From tears and tantrums to disappointments and delights, the way in which you react to your tot’s emotions greatly contributes to their health and happiness for the rest of their life. When you offer feedback that helps your child understand what they’re feeling—and how to best express those feelings—you bolster their emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is essentially the ability to be smart about emotions...yours and others’. And that’s important because children with strong emotional intelligence grow up knowing how to ask their friends for help and how to support those in need. They seek out healthy relationships, avoiding bullies and choosing confidantes and life partners who are thoughtful and kind. (So many wins!)

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve been shaping your little one’s emotional intelligence since infancy: Your baby quickly learned that communicating—through cries, smiles, and giggles—inspires a response from you. And responding to someone’s emotional needs is a cornerstone of emotional development. (Lesson no. 1, learned!) But you’re not done. As your baby grows to a toddler and beyond, there are so many more ways you can help buoy their budding emotional intelligence. Before you dive in, let’s take a look at what you’re working with.

What to Expect From Your Toddler

Anyone who lives with a toddler knows how quickly the emotional climate can shift. One minute your tyke is basking in playdate bliss then—bam—five-alarm tantrum! While this is frustrating for parents, it’s developmentally appropriate for toddlers. After all, toddlers aren’t mini adults. Their immature brains struggle to control their bursts of powerful emotions. In fact, Big Toddler Emotions instantly shut down the calm and logical side of their brain and dramatically amp the impulsive and emotional side. When shutdown commences, it’s imperative to remember that your precious nugget is still very much a primitive and immature toddler who has trouble controlling themselves. They’re just barely learning to anticipate (or even care) how you or anyone else feels. It’s up to the grown-ups in the room (ahem) to help the wee cave-toddler find their way to emotional equilibrium. Skillfully doing just that is what will usher in emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence Must: Recognizing and Labeling Emotions

You’ve been experiencing a full range of emotions for years. Toddlers? Not so much. It’s up to you to help them notice and understand their feelings. And you can’t do that by saying “It’s OK!” or “Don’t cry!” While your intention to comfort your upset child is spot on, doing it this way can unwittingly send your child the message that strong feelings like anger, fear, and frustration simply aren’t allowed. (Yikes!) Plus, ignoring or squelching these feelings doesn’t make them disappear. They simply simmer, eventually morphing into even bigger emotions down the road. (Yikes, again!) A better move? Help your toddler recognize, label, and talk about their feelings. Nurturing this type of self-awareness is vital to strong emotional intelligence.

So next time your child enters caveman mode, energetically acknowledge their dismay with short, repetitive phrases known-as toddler-ese. That means instead of saying, “I know you feel mad that we’re leaving” or “Did the doggie scare you?,” try “You’re mad! Mad! Mad!” and “Scared! Scared! Big doggie!” While it may feel awkward, rest assured, these repetitive and bite-size phrases are exactly what a toddler’s stressed-out brain needs. And once you successfully notice and acknowledge your child’s feelings, the light bulb will go off in their primitive brain: She really gets me! (Here are a few more tips on helping your tot express their feelings.)

 

Emotional Intelligence Must: Empathy

When you meet your toddler on their emotional turf, as discussed above, you’ve successfully demonstrated empathy to your tot. Bravo! Empathy, another mainstay of emotional intelligence, is the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling...and responding with care. Beyond modeling empathy in your daily life, further boost your tot’s know-how by noticing—and talking about—other people’s feelings. For example, point to pictures in various books and say things like, “Look at that sad baby. How do you look when you’re sad?” (For targeted reads, here are 10 books about feelings to help your little one understand even more.)

If you see an upset pal, say something like, “Kai is sad because he dropped his ice cream cone.” Show your child ways in which they can show others that they notice—and care—about their feelings, like offering a hug to someone who’s crying or saying something like, “Let’s get your friend a bandage for her scraped knee.”

Look for empathy-teaching opportunities during playtime, too. Create pretend scenarios between stuffed toys or action figures, where, say, the giraffe took the lion’s toy without asking. You can then ask your tot, “How do you think the lion feels? How can we help?”

Emotional Intelligence Must: Managing Emotions

Your toddler’s brain is still pretty primitive, so you’ll need to baby-step into mood-management. A great place to start is...with yourself! Toddlers are stellar copy-cats, so take advantage by showing your kiddo how you successfully manage your own emotions. Soon, you’ll find that they’ll naturally mirror your behavior.

Next time you’re feeling sad, feel free to tell your child that you could use a hug—and why. If your irritation swells while you’re stuck in traffic, say, “I’m feeling so frustrated that we’re going to be late,” ... but then follow-up with how you’re going to help yourself feel better: “Let’s listen to some fun music to feel good while we wait!”

Also: Teach your toddler the power of magic breathing. If you’re feeling a bit stressed, sit in a comfy chair where your tot can clearly see you and announce that you’re going to do some magic breathing. (“This helps me feel better when my emotions are big.”) Next, uncross your legs, put your hands in your lap, drop your shoulders, and let the teeny muscles around your mouth and eyes get soft and relaxed. Now slowly inhale through your nose (silently count to five) while raising one hand, then exhale through your nose (for another five), letting your hand slowly drop. (Try making a little whooshy sound as the air flows in and out.). Eventually, say “Come breathe with me!” and you can lead your toddler through a couple of two-counts-in / two-counts-out breaths, using your whoosh-y sound and hand motion to guide them. (PS: It may take a dozen tries for your kiddo to get the hang of it!) But sooner or later your child will learn how to use this superb self-soothing skill when they are frustrated, scared, hurt, or mad. It’s a self-control tool your child can use forever!

Will you have a supremely emotionally intelligent toddler overnight? Heck, no! But all the work you put in with daily reminders and lessons will pay off. Promise.

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