Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Ages 3 to 6

What is emotional IQ?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your own feelings. Along with it comes the capacity to empathize, meaning to be aware and respectful of the feelings of people around you.

If your child has a high emotional IQ, she’ll be better able to cope with her feelings, calm herself down, and understand and relate well to other people, according to psychologist John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. Kids with well-developed emotional intelligence also show more self-confidence, solve problems better, and form strong friendships. Experts now believe that emotional skills can be taught at an early age, when children are more flexible in their inner growth.

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of the book Emotional Intelligence, thinks the family is the first and best place where those lessons can be learned. Instead of trying to cajole away a child’s anger or sadness, for instance, her parents can empathize with her and teach her how to handle stormy feelings that may otherwise seem overwhelming.

This awareness can help keep a child optimistic and confident to face hard times and control impulses that can be self-destructive.

How can I teach emotional intelligence?

Use the moments when your children are at their most emotional as an opportunity for teaching and for developing your bond with them. In their book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Gottman and coauthor Joan DeClaire encourage parents to use “emotion coaching” to teach children how to analyze their feelings and handle conflict, particularly when they are angry, sad, or frustrated. Here are the five steps they recommend.

  • Try to be aware of your child’s emotions. Kids don’t always tell you what’s going on in their lives. If your child seems sad or upset for no immediate reason, it’s wise to look at the big picture and think about what might be troubling her. Has she moved to a new school? Did you and your spouse have a bitter argument within earshot of the child? Young children often give clues to what they’re thinking during fantasy play. Gottman recounts that his daughter said to him while playing with her doll, “Barbie is really scared when you get mad.” He says that in the important conversation that followed, “I assured Barbie (and my daughter) that I didn’t mean to scare her and that just because I get angry, that doesn’t mean I don’t love her.” A child’s fearful reaction may also be a clue that you sound too loud, scary, and unpredictable, giving you the opportunity to apologize for not handling your anger better and assuring her that you’ll try to talk more softly in the future.
  • Look at negative emotions as opportunities for intimacy and teaching. You can use all your child’s feelings, negative as well as positive, in teaching her how to deal constructively with her emotions. Some parents, hoping to help their children avoid suffering, will make dismissive comments (“That guinea pig was getting old anyway”). What the child may learn, though, is that her feelings aren’t seen as important. Rather than minimizing your child’s feelings, try to listen to her and sympathize, even if it makes you anxious or uncomfortable (“It’s hard when a pet dies, isn’t it?”).
  • Listen with empathy. Listen carefully to your child, then mirror back to her what she has said, naming the emotions for her. Gottman gives the example of a boy who’s dejected because his next-door neighbors have refused to play with him. If his father responds by telling him to be a big kid and just forget about it, his son will most likely think that he is a big baby and deserves not to have any friends. It would be better, Gottman says, for the father to open the discussion by saying simply, “I bet that hurt your feelings.” The son will feel relieved that his father understands how he feels and doesn’t think the emotions are out of place. It also gives him an opportunity to talk about the situation and think about what he might do to change things.

Listening to your child doesn’t mean solving the problem for her, dismissing it, or joking her out of a bad mood. Use examples from your own life to show her you understand what she’s said (“I used to feel bad when my neighbor wanted to play with the big kids instead of me.”) This tells the child that she is not alone in feeling the sting of rejection, and that those feelings can be dealt with.

  • Help your child find words to express her emotions. Young children, especially preschoolers, often have trouble describing what they feel. You can help your child develop an emotional vocabulary by giving her labels for her feelings. If she’s mad, you might say, “You feel angry about that, don’t you?” On other occasions, it might be “That was a disappointment, wasn’t it?” or “Did you feel shy when that happened?” You can also let her know that it’s natural to have conflicting emotions about something — for instance, she may be both excited and scared during her first week at school.
  • Set limits while you teach problem-solving. Part of helping your child to solve problems is establishing clear limits on her behavior, then guiding her toward a solution. For example, you can say, “I know that you’re upset that your sister keeps knocking over your toy building, but you can’t hit her. What else could you do if you get mad?” If your child doesn’t have any ideas, give her a set of options to choose from. Anger management specialist Lynne Namka advises telling your child to first check her tummy, jaw, and fists to see if they’re tight, breathe deeply “to blow the mad out,” and to feel good about getting her control. Then, Namka says, help your child use a strong voice to talk her anger out, beginning with something like, “I feel mad when you _____________.” Children should know that it’s okay to be angry, as long as they don’t hurt other people for that reason.

Your child might also want to talk to you about why she’s angry, draw pictures about what makes her angry, or act out the story of her “mads” with dolls or toys.

What should I avoid when I’m trying to teach my child emotional intelligence?

First and foremost, avoid behavior that you don’t want your child to imitate. It’s important not to be verbally harsh when you’re angry. Try saying, “It upsets me when you do X,” rather than “You drive me crazy” or “You’re a bad girl,” so your child understands that the problem is her behavior, not who she is. Be careful to avoid excessive or overly frequent criticism, which tends to chip away at a child’s self-confidence.

It’s also important not to hit or spank your child. Although spanking may temporarily stop certain kinds of behavior, studies show it harms a child’s sense of self-worth, communicates the ideas that hitting solves problems and that “might makes right,” harms the trust children feel in you, and fails to teach self-control in the long run.

Should I try to hide negative emotions from my child?

No. Some parents mask their own negative emotions, hoping to spare their children discomfort or difficulty. But hiding your real feelings will only confuse your child. By calmly acknowledging that you’re upset, for instance, you show your child that even difficult feelings can be managed. And even if you lose your temper once in a while, children are very forgiving. (Make “losing your temper” part of the child’s emotional vocabulary.) Don’t be afraid to apologize to your child and tell her that even grown-ups make mistakes.

Further Resources

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman, Simon & Schuster.

Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Bantam Books.

The Web site http://www.freespirit.com, is hosted by Free Spirit Publishing, a publisher of nonfiction self-help resources for kids, teachers, and parents. The site includes questions by kids and answers by experts about issues such as privacy, teasing, and dealing with bullies.


Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman, Simon & Schuster.

Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Bantam Books.

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