Picture this: you’re watching your toddler build a castle out of blocks at a local play area. Another child becomes interested in your toddler’s handiwork, making her way over to your little one’s towering castle. She begins to add to the masterpiece, but in doing so she stumbles, causing the castle to fall to a pile of rubble.

How would your little one react? Would they become angry with the other child? Would they become inconsolable at the loss of their achievement? Or would they take a breath and start again? Would they begin their building anew?

A child’s reaction to this situation would vary from day to day. Much depends on the ability to manage their emotions. This is the concept of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence can be fostered at any age. The benefits of developing this skill include a lifetime of improved communication, mindfulness, and compassion.

How can you help your toddler to develop emotional intelligence?

Use these 5 methods to start fostering emotional intelligence in your toddler today.

Ask Questions

To get your little one talking about emotions, ask them how they feel when they have a certain emotion. For example, ask them how it feels when they are happy. Does it feel good? Do you want to share your happiness with others? How can you help another person feel happy? Does sadness feel heavy? What do they feel like doing when they are sad? Does frustration feel good or bad? What do they think the best way to deal with frustration is?

If they are having a tough time, ask them where in their body they are feeling the emotion. Is it making their tummy feel funny? Do they feel their heart beating faster? Maybe their arms or legs feel heavy or fuzzy. Discuss ways to manage those emotions, such as going for a walk, playing, reading a book, coloring, etc.

By discussing ways to manage emotions, you’re allowing your little one to take ownership of their feelings. This starts the process of emotional mindfulness, and gives your kiddo the chance to get creative when it comes to handling tough emotions like anger, sadness, or anxiety.

Use Comparisons

Sometimes emotions can be hard for little ones to explain. They might not have the vocabulary to express how they are feeling. This is especially true when they are having a hard time. Maybe they are overtired or overstimulated. On these days tantrums come as steady as waves of the ocean.

Using comparisons is a great way to help toddlers develop a sense of what an emotion feels like. Try comparing their situation to something they may be familiar with, such as a book, television or movie character. Ask them, “Is it like when ‘character’ felt ‘emotion’ about ‘situation’? Yes? No? Is it more like when ‘character’ felt ‘emotion’? Can you think of someone else who may have felt like this?”

For example, you could ask, “Are you feeling like Thomas the Tank Engine when he was sad about being left at the train station? What do you think the best way to handle that feeling is? How can you express yourself in a way that is proactive?”

Practice by Play

Reading faces is an important skill for emotional intelligence. Body language is also important. Practice learning and reading emotions by playing the Feelings Game. Make dramatic faces to express a certain feeling (think big smiles for happy, furrowed brows for upset, a frown for sadness). Ask your little one can guess the emotion. Take turns making faces and guessing the emotions.

If you’re feeling really silly, turn it into an interpretive dance game. You can do long, slow, sweeping motions and a frowning face for sadness, or hands in the air like you just don’t care with big smiles for happiness. Little ones love to move their bodies, and doing the Feelings Dance is a great way to develop recognition of various emotions.

Find Teachable Moments

Use examples from books or movies to teach your little one about managing emotions. Did a character in a book or a movie act impulsively? How did it impact her experience? What would have been a better way to handle the situation?

Continue finding opportunities to teach your child about emotions throughout your daily routine. Maybe you spilled your coffee or tripped over a toy and felt annoyed, letting the situation get the best of you. Talk to your little one about how you could have changed your mindset about the situation. You can always make more coffee, or you can make sure that clutter is put away before it becomes a problem.

Talk About Your Feelings

Talking about our own feelings is a great way to foster emotional intelligence in our children. Children learn by our example, and if we lead with recognition of our own feelings, our children will follow suit. Feeling like you’re in a funk? Let your kiddo know about it! Explain that you’re feeling a little out of sorts, and ask your child to brainstorm a fun way of getting out of that funk.

Talk about how the emotions feel in your body. Does it make you feel tired, a little grumpy, or disinterested? Ask your little one how they would handle feeling this way. Discuss positive methods of handling your feelings. Could you go for a walk? Or could you color or paint a picture? Would reading a book help you feel better?

Are you feeling happy or motivated today? That’s awesome! Discuss with your little one how you can make the most out of how you are feeling today. Be sure to let your kiddo lead the conversation. Encourage positive thinking and creative problem solving with praise and rewards that continue to develop emotional intelligence (reading books together, pretend play, crafts, etc.).

Showing your children that emotions are meant to be felt allows your kids to embrace their emotions. This gives your children the chance to manage their emotions in a mindful way, regardless of the emotion being positive or negative.

Have you tried other methods to help your little ones learn about emotions? Tell us about it in the comments below!


As a lover of mindfulness, Megan writes about finding balance in motherhood. Her mission is to help parents navigate their roles with confidence, grace, and simplicity. You can find her in Northern Minnesota, exploring the shores of Lake Superior with her family.