Over the years, many people have asked the question: Can emotional intelligence (EI) be taught? The short answer is yes, emphatically. Not only is it an emphatic yes, but there are proven advantages to learning EI at an early age. Teaching EI to toddlers is something that has been scientifically verified to improve their adult-life emotional self-management, interpersonal skills, and a variety of other traits. Toddlers’ emotions can be complex, so if you’re worried that you haven’t done enough and you’re wondering where to start your child’s EI journey, don’t fret! The best solution might be a lot easier and more beneficial than you once thought.
Emotional Intelligence Isn’t Always Easy
The reason this question is asked so often is because parents don’t often consider just how inherently emotionally-intelligent and absorbent children are. Though they may not always comprehend what happens around them, children take in the emotions and associations of their surroundings in meaningful ways. Just look at this post from Psychology Today for example. In it, Dr. Firestone makes a compelling case as to why children should be taught emotional intelligence. She recognizes that we teach kids about almost every subject, but we shy away from giving them lessons on emotions.
I believe this could be due to the fact that many parents struggle with their own EI and emotional recognition. Emotions can be scary. We don’t have a full understanding of what they are, where they come from, and how they function. They are often irrational and can appear unprovoked. The prospect of teaching children about something so enigmatic may seem daunting, but think about it this way. If you, a fully-grown adult, struggle to recognize, explain and regulate your emotions, just imagine how difficult that all must be for a child. This is just part of the case for why we should teach EI, but the question still remains; Can EI even be taught?
Can EI be Taught?
As I’ve stated, the answer is yes, but this doesn’t explain how we know this. Thankfully, we have the works of researchers like Dr. John Gottman that can guide us. I’ve written extensively about his parenting philosophy and his lifetime of research that has informed many of my articles. He argues that the first step towards teaching EI is identifying which kind of parent you are. When families identify their parenting style, they can change themselves for the better. The goal is to become an emotion coach to your child, which means using conflict as teaching moments. In the next section, I’ll go over what some of those teaching moments might look like, but the important thing to know is that emotion coaching is a proven, effective parenting technique that shows how EI can be taught at a young age.
I’ve already claimed that teaching EI at a young age can have many benefits, but how do I know that and what does the research out there say? Well, thankfully I’ve already written on this subject as well, but I’ll summarize it here. We know for a fact that teaching EI at a young age impacts the kind of adult your child will grow up to be. Your child will become someone who is better equipped to deal with difficult emotions like stress and anxiety, they will grow up to have greater potential for empathy, and they will have an easier time making friends and settling conflicts later in life.
A Variety of Toddler Emotions
In my time as an EI coach, I’ve had many parents come to me saying, “Mindfulness and EI are important, sure, but I can barely get my kid to sit still long enough to eat dinner. How can I teach EI to such a defiant toddler?” This is something I’ve heard time and time again and I truly empathize with parents struggling just to manage their children. Children are mercurial, they’re energetic, and they often don’t listen to reason. Toddlers’ emotions come in many forms, and they can sometimes push parents to their breaking point. Does this mean we should just give up? No, of course not.
This article from Health Day has some great advice on the subject. If your toddler refuses to share and has a tantrum, use that moment to educate about the importance of sharing and let your child choose a few toys they’re willing to let other kids play with. Instead of arguing with your child over what they can and cannot do (inevitably ending in a meltdown), divert their attention towards something else. Don’t think of it as ignoring the problem, these reactions are perfectly normal for a child. What’s important is making sure that emotional outbursts become lessons for teaching self-control. In the long run, it could make a big difference in their behavior.
Change is Easier than you Think
I hope this article hasn’t made you feel inadequate if you’re not teaching your child EI already, because that is not my intention and couldn’t be further from the truth. The good news for parents with this fear is that you may already be teaching them EI skills without even knowing it. Things like reading books together, expressing gratitude, and just talking about feelings are all child-friendly ways to teach EI that you’re probably already doing. Mother.ly has a great write-up of how important these activities are and some additional ones to try out if you’re looking for more ideas. The important takeaway should be that it’s never too late to start and it’s easier than it may seem.
Now that our original question has been answered, you may be wondering; well, where do I go from here? Obviously I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend my own line of emotional intelligence education products, so check them out here. They’re designed to specifically teach children the foundational concepts of EI while keeping them entertained. Very Well Family also has some great advice about starting small and the benefits and reasons you might want to approach EI that way.
One piece of advice I particularly love is treating EI as an ongoing goal. No adult has perfect EI and everyone can find ways to improve their skills. Knowing that your child has a lifetime of learning to be more emotionally-intelligent ahead of them, let your child in on this information. It will encourage them to consider their failures and adversity as stepping stones on the road to self-improvement and will give them the strength to lift themselves up.
I hope this article serves to clear up a few misconceptions about EI and especially about teaching it to toddlers. Toddlers’ emotions are complex, just like our own. They will often respond differently to things like anger and hunger than you or I would, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel emotions and it doesn’t mean these strategies won’t work for them. It’s all about finding what works best in your family and how you can commit to incorporating different EI-building activities into daily life. And on that front, let me know how your family does that. Do you read Hoppy & Poppie books to your kids, do you role play emotional situations and how to respond to them? I’m dying to find out!