Forming Your Toddler’s Emotional Intelligence

Girl playing with dolls in front of dollhouse

When we hear “intelligence”, we tend to think test scores. But emotional intelligence is just as important as academic intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to someone’s ability to understand and manage their own emotions and empathize with those around them.

Even though toddlers aren’t exactly known for their emotional control, building emotional intelligence in kids and toddlers is not only possible – it’s absolutely essential for their wellbeing. Here are some day-to-day techniques parents can use to help their toddlers grow up to be emotionally intelligent, empathetic adults.

Name Emotions

There’s no doubt that little toddlers feel BIG feelings – and those feelings can be even tougher to handle when they don’t have language to express them. You can help your child learn how to identify and verbally express emotions by naming them and empathizing with them. Next time big feelings bubble up, try something like this:

  • “You seem really frustrated that you can’t get your gloves on by yourself. That would frustrate me too.”
  • “You’re feeling angry that you can’t have another cookie right now. I know it’s tough to have to wait.”
  • “You’re disappointed that it’s raining and we can’t go to the park. I understand, and I’m disappointed too!”
  • “It seems like you’re nervous about sleeping at Grandma’s tonight. New things can feel scary sometimes, but…”
Dr. Daniel Siegel, the author of the bestselling Whole Brain Child, calls this technique “Name It to Tame It.” The idea is that the more kids know how to talk about their feelings, the better they’ll be able to control them. Oh, and don’t forget to name the positive emotions too – you’ll love hearing your child talk about times they feel excited, fascinated, and happy, thankful, etc.

Show & Encourage Empathy

We already mentioned empathy in the tip above, but it’s worth repeating because it’s that important. It can be all too easy to dismiss toddlers’ emotions, but even though they may not always be logical, they are real – especially to your toddler. So, the next time your three-year-old cries because you peeled her banana wrong, instead of saying, “It’s not that big of a deal!” or “Stop crying!”, try something like “You’re really upset that you didn’t get to peel the banana the way you wanted. I’m sorry you’re disappointed. Maybe we can peel it that way next time!”

Silly as it seems, this approach teaches toddlers they are safe to feel big feelings and express them to you. This doesn’t mean you indulge inappropriate behavior or cave to tantrums. It simply means you acknowledge what they’re feeling as you try to find a solution to the problem.

You can also help your toddler practice empathy by helping them notice and think about the feelings of others. For example, if a character is crying in a book, you can point out that they’re sad, ask your toddler if they know why they feel that way or what might make them feel better.

Discuss Behavior After the Storm Has Passed

As we mentioned, showing empathy doesn’t mean that inappropriate behavior goes unaddressed. Kids still need boundaries and need to know that some ways of expressing feelings are not okay. When your toddler bites you in the middle of a big tantrum, that obviously needs to be addressed… just don’t count on anything sinking in during the tantrum.

After the tantrum has passed and your child is calm, they’ll be far more likely to actually listen. You can help them process through why they acted the way they did, why it wasn’t okay, and what they should do differently next time.

Of course, sometimes correction just can’t wait. When behavior needs to be stopped immediately (like hitting a sibling or trying to run away with the dishwasher pods), remove your child from the situation and follow up with discussion once they’ve calmed down.

Be the Example

One of the best things we can do to help our toddlers’ emotional development is to be good examples of emotional intelligence ourselves. When our kids see us yelling during arguments, slamming doors, or constantly disregarding others’ feelings, they’ll likely do the same as they grow up.

No parent is perfect, but reflecting on your own emotional intelligence can help you recognize some unhealthy patterns in your own life. Emotional intelligence is a lifelong journey, and we all have areas where we could improve. Striving to do so will help our kids and better our own lives and relationships as well.

Model Apologizing & Owning Mistakes

As much as you try to model healthy emotional behavior, we’re all bound to make mistakes. When you lose your cool in front of your child or at your child, don’t beat yourself up. Use the moment to explain why your response was wrong and show them how to apologize and own mistakes. Your humility will help them feel more comfortable apologizing and owning mistakes as they get older too.

Handling our emotions well and empathizing with others is a journey for all of us – especially for easily-overwhelmed toddlers. Even as you implement the techniques above, know that it will take plenty of time for your toddler to become naturally empathetic and self-controlled. But keep at it. Helping your child develop their emotional intelligence will improve their future and let you share an even deeper, sweeter relationship as they grow!