From Parenting 24/7: University of Illinois Extension


Developing Emotionally Skilled Children

Posted Jan 29, 2007.

Developing Emotionally Skilled Children

Children who learn to manage their emotions benefit in many ways. Most experts agree that when children develop the skills to deal with their emotions they get along with others better, do better academically, and feel better about themselves. The American Psychological Association adds that children who are able to successfully control their emotions are also better at paying attention, focusing, and have less impulsive behaviors.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research the following features are important for emotional development in children:

  • Learning about one’s own feelings
  • Parents can help by talking with their children about feelings. Simply telling children how they should feel or react does not help them learn to cope with strong emotions. Parents can demonstrate patience, listening skills, empathy, and problem solving. It is sometimes helpful to repeat back what you think you heard to make sure you understand what the child’s point of view is. Showing that you understand their view point helps children feel heard and respected. These conversations can help them develop the language that goes with what they are feeling.

  • Learning how to read others
  • Handling emotions also involves recognizing how others are feeling. Parents can point out how facial expressions, gestures, and body language can give clues about how someone else is feeling. This awareness helps us interact with others on a daily basis and have successful relationships.

  • Manage strong emotions
  • Parents help children gain control over strong emotions when they teach and model successful ways of coping with their own feelings, create an openness for children to express how they feel, and help children label their feelings. Children need to know having strong feelings is a normal part of life. Let them know everyone is capable of losing control and what to do when it happens (calm themselves down, apologize, negotiate, problem solve, etc).

  • Regulate one’s own behavior
  • Learning to express strong emotions in appropriate ways helps a child develop confidence and a better sense of self-control. Helping your child reflect on what it feels like to demonstrate control in situations can have a powerful effect. Examples and stories that illustrate and reinforce the value of handling emotions appropriately can be very helpful.

  • Empathy and relationships
  • Children gain the ability to empathize with others when we help them learn about another person’s experiences and point of view. It helps them to build and maintain friendships. Ask your child questions like: “How do you think Samantha felt when the other children wouldn’t play with her?” or “Why do you think Terry acted that way?”

    So, where do you start?

    John Gottman, noted psychologist and researcher, developed the idea of emotional coaching. He stressed the following five steps:

    1. Be emotionally aware. Become aware of your child’s emotions. Stay tuned in with how your child is feeling. While children may let you know right away they are feeling something strong, it may take some effort to determine what the emotion really is. Are they angry? Or could it be they are afraid, frustrated or lonely?

    2. See episodes of emotional flare-ups as teaching opportunities to get closer to your child. Most parents want to protect children from pain and fix their problems. But that isn’t how life works. The times when your child is upset is a chance to help them decide how to better deal with the problem rather than make the problem go away for your child.

    3. Listen with empathy. Try to listen and validate your child’s feelings. When we are angry or frightened, we usually want someone to understand how we feel. As parents we cannot always fix the problem, but we can let children know we understand what they are feeling. “I understand it makes you mad when Jason teases you.”

    4. Label feelings. Help your child find words to label the emotion. Children have strong emotions, but may not understand what they are feeling. Parents can help children figure out what is wrong by labeling emotions for them. “You look pretty frustrated. What’s wrong?”

    5. Set limits for appropriate behavior. Emotional coaching is a useful part of discipline. Usually, children need to calm down before a problem can be solved. Setting limits like, “It is not ok to hit even when you are mad” or, “we do not say mean things to hurt others feelings” help children learn more appropriate ways of behaving. Help children focus on fixing the problem after they have calmed down.

    Other helpful tips:

    • Provide children with individualized time and attention
    • Remain connected to your child’s needs
    • Model what is expected
    • Spend time talking about feelings even when there are outbursts
    • Help your child learn to tell their story – be patient and allow them sufficient time to do this.
    • Ask questions like: “Do you remember what happened last time? How did you feel about the way you handled that situation?” Would you do anything different next time?

    Websites: or


    Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. John Gottman, Joan Declaire & Daniel Goldman, 1997.

    Kids, parents, and power struggles. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Quill. 2001.

    The explosive child. Ross W. Greene. Harper. 2005.

    Step Ball: A Child’s Book about Feelings and Differences. Norm Early, Danelle Young, and Brent Naughton, 2000.

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