09/13/2013 05:46 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

How to Support Your Child's Emotional Intelligence

There's so much talk about emotional intelligence these days, in fact, I just read an article in The New York Times about teaching it in schools. It made me wonder how aware we are, as parents, of the everyday interactions with our children that teach emotional awareness.

I have two young grandchildren, not quite 2, who are in the throes of learning that whenever they act on their emotions, they get a reaction from their parents. When they get frustrated they hit, when they feel jealous they push, when they're having fun they'll do whatever will get a laugh. The problem is that they can't yet distinguish the emotions behind their parents' reactions. All they feel is the joy of having Mom react and connect to them.

So, what's the significance? It shows that emotional learning starts very early. In fact, it begins in infancy, when babies study faces and learn that there's a difference between the smiles and frowns of their caretakers. And it continues into adulthood, when we misinterpret our partner's outbursts during an argument.

The next question is what can we do to help our children become more in tune with their own feelings and better aware of the feelings of others?

It starts with naming emotions. Even if toddlers aren't talking yet, give them a name for what they may be feeling. As they develop a connection between feelings and actions, they learn how to appropriately express them. So, ignore the bad behaviors and give the emotion a name, "I know you're angry, but we don't hit," and then turn away. And encourage the positive interactions, "It makes you happy when Mommy plays with you."

As our children get older and realize that others have feelings, too, we can reframe what they're seeing in their friends' behaviors and relate them to their own experiences, "Brandon's crying because Sarah hurt his feelings, remember when Jack was mean to you and how sad you were?"

Once they have an understanding that their emotions have meaning, they can learn to identify them before they act on them and then make a decision about how they will react. It takes time and develops as their thinking skills develop, but by the time they're teens, they should be able to take notice of the differences between feeling, thinking and acting.

Very often, it all has to be reinforced when they become teens. Meeting the social demands of middle and high school can tax the resolve of any adolescent. It's easy to forget the lessons you've learned along the way when you're not quite sure who you are and you look to others to define you. By being aware of who their friends are and how they communicate, we can help get them through some of the challenges they're encountering in these days of faceless communication. Remind them that they're still interacting with friends with feelings before they post anything on the Internet, and help them recognize when their friends are being hurtful.

If we can guide our children in developing their emotional awareness it won't have to be taught in school. If they arrive for their first preschool class with some awareness that feelings are a part of who they are and that they can make decisions about how they act, they'll be more likely to make good choices in their behavior. When they're in elementary school they'll be able to make friends and meet the expectations of teachers. And when they're in high school, they'll be able to talk about their feelings and identify when they're struggling in order to get the help they need.

The trick is developing those skills for ourselves in order to help our children in each developmental step of their emotional training. If we're acting without thinking or understanding the emotions behind our own actions, it will be difficult to impossible to teach our children those skills. We're all growing and changing throughout our life cycles, so it's never too late to learn something new to help our children be the best that they can be.

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