How to teach emotional intelligence to toddlers

Teach toddlers to manage emotions
Teaching toddlers emotional intelligence helps them identify emotions, accept their feelings and exercise self control.  It’s important to start teaching emotional intelligence at a young age because toddlers are experiencing strong emotions and feelings, and they don’t know what to do about them.

Around 15 months, toddlers start to throw some good tantrums.  It’s their only way of dealing with anger, frustration and lack of control.

It may be hard to understand or emphasize with a toddler screaming over not being able to go outside when you are in the middle of cooking dinner, but I try to think of their emotional regulation similar to what I was going through when my hormones were out of wack.  For instance, when I was pregnant, I had strange food cravings, teared up during Law and Order and would get really angry when our dog pulled on her leash.

With my recent emotional rollercoaster in mind, I can sympathize with a toddler’s inability to cope with big emotions.  After all, young children feel new and intense emotions but lack any skills to verbalize or deal with these emotions.  And that is why I make a point to teach emotional intelligence to my toddler throughout the day, every day.     Here are four steps to teach your toddler the basics of emotional intelligence.

1. Identify Emotions

Start by identifying emotions with simple feeling words such as happy, sad, angry, tired and upset.  I identify my child’s emotions as she’s experiencing them, my emotions throughout the day and I note emotions of others that draw her attention when we are out.  Here are some examples:

  • When she yawns and rubs her eyes, I say, “Oh, you must be tired.  Let’s take a rest.”
  • When she gives me an unprompted hug, I say, “That hug made me so happy.  Thank you.”
  • If we are at the store and she notices a kid crying, I say. “He must be upset.  Sometimes, we get upset too, don’t we?”

2. Accept Their Feelings

I don’t try to change her feelings (if I can help it).  That means that if my toddler is throwing a tantrum and crying, I don’t try to distract her by singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider or saying, “It’s no big deal.  Stop crying.”  Ignoring or reprimanding a child’s emotions make the child think that crying is wrong or bad, and it encourages them to suppress undesirable emotions instead of learning to work through them.

(That said, I’m not perfect.  There are times that my toddler is crying because she’s tired, and after I’ve identified and tried to accept her emotion, I do sing to her to try to get her to stop crying so that I can put on her pajamas.)

After identifying my toddler’s emotion, I empathize with her to show her that her feelings are valid and accepted.

  • “You can cry if you want to.”
  • “I understand.”
  • “I know.”
  • “Tell me about it.”

3. Help Toddlers Calm Down

I can’t stress the importance of teaching children how to calm themselves and relax their bodies.  When we experience stress, our bodies go into a reactive mode, and we don’t think through things as we should.  Teaching children to relax their bodies in times of stress will help them think more rationally and less reactively.

There are a lot of methods out there for helping toddlers calm down.  Our family uses a song from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood because we always have it in our parenting tool on hand.  The song helps get our daughter’s attention and encourages us all to take a nice deep breath.

Here’s the Daniel Tiger When You Feel So Mad You Want To Roar song:

When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.  One. Two. Three. Four.

Take a deep breath with your child and hold your hand palm down at shoulder level.  As you count to four, slowly drop your hand and exhale.  Click here to check out this Daniel Tiger song on YouTube.  This song is great because the tune helps children remember to take a breath, and the hand gesture provides a visual reminder to help them calm down.

4. Work Through The Problem

Sometimes, the song is enough to end a toddler tantrum.  Other times, it’s not and I have to work with her a little more to solve the problem.  Here are some problem solving techniques when dealing with a toddler.

  • Offer a choice.  It must be a choice between two things that you approve of, and it will give your toddler a sense of control.  For instance, “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt?”
  • Don’t offer a choice.  You are the parent, and sometimes you need to put your foot down.  You may simply state the facts in an optimistic way like this,  “I know you don’t want me to go, but Grandma will take really good care of you.  I think you two will have a lot of fun until I get back.”
  • Offer food or drink.  Toddlers often have tantrums when they are hungry or thirsty. When my toddler is particularly moody, I give her warm green tea with honey.  It calms us both down.
  • Make some changes.  Change the activity or move to a different room or outside.  Sometimes, toddlers will be happier with a new place or thing to explore.  You might say something like this, “Can you help me with this puzzle?”
  • Give them an outlet.  For example, encourage an angry toddler to kick a ball.  Yoga, crafts, music, blowing bubbles and dancing are great outlets for young children.

These four steps will help teach your toddler emotional intelligence.  Here are some examples of how I’ve used them, so you can see how it all comes together.

Example 1:  My toddler throws a tantrum at the dinner table.

Tantrums happen a lot just before I get dinner on the table.  It’s probably a mix of her being hungry and tired, and it doesn’t help that I’m usually hungry and tired too.  So here’s what I do.

  1.  Identify her emotion: “You seem really upset.”
  2. Accept her feelings:  “I know it can be hard.”
  3. Help her calm down:  Pause, get at eye level and sing the Daniel Tiger song.  Pause again to make sure we are both calm.
  4. Work through the problem:  “I’m sorry that it took so long to get your dinner ready, but it looks really yummy.  Would you like to start with chicken or rice?”

Example 2:  My toddler cries when we come inside.

My little one has so much fun playing in the yard.  Unfortunately, we can’t stay out there all day, and she has a meltdown when we come in.

  1.  Identify her emotion:  “You seem sad and angry.”
  2. Accept her feelings:  “I understand.  It can be hard when we don’t feel in control.”
  3. Help her calm down:  “Let’s take a couple of deep breaths together.”
  4. Work through the problem:  “Let’s have some water and read a book in the living room!”

Example 3:  My toddler cries when grandma leaves.

I don’t blame her.  Her grandparents are awesome!  She has so much fun playing with them, and they spoil her.

  1.  Identify her emotion:  “You’re sad.”
  2. Accept her feelings:  “It’s ok to cry.”
  3. Help her calm down:  “I’ll hold you for a little while so you can calm down.”
  4. Work through the problem:  “Would you like to play with your ball or color a picture?”

Example 4:  My toddler shares a toy.

By identifying the emotions of others, toddlers begin to understand empathy.  Happy emotions should also be identified and accpeted when teaching emotional intelligence to toddlers.

  1.  Identify the other child’s feelings:  “You made him very happy when your shared that truck.”
  2. Accept her feelings:  “It feels good to do something for someone else.”

In this instance, you really don’t have to help them calm down or work through a problem.  But you can tell them how proud you are of them or that what they did was very nice.  You can also give them a hug or an approving head nod.

Teaching toddlers the basics of emotional intelligence is just as important as teaching them to self feed, walk and talk.  A toddler’s problems may seem small or inconsequential, but by helping them work through their emotions and solve small problems, they’ll be better equip to deal with big problems when they’re older.



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