deal.

3. Non-Judgmental Attitude: Create a judgment-free zone where your child feels comfortable expressing even difficult or conflicting emotions. It is so easy for us to revert into “lecture mode.” It happens to all of us and comes from a good place, we don’t want our kids to struggle with things more than they have to. The problem is that sometimes when we go into this mode we spend more time talking than listening. We as parents also often feel the pressure to fix things for our children.

Conversation Starters and Examples

Here are some quick examples of ways to approach discussing feelings with your child:

1.      “How are you feeling today?”

Example: “Hey, sweetheart, how are you feeling right now? I noticed you seemed a bit  quiet after school.”

  1. “Can you tell me more about what happened?”

Example: “I see you’re upset. Can you tell me what happened at school that made you feel this way?”

  1. “What do you think caused you to feel this way?”

Example: “When you’re feeling angry, what usually triggers that emotion for you?”
4.      “How can I support you?”

Example: “I’m here for you. How can I help you feel better?”
5.      “Let’s find a solution together.”

Example: “It sounds like you’re frustrated about not understanding your homework. Let’s work on it together and figure it out.

  1. “What do you think we can learn from this experience?”

            Example: “When things don’t go as planned, like losing a game, what do you think we can learn from it?”

Teaching Emotional Vocabulary

Encourage your child to expand their emotional vocabulary by introducing them to a variety of feelings and their corresponding expressions. You can use books, movies, or real-life situations as examples to help them identify and label emotions accurately.

1. Book Recommendations:

  1. The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
  2. In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek
  3. Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis
  4. When I Feel Scared by Albert Whitman
  5. Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
  6. Happy To Be Me! By Emma Dod
  7. Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
  8. Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
  9. The Color Monster: A Pop Up Book of Feelings by Anna Llenas
  10. Me and My Feelings: A Kids' Guide to Understanding and Expressing Themselves by Vanessa Green Allen
  11. My Body Sends a Signal: Helping Kids Recognize Emotions and Express Feelings by Natalia Maguire
  12. Movie Nights:

Watch movies or TV shows together and discuss how the characters are feeling in different scenes. You can use anything! Every show or movie typically has some problem and resolution and tons of feelings! Whether it is Bluey or Power Rangers, use your child’s favorite show to give examples. Not only does this help them learn and build their emotional vocabulary, this is also FANTASTIC practice noticing other’s facial expressions and thinking about other’s people’s perspectives which helps build empathy. Here are some possible questions:

  • Do you think they are feeling happy or sad?
  • Do you think they like what happened?
  • How do you think they will try to solve their problem?
  • Look at their facial expression, can you tell what they are feeling?

3.Daily Check-ins:

Incorporate a daily check-in routine where you and your child share one emotion you felt that day and why. There are tons of activities that can help make talking about feelings feel like a natural part of your day. We personally love to do these when we are either sharing a meal or driving in the car.

Rose and Thorn: Each person shares their favorite (rose) and least favorite (thorn) part of their day. Another adaptation is Rose, Bud, and Thorn which just adds something they are looking forward to (bud).

Scale: When kids are sharing an experience ask them to use a Likert scale to indicate how intensely they felt a feeling. For example, they may say they were at an angry level of 3 when the cafeteria changed the menu, but at a angry level 9 when they got into a disagreement with their friend.

I Like, I Wish, and What-if: This helps spark conversations about different type of feelings, particularly their thoughts and dreams and potential worry thoughts.

  1. Use their own statements and reflect them back using emotional vocabulary:
  2. Child: “I got to pass out papers”

            Parent: “It sounds like you felt proud that you helped your teacher”

  1. Child: “Math is stupid”

            Parent: “I am hearing that you are frustrated with how difficult math is right now”

  1.  Child: “I wish I was an only child!”

Parent: “You are mad at your sister right now.”

Modeling Healthy Emotional Expression

Children learn by example, so it’s essential to model healthy emotional expression in your own behavior. Demonstrate how to cope with stress, disappointment, and anger in constructive ways, such as taking deep breaths, going for a walk, or talking about your feelings with a trusted friend or family member. We know this is often one of the hardest for us to do! It is absolutely okay for you to share personal examples of your own situations when not at home, or be honest about your own feelings (e.g., “I’m feeling really frustrated, mommy needs a minute before I can help you” “I felt really frustrated during my meeting today so I took a few deep breaths before I could talk.). This is important so that kids learn that experiencing a range of emotions is normal and managing them positively is possible and important.

When parents handle their emotions in a calm and controlled manner, you demonstrate to your child that even though you cannot control what happens to you, you can control how you react. Further, you are responsible for your actions and words. So even if someone does something mean or rude, we are still responsible for the actions we take to respond to them. This process is helping them learn responsibility and ownership over their choices.

Teaching Emotional Expression and Problem-Solving

When all of us are born, our only strategies to get our needs met are through crying, screaming, and moving your body. Think about how a newborn lets a parent know when they are hungry, have a dirty diaper, or need to be comforted. This continues through toddlerhood, often escalating in intensity, until we teach our children a different ways to express their emotions.

The first way to support your child are all of the strategies above: giving them words to accurately express their wants, needs, and feelings so they feel seen, heard, and parents can provide support.

The second is to teach your child calming strategies so they can become regulated. This also tends to be an area where parents struggle with *how* to teach this. It is important to remember that just like any other skill, it takes practice to make progress! Here are some possible skills to teach them so they can build the self-regulation tool box.  (If you are a member or bought our course, don’t forget about our free printable with different calm down strategies!)

  1. Allow Space: It is always OKAY to step away for a few minutes when we are upset! This helps us not do or say anything we may regret later. This is often the first step as kids are noticing they are becoming overwhelmed, but may struggle to immediately use another technique. You can create a calm down area, which may include items to help them calm down, but this is not required.
  2. Deep Breathing: Encourage your child to take slow, deep breaths. Instruct them to breathe in through their nose, hold for a count of three, and exhale slowly through their mouth. This can be made fun by pretending to blow up a balloon or blowing on a pinwheel. You can check out our reels where we demonstrate these skills!
    3.      Counting: Teach your child to count slowly to ten (or higher if needed) when they feel upset or angry. This can help distract them from the immediate emotion and allow time for the intensity of the feeling to decrease.
    4.      Positive Imagery: Guide your child to think of a place or experience that makes them happy. This could be imagining lying on a beach, being in their favorite park, or remembering a fun family outing. Visualization can serve as a mental escape to calm down.
    5.      Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Show your child how to tense and then slowly relax each muscle group, starting from the toes and moving up to the head. This technique can reduce physical tension and promote a sense of relaxation. When you are just starting, try something easy like balling up and clenching your fists, holding for a few seconds, and then slowly relaxing your hand and repeat five times.
    6.      Mindfulness or Meditation Apps: Introduce your child to child-friendly mindfulness or meditation apps that offer guided sessions specifically designed for children. These can teach children to focus on the present moment and manage their emotional responses more effectively.
    7.      Physical Activity: Encourage your child to engage in a physical activity they enjoy, like jumping on a trampoline, dancing to their favorite music, or taking a walk. Physical movement can help release pent-up energy and reduce stress.
    8.      Creative Expression: Provide materials for drawing, painting, or crafting. Artistic activities can be therapeutic and allow children an outlet for expressing their feelings in a non-verbal way.
    9.  Emotion Journaling: For older children, keeping a journal to write about their feelings can be a helpful way to process emotions. Encourage them to write about what they feel and why, which can offer insights into triggers and patterns in their emotional responses. For younger kids, they may enjoy drawing and coloring to start. A fun activity could be to ask them to “Draw Your Weather.”

    By engaging in open, supportive conversations about emotions, parents can help their children develop essential skills for lifelong emotional intelligence. Remember to create a safe and non-judgmental environment, use conversation starters to initiate discussions, teach emotional vocabulary, and model healthy emotional expression in your own behavior. Together, we can empower the next generation to navigate life’s challenges with empathy, resilience, and self-awareness.

Remember, for effective parenting you need three things: 1) a close, secure relationship between parents and children, 2) parents actively teaching their children what TO DO, and 3) holding firm boundaries and clear expectations. This comes from decades of research on parenting styles and each of these is outlined in detail and with specific strategies in our Parenting Course. This is helping you as the parent accomplish the second goal – teaching them what to do!

Feel overwhelmed or want more? Our Parenting Course is filled with tools you can start using immediately to accomplish all 3 essential parts of parenting effectively!

Grab our membership for only $13! 

~Dr. Jordana


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