Supporting your child’s emotional intelligence development

5 min read   •   May 20, 2021
Jacqui Smit

Emotional intelligence (also known as ‘emotional quotient’), briefly summarised, refers to a person’s ability to recognise emotions in themselves and others, differentiate and label emotions appropriately, and adjust emotions based on different environments. Regulating, expressing, and adapting emotions is, in essence, a set of skills and behaviours which – very importantly – can be learned and refined.

People who score higher on emotional quotient (EQ) tests tend to be better able to form healthy relationships, succeed at school and the workplace, and control negative impulses. High levels of emotional intelligence are essential for people to thrive in all facets of life, and it is vital to start developing it from a young age. By supporting your child’s emotional development at every phase of their life, you can help set them up for a happy and prosperous future.

The stages of emotional development

As a child grows, they will learn different emotional skills depending on their age. Although there is no single linear model that perfectly captures human emotional development, there are rough milestones at every age. That said, it is crucial to remember that every child develops at their own rate. If you are concerned that your child is not meeting their markers, consider consulting a medical professional.

Read more: How our childhood personality affects us as adults, and why it’s important

Toddlers (18 months – 2 years)

At this stage, children are just beginning to feel more complex emotions. Because they typically are unable to verbalise their feelings, they are often likely to have fits and temper tantrums. Toddlers tend to be preoccupied with their concerns and needs.

Pre-schoolers (3 – 4 years)

Children of this age will start to show and communicate a broader range of emotions as their vocabulary grows. They begin engaging in play in earnest, showing affection towards and cooperation with others, and resolving conflict to some degree.

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Young children (5 – 10 years)
  • 5 – 6 years: children become more conversational and independent. They start learning adult social skills like praising others and apologising for mistakes.
  • 7 – 8 years: children’s awareness of others’ perceptions and opinions and the ability to express feelings with words increase.
  • 9 – 10 years: children now show a plethora of emotions and behaviours, and demonstrate increasing independent decision-making.
Adolescents (11 – 18)

Pre-teens and teens are now starting to think more logically and become more introspective, often needing greater levels of privacy. They increasingly consider and value the opinions of others. As they strive to be more independent and discover themselves (so to speak), they might seem moody or self-centred.

Supporting emotional development at every age

As children’s emotional intelligence develops, they will need different kinds of support at each stage of development. Parents are encouraged to be a kind of ‘emotion coach’, using their children’s most emotional moments as opportunities to teach children to recognise, analyse, and handle their feelings.

Read more: How to foster resilience in children


The most important thing to do at this age is to stay calm when they are not. Ask children guiding questions to ascertain how they are feeling and give them labels for these feelings. Working through a meltdown is much easier when a child can say, “I am feeling this way because of this thing”.


At this stage, children will start needing coping strategies for their emotions. The goal now is to help children recognise what they need when they feel distressed, whether it be some alone time to process their feelings or a distraction until they have calmed down.

Young children

During this phase, children might stop disclosing as much information about their lives, so it is up to you to be aware of their feelings. Ask them what might be going on and how that is making them feel. Listen with empathy and mirror what they are saying so that they know you understand what they have said.


Adolescence might be the most challenging life stage in terms of emotions. Pre-teens and teenagers need to be given space and independence (to a reasonable degree). It is prudent to help them feel good about themselves by promoting self-confidence, as many children at this age struggle with their self-esteem. Ensure your child feels safe and comfortable enough to discuss their feelings, and be sure not to minimise their feelings when they do. Remind them you are there for them and help them if and when they make mistakes.

Read more: Setting boundaries with your teenagers

What not to do

Equally important as doing the right thing to support your child is making sure you do not do the wrong thing. When discussing your child’s feelings, be careful to avoid mean or sarcastic remarks and excessive criticism. Do not attempt to do any type of coaching when you are upset or tired, as this will likely end in a very unproductive argument. Likewise, if your child is being manipulative, leave the conversation for a later stage. Stay clear of discussing your child’s feelings if you are pressed for time – these conversations tend to be quite lengthy!