How to Help Your Child Build Emotional Intelligence Skills

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a hot topic these days, from the slew of articles discussing characteristics of those with high emotional intelligence to the business articles revealing the emotional-intelligence job skills everyone needs to be successful. And members of Bachelor Nation will undoubtedly remember the showdown between Corinne Olympios and Taylor Nolan on Nick Viall’s season of ABC’s The Bachelor, when Nolan told Olympios she lacked emotional intelligence.

But what exactly is emotional intelligence, and how can parents ensure their children have a high level? We spoke to experts to get a clear picture of EQ, its benefits to children, and how parents can help children build their emotional intelligence skills.

Emotional Intelligence Explained

Psychologists John D. Mayer, Ph.D., and Peter Salovey, Ph.D., first coined the term emotional intelligence in the ’90s. Their definition of EQ is “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” This is the definition the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence uses, says Kathryn Lee, M.A., director of RULER for Families at the center. (RULER is an acronym for the building blocks of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions.)

Meanwhile, The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning combines social and emotional intelligences and divides those into five skill areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making, according to Jennifer Miller, M.Ed., who formerly worked with CASEL and is currently an expert contributor for NBC’s Parent Toolkit and creator and author of the blog Confident Parents, Confident Kids.

Keeping these two definitions in mind, Lee and Miller say a child has a good EQ level if she is able to: name her feelings and moods, respond flexibly to changes in her environment, show empathy toward others, appraise how others are feeling, recover more quickly from upset or disappointment, and manage emotions in a challenging environment (calm herself down, articulate what she’s feeling, and move forward).

Benefits of Emotional Intelligence

While kids will utilize emotional intelligence skills in everyday life and social interactions, building those skills can help children be more successful academically and, later on, professionally.

Schools with a focus on social-emotional learning had an 11-percent advantage on high-stakes achievement tests as compared to schools without such a focus, according to a 2011 meta-analysis published in the journal Child Development, which looked at the effectiveness of 213 school-based social and emotional learning programs.

“That’s pretty significant when you look at moving the needle on academic performance,” Miller says.

A 20-year retrospective study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2015 compared the social-emotional competencies in children as kindergarteners and again as 25-year-olds. The study found that for every point increase in the person’s original score, he was 54 percent more likely to graduate from high school, twice as likely to attain a college degree, and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job at the age of 25.

As children become members of the workplace of today and the future, they are required to be critical, creative, and innovative thinkers. Employers require employees that are able to collaborate, work in teams, and understand cross-cultural communications in a global economy, including perspective taking, empathy, and social awareness, Miller says. “You go down the list of social-emotional competencies, and they have become the foundation of what employers are looking for in the workforce, so it is absolutely critical in looking to the future,” she says.

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How to Help Kids Build Emotional Intelligence

Since social-emotional intelligence is a set of skills, “they can be learned at any point. You’re not born with it, it’s not static, it’s dynamic,” Miller says. “There is not a kid in the world that doesn’t need support in this area. As they develop, they are working on their skills, so [support] is critical. It’s not a low income issue, it’s not a cultural issue, it’s very much every child needs to understand and relate to each other effectively.”

So how can parents help their children build social-emotional skills? Miller and Lee share their tips for various stages of development.  

How to Help Toddlers and Preschoolers

Build your child’s feeling-word vocabulary. Help her learn to identify and name how she is feeling. “Even preschoolers can use words like frustrated, lonely, or surprised—and when they are able to name their feelings, they become more able to understand and work with their feelings,” Lee says.

One way parents can help their toddler or pre-K age child is to separate him from the situation to take stock of his feelings. Lead “a young child into a safe space—in other words not in a public forum where a bunch of people are looking at them where they can get even more upset because they’re humiliated by the social context,” Miller says. “Walk them to a safe place where they can calm down, you can model breathing, help them breathe, and then give them words to ask them whether you’re right about their feelings. It seems like you’re really frustrated, is that right? It seems like you’re angry, like you’re hurt, is that right?” This very brief statement about what he is feeling and experiencing can help him begin to name and label those feelings.

How to Help Elementary School Students

Cultivate friend-making skills. Pre-K to second-grade children are beginning to create genuine friendships, but they’re new to creating friendships, Miller says. “Children need a lot of help in figuring out how to be a good friend and to have friends,” she says. “At the beginning of the school year, you can practice making introductions if they’re nervous about not knowing other kids, and you can do that with stuffed animals or action figures that they play with: Hi, I want to introduce you to Betsy Bear. It’s nice to meet you, this is so-and-so.

Demonstrate empathy. “In elementary school, friends become increasingly important. Elementary school-aged children learn to identify and become attuned to peers’ facial expressions and perspectives. So parents can support their children by helping them learn how to understand others’ feelings, and to empathize with them, creating the basis for becoming a true friend,” Lee says.

In the home, where emotions are okay to talk about and explore, Lee recommends parents try to model empathy by saying, I wonder how your friend’s doing. She looked a little sad when she was here the other day—have you noticed that? or Gosh, I remember his parents are separated. I wonder if there is anything we can do to show our love and support for him? “Helping your child learn to develop an empathic frame for their experience can really mean a lot for a child during those elementary school years,” Lee says.

Practice self-management techniques. Third- through sixth-graders start to encounter more complicated social problems, such as bullying. So, Miller says, their self-management skills become really important. To help your child become a responsible decision-maker, discern what her values are, and act responsibly in social environments, Miller suggests practicing these scenarios with your child at home: how to deal when she is picked on, help her practice ways to respond to bullies whether she is the one being bullied or witnessing it, what to do when her friend is being bullied, when to disengage and not be an audience giving the bully power.

Kids at this age can also become very performance oriented, worried about how teachers and peers are judging them, whether it’s sports or academic. Because of this pressure, Miller says kids need really good coping skills. Talk to your child about dealing with frustration, persisting toward a goal when the outcome isn’t perfect immediately, and dealing with feelings of embarrassment or humiliation in front of peers when he doesn’t first succeed.

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How to Help Middle School Students

Explore morals and ethics. In middle school, kids’ moral and ethical development begins, and awareness starts to shift from “me and my accomplishments to an awareness of one’s membership in a larger community and humanity,” Lee says. “So parents exploring those topics with their middle-schoolers helps support their efforts to develop this larger vision and to formulate their own values.”

Talk and listen. “I think a critical aspect of being a middle-school parent is keeping the lines of communication open,” Miller says. At this age, kids are in the throes of puberty, and part of it is parental pushback and pushing boundaries. So talk about those boundaries and discuss why they are important, she says. “Kids are learning and caring more about social justice as it relates to the world and as it relates to them, and so they want to know why.”

When you are open with your child, she will come to you on her own time. You may not talk about little issues, “but when the big issues come up, they come to you, not somebody else,” Miller adds.

How to Help High Schoolers

Give your teen space to create an identity. “High-schoolers are really working hard at creating their own identity and independence, so sometimes they’re going to need more alone time and time with their friends and away from you. I think it’s a tough time to create independence when you are still dependent in a household,” Miller says; so allow your teen space to develop his self-identity.

Miller also suggests telling your teen stories from her childhood when she demonstrated strength and perseverance. “I think it’s really helpful because at the time when social pressure is at it’s height and they’re trying to figure out who they’re going to be in all of it, you want them to feel strong and feel like they can stand their ground if they need to,” she says.

While giving your teen space to cultivate independence, stay connected to him and keep the relationship strong. “Parents can support their high-schooler’s development by thoughtfully thinking issues through with them, by encouraging the ability of their teen to think critically in their decision-making. If we can recognize that this is a time when kids naturally begin to differentiate themselves from other adults, often including their parents, then we can avoid taking it personally and arguing,” Lee advises. “This is a healthy development—a necessary part of formulating their own identities.”

As with most life skills, parents are their children’s first and main teachers. So to help your child build her emotional and social skills, you have to demonstrate and build these skills yourself. As Miller says, “Every human being can continue to hone their social and emotional competence.”

Main image: Being able to discern others’ feelings and acting based on that information is part of emotional intelligence, so experts suggest parents begin clearly demonstrating empathy around elementary school-aged children to help them learn what it means to be a good friend.

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