Developing Emotional Intelligence in Children


“It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head — it is the unique intersection of both.”
—David R. Caruso, Ph.D.

Emotion allows us to mark things in our world as good, bad, or indifferent, and thus facilitates choice. Most of what we deem wisdom is actually a result of cultivating awareness of our emotions and what we have learned from them. But how and when is this emotional intelligence acquired?

According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, emotional development begins very early in life — in infancy, when children first bond with their caregivers — and is not only significant to the formation of the architecture of the brain but has long-term consequences with the emergence of language and social skills. Early emotional intelligence lays the groundwork for academic achievement, the ability to form long-term, intimate relationships, and even the foundation of viable mental health.

But a child’s capacity to develop emotional intelligence is not a given. It is established in the complex interaction between child, caregiver, and environment. Since the human brain is not fully formed at birth, it is specifically through emotional relationships that neural pathways are shaped. Brain imaging has revealed that the experiences that most influence the brain are those formed in intimate relationships. These emotional events tend to be better remembered than non-emotional events. This research has led to the conclusion that early bonding and connection plays a dominant role in brain development.

Yale University psychologist and author Peter Salovey finds that emotions include four major components which develop in tandem with a child’s growth: expressive, experiential, regulatory, and recognition.

An infant’s brain is 25 percent of the size it will be as an adult. Newborns can already display emotion through facial expressions, body posture, and vocal tone. As children grow, their emotional development correspondingly increases. Between birth and 18 months, children experience emotions most commonly during interactions with caregivers, such as when feeding or comforting is offered. In these early stages, children learn that their needs — specifically hunger, tiredness, and discomfort — can be appeased if they cry, protest, or grimace. The limbic areas of infants’ brains are involved in multiple aspects, including recognition of emotional expressions on the faces of their caregivers and the storage of emotional memories. Children learn that a cry might bring help, and a gurgle of pleasure might elicit a positive response from their caregiver. In these moments, neural pathways between the ability to feel and the ability to communicate are actively being laid down.

Since emotional development proceeds rapidly during infancy and toddlerhood, and cognitive and linguistic processes are less developed, the infant must rely on the parent to help modulate and control emotions. Dr. L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus of child psychology at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, puts special emphasis on these early stages between child and caregiver as forming the basis for secure attachment. “The infant’s emotional reactions communicate his or her needs to the caregiver, whose reciprocal emotional reactions prompt effective care,” he says. “Shared emotion is the fabric of human social relationships.” Moreover, he says, “the maturation of the brain, including pathways of emotion and emotional regulation, is experience-dependent.”

The second component, experience, refers to conscious recognition of feelings. Feeling-states occur during the first stage of emotional development but are normally expressed during language acquisition. In very young children, feelings are often complex, and a young child’s ability to express them in language is still developing, so there may be a great discrepancy between what a child experiences and how they communicate it.

For instance, Elize Z. is teaching her 17-month-old baby, Henry, how to touch and communicate gently. As she was rocking him to sleep recently, Henry reached towards Elise’s eye and accidentally scratched her. Elise told him, “No,” in a fairly sharp tone, then she explained her reaction by displaying the sign for hurt which Henry had been taught in his daycare class. Henry started to cry, realizing he’d hurt his mother. Elise immediately comforted Henry and told him it was okay but that he had to be careful not to scratch Mama’s eye. Henry then put his arms around his mother’s neck and hugged her. In this interaction, the word and the feeling for hurt were connected in the neural pathways of Henry’s brain.

As a child acquires language, he or she can begin to express in a more coherent and organized fashion what previously they could only demonstrate through body language and facial expression. Henry will soon learn to use the words hurt and sorry, but the groundwork for their meaning has been established. Emotional understanding gives children a way to identify their internal feelings, which can then be made conscious. Such conscious emotional awareness allows children to immediately attach feelings to events, which can then facilitate the next component, successful and appropriate regulation of emotions.

By the time they are toddlers and preschoolers, children can distinguish nuances in a range of feelings. This is when they learn the third component of emotional development, how to regulate their emotions. Each emotional stage builds on the previous one. Without the ability to express feelings, in stage two, children wouldn’t be able to regulate or control their behavior. Now, their emotional vocabulary has increased to include words and feelings like disgust and wonder, and they are better able to manage their behavior. Not only does language help a child express their feelings to others, it provides the child with the skill of “self talk,” an internal self-guidance system.

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