5 Questions To Gauge Kids’ Emotional Intelligence — And Help Them Boost It

Our kids have had an exceptionally bad hand dealt to them the past few months. They’ve been separated from their entire social structure, their classrooms and all sense of normalcy. And parents have certainly struggled (to put it mildly) to keep up. So how can parents use this time at home ― whatever that looks like ― to teach their children other important life skills and foster their emotional intelligence? Enter EQ Not IQ, a package from HuffPost Parenting.

There are moments while parenting young children when their lack of emotional intelligence floors you. Like when they completely and utterly melt down because you tell them it’s not OK to feed the dog gum. Or when you coax them to see their actions through the eyes of someone else — hoping to foster just the teeniest bit of empathy — and they look back at you stonefaced.

What’s so hard as a parent (aside from getting through those moments while maintaining your cool) is knowing when to cut them slack because they’re actually acting in totally developmentally appropriate ways, and when to push them. In other words: How can we help our kids develop EQ while staying realistic about what their still-maturing hearts and brains can actually handle?

Here are five questions to ask to get a sense of how your child’s emotional intelligence stacks up — and to get your whole family thinking about how to work on this together.

Can my child describe his or her feelings?

First, a disclaimer: Emotional intelligence and EQ are not clinical terms, and they’re not concrete concepts that can be measured in any kind of standard way. If you’re concerned your child is struggling with emotional regulation or mental health issues, talk to their doctor. The questions in this piece are informal guideposts to get parents and kids thinking about these things; they’re not written in stone, and they’re certainly not diagnostic.

That said, emotional intelligence is important. ”[It] is the foundation of many important skills that begin in childhood and continue throughout our adult lives,” Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Illinois, told HuffPost. “These include the ability to feel empathy, to manage stress and frustrations, and to create close relationships with others.”

And the first part of developing emotional intelligence is learning to recognize emotions as they arise — which takes practice.

So, consider: How well do I think my child can describe his or her emotions when they arise? And can I help them get better at it?

This kind of work can start young, by helping your child deliberately name their emotions. When your toddler pouts, for example, say “You seem frustrated” or “You seem upset.” When they’re joyful, note that, too. Simple DIY-tools like mood meters and mood thermometers can help, too.

“The single best way to help a child to become more emotionally intelligent is to talk with them about feelings,” Meyers said. “I use the analogy of boxes of crayons when I discuss this with parents. Most children have the ‘starter pack’ when it comes to labeling feelings — mad, sad and glad. The goal is to move up to larger and larger boxes.”

Those bigger boxes include more nuance about different types of feelings, Meyers added, like the difference between feeling sad and guilty. Or the difference between feeling worried and panicked.

Can my child describe other people’s feelings?

Emotional intelligence isn’t just about understanding what’s going on internally; it is also about tuning in to other people’s feelings. So start noticing how well your kid seems to do that. One simple strategy? Ask them what they think characters in their favorite books are feeling, Meyers said.

Just don’t expect too much. Empathy takes time.

“The challenge is that these skills develop over time; we have different expectations for a 4-year-old than for a 9-year-old,” Meyers said. “Emotional intelligence naturally develops as a result of both biological maturation and accumulated experiences that children have. It also reflects children’s increasing cognitive abilities as their abilities to understand abstract thoughts and reason improve.”

“The single best way to help a child to become more emotionally intelligent is to talk with them about feelings. I use the analogy of boxes of crayons … Most children have the ‘starter pack’ when it comes to labeling feelings — mad, sad and glad. The goal is to move up to larger and larger boxes.”

– Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Illinois

Do they seem to be behaving at least sort of like their peers?

Comparing your child to his or her peers can be a slippery slope. Kids are individuals who develop in their own ways, in their own time.

But if your goal is to try and get a sense of your child’s general emotional intelligence, it can be useful to tune in to how they seem relative to their peers. Perhaps you notice that your own child seems to really struggle with managing his or her anger during tense moments on the playground. Or perhaps you’re really struck by your toddlers’ tendency to console young pals after a tumble.

“Even though it is a basic point of reference, parents can get a general sense of how well their child can talk about feelings or read others,” Meyers said.

Patty Treend, managing partner of LearnEQ, which develops curriculums for elementary and middle-schoolers about emotional intelligence, said it can sometimes be useful for parents to look at national and state health education standards, which are Google-able.

“They may not necessarily have the exact language around emotional intelligence, BUT they do say things like, ’At this age, your child should be able to describe their feelings. At this age grouping, they should be able to explain. At this age grouping, they should be able to demonstrate,” Treend said. “They might help parents get a sense of the framework, and where their kids are at.”

Do they have any tools for handling tough emotions?

If there’s one message that emotional intelligence experts emphasize again and again, it’s that feelings are for being felt. Developing emotional intelligence isn’t about ignoring feelings; it’s about learning to acknowledge them and sit with them or work through them as needed.

So ask yourself: Can my child handle tough emotions when they arise? How? Again, keep their age in mind. For example, meltdowns are developmentally expected in toddlers, so don’t freak out if your 2-year-old isn’t able to calm herself down with some cleansing breaths.

What you do want to be seeing is some kind of progression, so a sense that your child is trying to find ways to deal with anger, sadness, frustration, etc. that doesn’t involve hurting themselves or others or ignoring the situation.

What am I modeling for them?

“It’s important that parents take some time out to understand emotional intelligence themselves,” Treend said, adding that a lot of us simply weren’t taught this stuff in any kind of deliberate way growing up. She suggested “Emotional Intelligence,” a best-seller from the 1990s that basically coined the concept of EQ, as an easy starting point for those looking to dig in a bit more.

Then dazzle your kiddos with your own emotional intelligence. Take time to talk to them about what you are feeling. Notice other people’s feelings with them, and talk through scenarios of how you might all respond. And teach them your (healthy) methods for coping with tough stuff when it arises, whether it’s getting outside for a walk, using a journal, breathing … whatever your preferred mode may be.

This isn’t prescriptive, Treend said, in that you can’t simply run through a bunch of exercises with your kids and hope that you’ve nailed this whole EQ thing.

“It really goes back to sitting down and having conversations around these core concepts with your children,” she said — and then doing it again and again.