5 Ways You Can Teach Emotional Intelligence & Social Skills Every Day

“When they were fighting over ownership of something I would say ‘Jacob, say… ‘Excuse me Sarah, when you’re finished may I have a turn please?’’ and then wait for him to repeat my words. And then I would turn to Sarah and say ‘Sarah, say… ‘Sure, Jacob.’ I did this many, many, many times and then one day to my delight I was cooking dinner and overheard them use these exact words unprompted to resolve an issue… It was a proud moment : )” – Deanne

How do children learn social and emotional intelligence skills? Practice, practice, practice. Parents have to explain, model, and repeat themselves, over and over. It can seem endless. But there are ways to help children learn faster, by taking advantage of the problems that come up in every family on a daily basis. Next time there’s a problem, think of it as a teachable moment.

1. Talk about feelings. Research shows that when parents reflect with their children about what everyone in the family feels and needs, children become more sensitive and emotionally generous to others, as well as more likely to understand another’s point of view. This is true even when children are very young; when mothers talk to their toddlers about what the baby might be feeling, the toddler develops more empathy for the baby and is less jealous. Questions work better than lectures: “I wonder why she’s crying? What do you think she needs?”

2. Ask questions about feelings, needs, wants, and choices. Any time your child makes a poor choice, you can ask questions to help him learn from his experience. Be sure to keep the exchange low-key; no one can learn when they feel on the defensive. These kinds of questions are useful from toddlerhood (when your child grabs a toy from a friend) right through the teen years (when your kid gets drunk with his buddies). You don’t have to use all these questions. You’re just helping your child reflect on what drove him to make his choice, and how that choice worked out for him.

  • “How did you feel?”
  • “What did you want?”
  • “What did you do?”
  • “How did that work out?”
  • “Did you get what you wanted?”
  • “Did the other person get what he wanted?”
  • “How do you think he felt?”
  • “Would you do the same thing next time, or do you think you might try something different?”
  • “What do you think you might try?”
  • “What might happen then?”


Listen, nod, repeat to be sure you understand. Stay warm and non-judgmental. Keep your sense of humor, so when your child says “Next time I’ll smash him!” you can simply answer “Hmmm….what might happen then?” Try not to jump in to evaluate or lecture. Reflection is how children develop integrity and judgment. Good judgment often develops from bad experience.

3. Model “I” statements, which means expressing what you need, rather than judging or attacking someone else.  So, for instance, when your child says “Well, you’re stupid, too!” to her friend, you might teach her to say “I don’t like it when you call me names.”

One formula for “I” statements is to describe what you feel, what you need, and how you see the situation. You might follow that up with a request that the other person take a specific action. “I feel______ because I want (or need) _________and I observe that _________.” So, for instance,

“I feel worried because I want to get there on time and I see that you aren’t ready to leave yet….Please put on your shoes.”

4. Model pro-social behavior. The way the adults in the home relate to each other sets a powerful example for the children. Use that to your advantage by role-playing how you’d like your children to treat each other. For instance, you might say to your partner “There’s only one banana left, shall we split it?”  Or model how to set limits respectfully, by saying to your partner “Excuse me, I was using that. You can have it as soon as I’m done” with a smile and a hug.

5. Don’t expect to be perfect, and don’t expect your child to be. Once we let go of being right and aim for being love instead, we get a lot more perfect. Talk at dinner about a mistake you made today. Open up room for your child to admit mistakes and repair. Model apologizing and self-forgiveness. You’ll see everyone in your family becoming more emotionally generous.

Of course, you’ll still have to repeat yourself incessantly. But you’ll raise a human who can advocate for his or her own needs while respecting the needs of others. That’s the kind of person we need more of in the world.  And it’s worth a little repetition.

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