5 Ways to Boost Emotional Intelligence

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An interview about emotional intelligence in children with Laura Markham, Ph.D.

Research indicates, the more mastery our kids have of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), the more fulfillment they’ll have in life. EQ is the ability to recognize, express and regulate one’s emotions. That’s when informed parenting kicks in. To share insight and tools to nurture EQ in our kids, we have psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

Why is it important to cultivate Emotional Intelligence in our kids? 

Kids who can regulate their own emotions are sensitive to the cues of others, and able to empathize, or feel something from the other person’s point of view. That allows them to work through emotionally charged issues in a constructive way, so they have better interpersonal relationships and their lives work better.

Managing anxiety in order to tackle a big project, managing anger to work through a marital conflict, managing fear to apply for a job — the ability of a human being to manage his or her emotions in a healthy way will determine the quality of his life in a much more fundamental way than his mental IQ.

There is abundant research on the risks to kids who don’t develop emotional intelligence. Kids who can’t manage their emotions are more likely to “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol, to act out impulsively in anger, to become pregnant as teenagers, to develop eating disorders, and to engage in delinquent behaviors.

Even “ordinary” people who have escaped all those risks and are able to hold a job and raise a family, but have not fully developed their ability to regulate their emotions, are handicapped by their lack of emotional intelligence. They’re more prone to over-eating, marital discord and divorce, job conflicts and job loss, and conflicts with their own children.

Kids with high EQ, on the other hand, do better in school, are more cooperative with parents, are healthier, are happier, and choose friends who are closer to their own parents and less likely to engage in risky behaviors. As they grow up, their emotional intelligence helps them build more rewarding relationships in every area of their lives, which also leads to professional success and better parenting.

Top five ways parents can encourage EQ in their children:


Empathizing doesn’t mean you agree, just that you see it from his side, too. He may have to do what you say, but he’s entitled to his own perspective. We all know how good it feels to have our position acknowledged; somehow it just makes it easier when we don’t get our way.

  • “You’re excited!”
  • “It’s hard for you to stop playing and come to dinner, but it’s time now.”
  • “You wish you could have me all to yourself, don’t you?”
  • “You’re so disappointed that it’s raining.”
  • “You want to stay up later like the big kids, I know.”

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Feeling understood triggers soothing biochemicals; that neural pathway you’re strengthening each time he feels soothed is what he’ll use to soothe himself next time he feels upset.
  • You’re helping your child reflect on his experience and what triggers his feelings. For little ones, just knowing there’s a name for this overwhelming feeling makes it more manageable.


Disapproving of her fear or anger won’t stop her from having those feelings, but it may well force her to repress them. Unfortunately, repressed feelings don’t fade away, as feelings do that have been freely expressed. They’re trapped and looking for a way out. Because they aren’t under conscious control, they pop out unmodulated, when a preschooler socks her sister, has nightmares, or develops a nervous tic.

Instead, normalize feelings so your child can experience them and let them go:

  • “You seem worried about the field trip today. I used to get nervous on field trips too, in kindergarten. Want to tell me about it?”
  • “Nothing seems to be going right for you this morning…I wonder if you just need to cry? Everybody needs to cry sometimes. Come snuggle with Daddy and you can cry as much as you want.”

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Your acceptance helps your child accept her own emotions, which is what allows us to resolve our feelings and move on, so she is better able to regulate her own emotions.
  • Your acceptance teaches your child that her emotional life is not dangerous, is not shameful, and in fact is universal and manageable. She learns that she is not alone. She learns that even the less pleasant parts of herself are acceptable, which means that she is wholly ok, just the way she is.


Most of the time, once kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. This leaves an opening for problem solving. Sometimes, kids can do this themselves. Sometimes, they need your help to brainstorm. But resist the urge to rush in and handle the problem for them unless they ask you to; that gives kids the message that you don’t have confidence in his ability to handle it himself.

  • “You are so mad your brother broke your toy, but we don’t hit. Come and I’ll help you tell him how you feel.”
  • “You’re so disappointed that Molly can’t come over because she’s sick. You were really looking forward to playing with her. When you’re ready, maybe we can brainstorm ideas of something else to do that sounds like fun.”
  • “You’re pretty frustrated with Sam not giving you a turn. Sometimes you feel like not playing with him anymore. But you also really like playing with him. What could you say to Sam?”

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Kids need to express their feelings, but they also need to know how to shift gears to find constructive solutions to problems. That takes practice and modeling on our part.


When you notice a negative pattern developing, recognize that your child has some big feelings he doesn’t know how to handle, and step in with the best medicine: Play. For instance:

Your four year old always wants Mommy. Instead of taking it personally, help him work through his feelings about how much he prefers mom by playing a game where poor bumbling Dad “tries” unsuccessfully to keep him away from Mommy. Dad gets between mom and son, and roars “I won’t let you get to Mom….Hey, you just ran right around me!…You pushed me right over!…You are too strong!….But this time you won’t get past me!” Your four year old will giggle and boast and get a chance to prove he can ALWAYS have his mom. He’ll also discharge all those pent up worries that make him demand her.

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Kids experience big feelings on a daily basis. They feel powerless and pushed around, angry, sad, frightened, jealous. Emotionally healthy kids process these feelings with play so they can move on to the next age-appropriate developmental challenge. Laughter releases stress hormones just as well as tears — and is a lot more fun.


The most important thing you can do to encourage emotional intelligence in your child is to regulate your own emotions. Most of us keep it together fairly well until we’re upset at our child and start disciplining. But since our reaction always either calms or inflames the situation, it’s especially important to stay calm and see your child’s perspective as you’re setting limits:

  • “I’m sorry, Sweetie, I know it’s hard to stop, but you can play more tomorrow. Now it’s time to say Goodbye, Game. Ok, I’m turning it off. I know that makes you sad, but now it’s bedtime. Come, let’s bring your doll upstairs. I want to make sure we have time for a story. What should we read tonight?”
  • “You know the rule is No Jumping on the couch. It breaks the couch. I see your body really wants to jump right now. You can jump on the trampoline in the basement, or you can go outside and jump on your pogo stick, but NO jumping on the couch.”

Why this encourages emotional intelligence:

  • Kids learn emotional regulation from us. What they see you do is what they will do. Do you start snapping at others when you’re under stress? Have minor tantrums when things go wrong? So will they. Can you stay calm when your child does something you don’t like? Do you empathize when feelings are expressed? So will they.

If a child seems to be lagging in their EQ development, what should a parent do?

  1. Pin-point your concern. Is she unable to calm herself? Does he clobber other kids on the playground?
  2. Double-check your concern with a teacher or someone else who knows your child and has a wide base of comparison. Does your child’s behavior seem within the norms for his age group? (Be aware that kids always behave worse at home and with siblings.)
  3. Consider the source. If your child yells, where is she learning that behavior? Can you change the environment?
  4. Use more guidance and less discipline. Punishment makes kids rebellious and gets in the way of their learning emotional regulation.
  5. Step up the empathy. Kids learn empathy and emotional self-management when we empathize with them.
  6. If you remain concerned, consult a professional.

Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at


This article was originally published May 15, 2014.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out their series,“Ruby’s Studio” which helps young children understand and express their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool for you!

Posted in: Communication, Expert Advice, Emotions, Modern Parenting