Start Young: Three Ways to Help Your Toddler Build Their EQ
Updated: Apr 24
Did you know that the most rapid brain growth occurs in the first three years of life?
Your little one is in the very beginning stages of creating the neural pathways that will influence future thought processes and behaviors. When it comes to emotional intelligence, or the ability to recognize and manage emotions, they are developing habits and forming patterns very quickly.
Because a child’s ability to act and reason is so low, they rely heavily on environment and relationships to help them understand their little world. It might seem strange that something so critical as emotional intelligence is being created in such an under-developed brain, but research has proven time and again that the first few years of a child’s life are foundational.
In fact, the most optimal time for your child to learn socially and emotionally is before the age of six.
That means a lot of responsibility for us as parents, teachers, and caregivers.
While your primary concerns as a parent are meeting your child’s basic needs and keeping them safe and loved, helping them develop emotional intelligence is also important—and powerful. One of our goals at EQ Explorers is to help you and your child step into the realm of emotional intelligence early on.
Here are three simple ways to help foster emotional intelligence when your little one is still young.
1. Teach your children that emotions precede actions.
A key aspect of emotional regulation is the ability to step back (figuratively) from your emotion and process it before choosing your next behavior.
You can coach your children, when necessary, to create a delay between an intense emotion and their reaction. The danger comes when we act purely based on emotion and entirely neglect our ability to reason. We’ve all done it. We allow our emotions to drive us. But more often than not, the outcome of that isn’t always a good one.
When your child comes to you with an intense emotion, help them take a step back by “pausing” the situation.
“Hm, I can tell that you’re very angry. Why are you angry?” Let your child explain the best they can. Listen. Validate. Create space for them to feel that emotion and understand it.
Turns out, it’s science!
Research backs this approach to emotional learning. It may take a second for the reasoning part of the brain to kick in, but the more you practice, the more habitual this behavior will become. With your guidance, your child will develop the know-how to deliberately move from emotion to action.
2. Focus on consistency
We know what you’re thinking. Your child came to you angry last night and you didn’t ask questions, listen, or validate. Instead, your child stormed off, angrier than when he initially approached you.
So that was successful.
As a parent, you are responsible for caring for and developing your own emotional intelligence as well as your child’s. That’s a lot. Especially because your child’s emotions and behaviors usually directly affect you. It isn’t easy to always approach the situation as an outsider looking in. You’ve got skin in the game too!
Try your very best, and remember that consistency matters most.
Studies have found that while the quality of children’s emotional and social learning is important, so is the consistency and the repetition of those learning experiences. So try again and again. Your children will remember your effort. And if you do keep trying, eventually, you are bound to get better—improving your own and your child’s EQ.
3. Take advantage of intense emotional moments.
Think about the moments when your emotions have soared—times when you’ve been extremely sad or happy. In moments of intense emotion, we are so vulnerable. Will our emotions be validated? Will they be dismissed? Will we be supported in managing them and finding a solution?
Little children have BIG emotions, and at such a young age they don’t yet know what to do with these feelings.
We know it’s challenging, but next time your child throws a tantrum in the grocery store, step back and remind yourself how vulnerable they are right now. This is a critical moment. How you respond to their big emotions (and possibly bad behavior) will send a clear message to your child about how they should feel about and respond to their big feelings.
In fact, how you respond and consequently, how they respond will create or strengthen certain pathways in their brains.
In the future, when your child experiences some of these big emotions again, their little brain will say, “Oh, I know what to do here…” For better or for worse, this will drive their behaviors in response to these feelings.
You can never start too early.
Research has shown that the sooner we get involved in helping our children develop emotional intelligence, even beginning at birth, the more effective and robust their emotional development will be.
So teach them that emotions precede actions, focus on consistency, and take advantage of those intense (and often difficult) emotional moments.
Want to read the research? Find an article about starting young here.
Research found in “Building Young Children's Emotional Competence and Self-Regulation from Birth: The ‘Begin To...ECSEL’ Approach” from the International Journal of Emotional Education (2018), vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 5–25.