Helping children develop emotional literacy

Sue Atkins
15 September, 2017 : 13:30
0     3

There has been much talk and research around emotional intelligence and emotional literacy that suggests they lead to better health, higher academic achievement and stronger relationships. I believe the skills of emotional intelligence are learned — and parents are the best people to teach them to their children.

What is emotional literacy?

The terms emotional intelligence and emotional literacy both refer to the ability to recognise, understand, handle and appropriately express emotions.

‘Emotional intelligence’ is a person's overall ability to deal with their emotions, while ‘emotional literacy’ suggests a person's ability to communicate their emotions through words and read them in others.

There are five main aspects of emotional intelligence which, when developed, lead to children becoming emotionally literate. These are identified by Daniel Goleman in his fascinating book, 'Emotional Intelligence'.

  1. Knowing emotions. A child recognises a feeling as it happens.
  2. Managing emotions. A child has ways of reassuring themselves when they feel anxious or upset.
  3. Self-Motivation. A child is in charge of their emotions, rather than controlled by them.
  4. Empathy. A child is aware of what another person is feeling.
  5. Handling relationships. A child is able to build relationships with others.

Can we teach children to be emotionally intelligent?

Absolutely. Some children are instinctively in tune with their feelings and emotions, and will be ready to deal with new/ different situations/people more easily. Others may need a bit more help. All children need to have their emotional literacy nurtured, supported and encouraged, so by ‘talking and teaching’ your child to express themselves appropriately you are empowering them to navigate the emotionally choppy waters of growing up successfully.

Top tips for helping your child develop emotional literacy

  • Accept your child’s emotions and their emotional responses. Don’t immediately judge, criticise or negate how your child is feeling.  Name the emotion for them and say things like: ‘Oh, that sounds really frustrating,’ or, ‘How lovely, I can tell how excited you are.’
  • Label their emotions with them. Doing so helps children feel understood. For example, say, ‘You sound upset,’ or, ‘You look worried.’
  • Encourage your child to talk about their feelings. Create an environment where it’s safe to talk openly about feelings and emotions  free from judgement, criticism or finger-pointing. Say things like: ‘You sound really fed up. Shall we have a chat?’ and, ‘How did that make you feel?’
  • Help them to recognise the signs about how others may be feeling. In stories, books or TV programmes, ask open-ended questions to help your child step into the shoes of a character or person. Say, ‘How do you think that made him feel?’ or, ‘How would you feel if that happened to you?’
  • Teach them how to calm down and press their imaginary ‘pause button’. Encourage them to take three deep breaths and say a simple mantra of, ‘I can feel calm inside.’ After that, encourage them to go and do something they find calming and relaxing.
  • Teach children alternative ways of expressing their frustrations. Ask your child an open-ended, empowering question to help them feel that they have choices. For example, say, ‘How could you explain how you feel using your words rather than hitting?’ or ‘Can you think of a different way to let him know how angry you are?’ 
  • Recognise what motivates them to perform at their best. Encourage your child rather than praise them: focus on celebrating the behaviour and effort, not just the result. Say things like, ‘I’ve noticed that when things get difficult you just keep trying – that’s fantastic’.
  • Model how to remain calm and in control when you are tired, angry or fed up. Say, ‘I’ve had a tough day at work – can we talk about this later when I’ve had a chance to relax?’

Seize every opportunity

Whether it’s to model, teach and empower your child towards becoming emotionally literate, you will watch them blossom into happy, confident, resilient adults who are tolerant of race, gender and disability, and who will have positive mental health, well-being and quality of life. What better gift can you give them?

You can find out more about child development, and download free e-books too, at

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Sue Atkins
Sue Atkins is an internationally-recognised parenting expert, broadcaster, speaker and author of numerous best-selling parenting books. She is a regular contributor to the First Discoverer’s website by Wesco. If you liked this article you can find more like this at and also download their free eBooks. You can read more about Sue on her website

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