Children learn what they live. This includes anger, hostility and aggression. The primary method of early learning is imitation (Gruber and Voneche, l977). Children imitate what they see, what they hear, and what they experience. They typically do not do what they are told to do, but rather, do what they are shown to do. Effective parents realize the power they have in being able to model decision making skills and healthy coping strategies. Being a parent who can model increased emotional intelligence while juggling the daily stressors and demands of parenting, career and home life – is no easy task.

Emotions are contagious; it’s easy to “catch” an emotion.

This is why it is important for us parents to ‘model’ the actions and behaviors we want to see in our children. If we want our children to ‘think’ before they act – we have to model what this looks like. In every situation, each of us has an unlimited number of choices and options regarding our behavior. Thinking through those options before we act on impulse is wise as it allows us to use our knowledge from learned experience. This is exactly what we want our children to do before they act impulsively based on anger or frustration or temptation. This is an especially important skill during adolescence when many teens face peer pressure and temptation.

Being OK with mistakes; theirs and ours!

Parenting does not mean that we have to be perfect and never show any negative emotion, such as anger and frustration. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Your child needs you to express all of your emotions – not just the warm fuzzy ones, so he or she can see how it’s done. The difference when we are modeling increased emotional intelligence is that parents are not just impulsively reacting to external stressors, they are able to model healthy ways to manage their own emotional distress. A parent with increased emotional intelligence might say, “Mom is frustrated right now, I’m going to take a few minutes to calm down before we talk about how we’re going to solve this problem.” With increased emotional intelligence, we begin to see and understand that most of our emotional reactions are the result of our own internal perceptions and interpretations. So instead of saying, “you make me so mad,” we would be correct in saying, “I make myself so mad when I perceive or think about…” The golden rule when modeling healthy coping strategies to your child is to be mindful that we, as parents, are always teaching through our own emotional reactions and responses. It is not just what we say that is important – but what is the emotion we are conveying to our children through our actions and behaviors.

There is nothing more important than the parent-child attachment relationship.

If you want your child to value relationships and learn how to create and sustain meaningful, loving human connections – you are their first and best teacher. One of the most important developmental tasks a child needs to learn when they are young is how to modulate and/or regulate their internal distress. They need to learn how to return to a calm state after a distressing event. This is no easy task for a young child who is hearing ‘No’ about a hundred times a day. When we really stop and think about a child’s day to day experience from their perspective, we realize how many stressors and frustrations they encounter. Not all stressors are negative, in fact, these daily stressors are great opportunities for your child to practice the skills and competencies that later become the coping strategies and resiliencies he or she will need later in life. Have empathy for your child as they encounter life’s daily stressors.

What to do with BIG feelings and emotions!

When children suffer a significant loss through divorce, death or adoption they will experience a myriad of overwhelming and intense feelings. What is most important during this time of crisis for the child is that they are not suffering alone. It is imperative that parents help to model for their children what to do with BIG feelings. Have a family rule that no one in the family does their pain alone. Letting your children know that when they are feeling really sad, or really hurt or really angry – that they should come to you with those BIG feelings! You can’t make them go away – but our BIG feelings always feel better when they are shared with people we trust and love.

Sorrow shared is halved while joy shared is doubled – Swedish proverb

Parents should model healthy ways to share grief, loss and emotional pain. For example, when our beloved dog died of old age, our family gathered around a large poster board to make her a goodbye card together. We wrote our favorite memories, drew pictures and shared our feelings of sadness about losing our precious dog. This began the grieving process for all of us and most importantly gave permission to our children to have all of their feelings, especially the BIG sad and angry ones, while giving them an outlet to express them.

Parents are a child’s first and most important emotional teachers. The primary way a child learns to navigate and express intense or BIG emotions is in the intimate cauldron of the family. Children learn what they live. The primary method of this early learning is imitation. When children have parents that can easily find joy and laughter they will learn how to quickly recover from a stressful event. When children have parents that can effectively express and manage their own feelings, children learn increased emotional intelligence. There is a growing body of research indicating that social and emotional skills (emotional intelligence) may be even more critical to life success than one’s intellectual ability (IQ). And if you want to be let in on a little secret about how to increase your child’s emotional intelligence – make sure you are playing with them every day! Interactive play strengthens every aspect of a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. ‘Play is the work of children’ – Anna Freud

Allison Davis Maxon, M.S., LMFT is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of child welfare and children’s mental health specializing in Attachment, Developmental Trauma and Permanency/Adoption. She is the Executive Director of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and was the foster care consultant for the Paramount Pictures movie Instant Family. Allison was honored in 2017 with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute ‘Angels in Adoption’ award and is the co-author of Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency: A Guide to Promoting Understanding and Healing in Adoption, Foster Care, Kinship Families and Third Party Reproduction, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2019. 

You can reach Allison at or

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This