Your little one laughs hysterically one minute and rolls on the floor kicking and screaming the next. Is your head spinning yet? Welcome to the world of her emotions, which during the first two years of her life can feel overwhelming as she begins learning how to navigate the complex task of recognizing, understanding, and managing her emotions and the emotions of others.
Being able to recognize, understand and manage our emotions and those of others make up our EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient. High EQ has been associated with better relationships, success in school and the workplace, and psychological well-being. Just like IQ (intelligence quotient), EQ is thought to be the result of both genetic factors and life experiences. Your child may have certain personality traits that are simply part of who she is, but research shows that her direct experiences with you impact her EQ.
What You Can Do
Nurturing your child’s emotional skills will get increasingly complex with each passing year, but even when she’s just home from the hospital you can start her on a path to healthy emotional development by keeping these things in mind:
Help her learn about emotions. Being able to recognize and label emotions is the first step in learning how to deal with them. In these two articles we explore the typical evolution of emotions during the first and second years of life, and how you can support that learning. Our BabySparks program is a great resource for activities to teach your child about emotions.
Help her understand emotions. Mirroring emotions and talking about them are great ways to help your little one understand why she’s feeling what she’s feeling. If she cries when Grandma leaves, scrunching up your own eyebrows and saying, “It’s sad that Grandma left, isn’t it? I’m sad, too” gives meaning to her feelings.
Teach her that emotions aren’t bad, they’re something to work through. Psychologists have linked children feeling emotional shame to problems such as acting out, bullying or being bullied, anxiety, and even depression. In the earliest days, when you pick up your crying baby and cradle her while gently shushing in her ear, you send the message that it’s okay to feel distress and that it can be dealt with. Similarly, when your toddler throws her bowl on the floor after you say no to more cookies, telling her that it’s okay to be mad but it’s not okay to throw things lets her know that her feelings are okay but her behavior is not. In the long run this will teach your child that we can’t control the emotions that pop up, but we can control the way we deal with them.
Show her what to do with negative emotions. During these first years of your little one’s life, her responses to negative emotions will likely be as intense as the emotion itself. She may get mad and hit or bite, for example. You can teach her tools for dealing with anger in a healthy way, like taking deep breaths or saying, “I’m mad!”
Remember, too, that from the beginning, your little one is paying attention to how you manage your own emotions. If you yell, she will learn to yell. If you step into another room to catch your breath when you’re angry, she learns that it’s possible to regulate emotions. You won’t do this perfectly every time. Parenting is hard, especially when your baby is throwing food or a tantrum. Still, simply being aware of how you’re dealing with your emotions and consistently doing your best to model what you want her to learn is a powerful lesson in emotional regulation.
Show her what to do with positive emotions. Just as she takes cues from you about what to do when she’s upset, you can also show her what to do when she feels positive feelings like pride and excitement. The first time she successfully puts a piece into a shape puzzle, she may turn to you with a surprised look on her face. If you smile and clap she learns that if she feels proud, she can celebrate. Or if she’s excited about Grandma coming over you can say, “It’s so exciting that Grandma’s coming over, isn’t it? Let’s put on some music and dance while we wait!”
Model and encourage empathy. The ability to imagine what someone else is feeling and respond with care is a skill that evolves over time, but it starts in infancy when you show your baby empathy when she is feeling distress. You can model empathy in real-life interactions as well as during play (“Giraffe is over there all by himself. Do you think he’s lonely? Let’s go ask him if he wants to play.”)
Your child’s emotional development can be a roller coaster (wait until she’s a teenager!), but the effort you put in to guide that development, especially during these early years, can set up her up to reap the benefits of having a healthy EQ.