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  • Jason Steadman, Psy.D.

Teaching Emotional Intelligence: Stage 1

The first step in teaching emotional intelligence is teaching awareness. Many people tend to focus this awareness on teaching kids how to label emotions, and while accurate emotional labeling is certainly important, that's not actually what I consider to be the first essential step in building emotional intelligence. Instead, for me, the first step is building awareness of an emotional shift.

An emotional shift is exactly what it sounds like - a change from one emotional state to another. It can be a change from good to bad or bad to good or neutral to bad or good. Still, awareness of emotional shifts is the cornerstone of optimizing mental health. It doesn't do any good, really, to just be able to label your emotions. Noticing you're happy, or sad, or scared, or excited, or angry, or any other mood does not do anything for your emotional health, at least not by itself. However, noticing a SHIFT from happy To sad, or from scared to relaxed, or from angry to peaceful, that is a much more powerful awareness. It's powerful because if you know your emotions can shift, you also can remind yourself that all emotions, no matter how intense, are temporary.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to be dismissive. Some emotions can certainly feel quite pervasive and permanent - unrelenting, even. But, no one has ever been permanently, ceaselessly depressed from the second they were born. The shift toward depression (or any other mental anguish) happened at some point. Recognizing that there was once a shift from "up" to "down" builds in another recognition that there can also be a shift from "down" to "up." And, again, this is a very powerful awareness.

So, the most powerful thing you can teach your kids as they're building emotional intelligence is that emotions can and do CHANGE.

You can do this by helping kids notice other changes - changes in their bodies or behaviors - that come with emotional shifts. "You were mad before and you hit me. But now you're not mad, and you're smiling and calm again." "You're so excited. Listen to your heart. It's beating so fast." [1 hour later] "Now let's listen to our hearts again. They're beating slower. Wow! Look at that!"

This also comes into play when using timeouts. It's very common for parents, after a time out, to come back to their kids and ask them to process what happened and what they did that got them a time out. This is fine, but sometimes it can miss the point. Time outs are given NOT to punish for a bad behavior but to place the child somewhere where their bad behavior, and the emotions that led to the bad behavior, can pass naturally. It's important for parents to remember this about time out. Time out is never a punhishment. It's an extinction procedure.


Extinction describes when a behavior fades away due to removal of reinforcers/contributing stimuli. When you take away anything driving a behavior, that behavior will eventually extinguish.

By contrast, punishment means you are introducing something unpleasant as a way to drive a behavior down.


Time out is an extinction procedure because you are removing all stimuli from the environment, which allows a behavior to just "play out" naturally, without any external input. So, when you give a time out, the goal is to allow a natural emotional shift. Thus, the most important thing you can talk about with your child after a time out is that very emotional shift. It won't do much good to talk about what they did that was wrong if you don't also talk about the shift that occurred from "good" to "bad" and then back to "good." In fact, it's the shift back to good that is most important.

Once a child can recognize a shift from bad to good, they can then also begin to learn and associate what's driven that shift from bad to good. This is the second reason learning to notice shifts is important. If you can recognize shifts, you can then track what contributes to those shifts, and you can work to recreate things that are more likely to promote healthy shifts (notably, not all healthy shifts are positive. Humans need negative emotions too). In the case of this example, taking a time out is what allowed the shift to happen. In adult terms, this is akin to "taking a break" from a tedious activity, or going on vacation from work. These breaks/vacations allow the stresses we've built up space to dissipate. They may not dissipate all the way, but they should at least shift toward the positive a a bit.

So, the best advice I can give parents about helping children develop emotional intelligence is to FIRST TEACH YOUR KIDS TO NOTICE WHEN THEY'VE HAD AN EMOTIONAL SHIFT. Once they can do that, only then can they move onto step 2: making associations as to what causes emotional shifts. Stay tuned for this part 2 at a later date.

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