8 expert tips for teaching kids emotional intelligence this Children's Mental Health Week (and #4 sounds like so much fun)

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and regulate our feelings - and it's a skill children can start to learn at any age

Three young children smiling and huddling together on the floor
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Emotionally intelligent people tend to have self-awareness, empathy and excellent communication skills. If you want to help your child develop these traits, you'll need to know how to teach them emotional intelligence.

Starting a conversation about mental health with children isn't always easy - some kids are too young to understand it, while older children might feel reluctant to open up. Nevertheless, children's mental health weighs on many parents' minds - especially in today's society, where social media and screen time have become an increasing concern, and many families are still feeling the lingering effects of the pandemic.

Along with using toys to support your child's mental health, there are other ways parents can equip kids to be more resilient and learn how to better manage and express their emotions. And teaching emotional intelligence is key. Emotional intelligence refers to a person's ability to express and manage their emotions appropriately, but - given that emotions are a pretty abstract concept - it's not an easy skill for kids to develop and they need adults to help them learn.

Parenting coach Anisa Lewis explains, "Teaching kids emotional intelligence is ultimately helping children to foster an understanding of emotions. By doing this, they can learn to navigate their own feelings and those of others, leading to improved mental health and enhanced social skills. Emotional intelligence can also aid in equipping our kids with the tools to handle conflicts, communicate effectively, whilst building positive relationships. Emotional intelligence is linked with resilience and this helps our kids to have the capacity to navigate life's challenges."

How to teach children emotional intelligence

1. Label the emotions

Labelling the emotions that your child experiences can give them the vocabulary to talk about how they feel in the future, but it also shows them that you understand what they are going through.

Anisa explains, "Encouraging children to identify and label their emotions helps them understand the wide range of feelings they may experience. This can be done in the moment, through identification from the parents/carers. For example, saying, ‘I can see you are angry’ or ‘That must be really frustrating for you.’"

Anisa adds that you can also add labels to emotions by reading books and stories about feelings with your child.

Psychotherapist and parenting expert Priscilla Bacon agrees, adding, "If children don’t have words for their feelings, then it’s harder for them to understand them and make sense of them. Expand their vocabulary to include all the different words we can use for our feelings and help them to understand the ways of expressing big feelings that are and aren't acceptable in your family home."

2. Validate your child's feelings

Pricilla tells us that asking your children questions about how they feel and showing curiosity towards what they are experiencing is a key way to teach emotional intelligence.

She explains, "When children come to trust and rely on the fact that all their emotions are important and that their parents will always ask about and focus on them, then they will learn to believe in and trust their own feelings - and that builds emotional intelligence."

Priscilla suggests asking questions like 'How did you feel when that happened?' 'I’m trying to imagine if that was uncomfortable for you?' or 'On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable did you feel?' in order to validate your child's feelings.

3. Model active listening

Active listening goes beyond simply hearing the words the person talking is saying, and really concentrating on the message they are trying to get across - including any non-verbal cues. It's an essential communication skill because it helps to better understand another person's point of view.

Anisa explains that by practising active listening when your child is talking, you can teach it to your kids. "Show children how to pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues when others are expressing their emotions. This skill fosters empathy and helps kids understand different perspectives and feelings," she explains, adding, "It also helps foster the understanding that not all communication is verbal."

A woman making eye contact with a young boy while he is talking to her

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Use movement

A study published in the journal Learning, Culture and Social Interaction explored how movement helped learning around abstract concepts of emotion when studying two Year 1 classes (children aged 5-6).

Using guided and improvisational dance, movement was used as a mean-making tool to prompt embodied experience and talk. The researchers called the process Developing Understandings of Emotions through Movement  (DUEM), and noted that it has the double benefit not only of movement itself, but also of making meanings for complex concepts - such as emotion - through the embodiment and exploration of physical metaphors.

You could try encouraging your kid to express the way they're feeling by using their entire body, helping them to become aware of the emotion they are experiencing by paying attention to the way their body moves and feels.

5. Don't look to solutions

Priscilla explains, "When children have their feelings solved immediately, or are met with expressions like 'oh it's not that bad' or 'you will feel better tomorrow', they don’t learn to be with or feel their feelings."

She adds, "Children need to know that there are times in life when they will feel sad, furious, devastated or that life is terribly unfair and a parent’s job is to help their children learn to feel those feelings rather than to try and negate or get rid of them straight away."

Priscilla explains that children who can bear their feelings are more emotionally intelligent - let them sit in their feelings by listening to them and asking them questions, rather than trying to make things better straight away.

6. Teach empathy

Teaching children to not take things at face value and instead wonder how the feelings of another person might be making them behave is key to fostering emotional intelligence.

Priscilla explains, "When children can understand that people’s behaviour is often influenced by and driven by their feelings, they can start to relate to people in an emotionally intelligent way."

Encourage your kids to think about how another person might have different feeling towards a situation than they do themselves. You could discuss what a film character might be feeling in a certain scene to help teach this skill.

7. Practice mindfulness

"Simple practices, such as deep breathing or guided imagery can provide tools for emotional regulation," explains parenting coach Anisa.

Engaging a child’s senses in the moment is a quick way to bring mindfulness into their experiences and these techniques contribute to a child's overall emotional resilience. Check out these mindfulness activities for kids for inspiration.

8. Show your own emotions

Children need to see emotions being shown and talked about, Priscilla tells us, so it's important that you are able to show yours to them and explain your own feelings. 

"Let them know why you suddenly feel angry when the house is in a muddle of toys, or explain why your work meeting was uncomfortable for you," Priscilla says. "They need to see the most important people in their lives have big feelings and can talk about them."

We spoke to the following experts

Priscilla Bacon
Priscilla Bacon

Priscilla combines her knowledge and experience as a Psychotherapist and trained parenting coach to help families live healthy and happy lives where there is as little stress and strain as possible and as much fun and laughter as possible!  

Priscilla thinks about the emotional wellbeing of children to help them feel supported and nourished and also works with parents to develop strategies that enable parents to be in charge and develop routines and ways of communicating that mean they can have a smooth running family life.

The aim is that every member of the family can have more time and energy to enjoy family life and build strong loving connections.

Anisa Lewis
Anisa Lewis

Anisa is an accredited and certified Positive Parenting Coach, mother, and ex-deputy head teacher, with 20+ years of experience working and supporting children and families. Anisa specialises in empowering and positively transforming the lives of parents and children, who are facing stress, anxiety, or just day-to-day challenges of parenting – working with them directly, in group environments, and through corporate channels. Anisa is hugely passionate about using her coaching skills, and educational background, to find ways for parents and children to move through the challenges they face in life, together.

Anisa is here to help bring about multi-generational change as she believes we often get stuck in the patterns from the past, following the path we ourselves tread, which isn’t always the right one to support our children and she is here to help families work things out, so they get to know that parenting does not have to be hard.

In other news, here's how to help your child use their voice, and these are the six signs your kid has 'high emotional intelligence'. Elsewhere, there are five reasons to let your kid fail, according to a teacher, and these are the eight types of play your kid needs to support their development.

Ellie Hutchings
Family News Editor

Ellie is GoodtoKnow’s Family News Editor and covers all the latest trends in the parenting world - from relationship advice and baby names to wellbeing and self-care ideas for busy mums. Ellie is also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a distinction in MA Magazine Journalism from Nottingham Trent University and a first-class degree in Journalism from Cardiff University. Previously, Ellie has worked with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue, and the Nottingham Post, as well as freelancing as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. When she’s not got her nose in a book, you’ll probably find Ellie jogging around her local park, indulging in an insta-worthy restaurant, or watching Netflix’s newest true crime documentary.