Toddlers’ Emotional Intelligence: What Parents Can Do!


From their early months we know that babies experience a range of emotional states, e.g., joy, excitement, fear, and anger. One of our most important roles as parents is to help our children learn to understand and effectively manage their wide-ranging emotions. In this post I will talk about some of the ways that parents can help their children learn to make sense of and express their feelings, thus beginning the growth of their emotional intelligence.

Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. As adults, we can get caught up in wanting to experience the “good” feelings like happiness and joy. We may work to shut down and distance ourselves from “difficult” feelings like anger and sadness. Likewise, parents may try to facilitate their children only having “good” feelings. In this case, they may move quickly away from, and at times even, deny the more “difficult” feelings such as sadness, fear, and anger. For example, saying “you’re not sad,“or “don’t be sad, Mom will be back really soon” as opposed to “I know it makes you sad when Mom goes out, you miss her, but remember she’ll be back really soon.” Our feelings are key sources of information for us in life, and our anger, fear, and sadness have as much to teach us as our joy, happiness and excitement.

So, where do parents start?

Tune into and Respond to your Child’s Emotional Cues

Think of all the sounds, non-verbal expressions, and gestures babies make during their first early months. From the beginning you can tune into and respond to your child’s emotional cues. For example you might say, “Yay, you rolled over, that’s so exciting”, “what a big smile, you’re so happy”, “oh sweetie, you’re crying, you’re sad that mom is going out”. Tuning into your little one in this way validates their emotional experience and starts them on the road to understanding and embracing their feelings.

Label Emotions

As shown above, from these early days you can start labeling emotions for your children. This gives them a language they can start to use. I recommend you use “feeling” words and connecting them to what is happening in the moment, e.g., “look at that big smile, you’re so happy to see Grandma” or you can mimic what your child is doing, e.g., if you child is frustrated with a toy and clenching their hands / scrunching their face, you can do the same and say “You’re so frustrated, your toy doesn’t work.” As your children grow you can expand their emotional vocabulary from happy, sad, angry, scared, excited to include more and more feeling words that can capture the nuances of different feeling states.

Help your Children Understand what their Feelings are Connected to.

Be open, attuned to and present for your children. Acknowledge the feelings they are expressing, respect those feelings and help your child understand what they’re likely connected to, even the difficult ones. It’s important that you don’t rush in to fix the difficult feelings, no minimizing or invalidating. For example; “You’re mad because Mom took away your toy,” or “That was a really loud noise and it scared you.”

Help your child learn what they can do when they have certain emotions.

You might play the “If you’re happy and you know it” game with different feelings:

“If you’re happy and you know it” – clap your hands. “If you’re mad and you know it” – stomp your feet.

“If you’re sad and you know it” – cry a tear.  “If you’re scared and you know it” – hold my hand.

Not only does this game help children learn the range of emotions they can experience, but it also is an opportunity to help your children learn how they can respond to their feelings in ways that are good for them rather than destructively.

Play “Feelings” games with your children and their stuffed animals.

With my children I played a game with them where I asked them to “show me….” See video here. This game helped my children learn the range of feelings they might have and also gave us an opportunity to talk about when we have those feelings, e.g., “Tell me what makes you happy (sad, angry, scared, excited)?” and ask “What do you do when your sad (happy, angry, excited, scared)?”

In summary, helping your children learn to feel their feelings and understand their feelings is an enormous benefit to them. starting this from the earliest days will help to ensure that your children will grow in not only their emotional intelligence, but also facilitates their social and relational skill development for years ahead.

Best wishes, Dr. Maria

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