Raising a teen who has a hard time feeling empathy, who has a hard time understanding someone else’s emotional experience, or who is prone to extreme emotional outbursts can be tough on the entire family. The good news is that empathy and self-management can be cultivated by helping your child foster emotional intelligence skills.

What is emotional intelligence (EI), and why does it matter? 

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your own emotions and the emotions of others. It’s also the ability to manage and apply your emotions to everyday life. Just like your IQ can predict how well you will do on tests, your emotional intelligence (also called your EQ) can predict how well you will do in social situations. EI is what you need to keep your relationships alive and make new ones down the road. 

You may have heard that IQ is what determines your intelligence. Yes, your IQ will tell you how you will do academically. While it is very important to be book smart, it helps if you are emotionally smart as well

Getting good grades and reading books written by the smartest people may help you in school, but being people-smart will help you build success in your relationships . . . and at work. Studies show that individuals with high EI are more likely to get hired, promoted, and earn higher salaries.

That part might get your teen’s attention.

Fostering emotional intelligence during the teen years will allow your child to recognize and use their emotions to guide them as an adult.

Drawing on the work of psychologist Daniel Goldman, here are four of the main pillars of EI and how to foster it in your teen. 


Self-awareness is basically knowing your strengths and weaknesses and how your behavior affects others. Helping your teen become self-aware will benefit them now and throughout life. Self-awareness helps your teen to identify and correct errors and leads to greater resilience. Other benefits of self-awareness include:

  • Better listening and overall communication skills
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Cultivating a growth mindset
  • Stronger leadership skills

Emotional self-awareness will help your teen to manage their emotions and recognize the emotions of others—which is very helpful when seeking to create meaningful connection. For example, recognizing how you feel when you are sad will enable you to more easily notice others’ sadness. By acknowledging the emotions of other people, they may turn to you for comfort when they most need it.

Teach your teen that while emotions can feel BIG; all emotions are not the same. An emotion may last a few seconds while others last long enough to determine if you are happy or sad. No matter how long an emotion lasts, remind your teen that recognizing it is the first step toward being emotionally intelligent. 


Emotions are tricky but also transitory. We are constantly feeling little ups and little downs throughout the day. It is healthy to express any emotion you are feeling. However, it’s important to know how to manage your emotions so that they are in the passenger seat and not the main driver. While we aren’t going to be able to control what emotions arise and when they do, we can learn to manage them. 

Emotional intelligence teaches you how to manage your emotions in order to avoid hurtful or inappropriate behavior. Consider this scenario: You and your family are out to dinner with a relative you do not get along with. It might be relatively easy for you to explode with anger if this relative begins to criticize you.

However, self-control is about learning how to breathe through your emotions. Since you are in a public place, it would not be best to yell at this relative. You are also with your children, so you do not want to embarrass or upset them. In this situation, it is probably wise to either ask to change the subject or not talk at all.

When it comes to teaching your teen self-management skills, it’s helpful first to model it. Here are some ways:

When you feel like your emotions are spinning out of control, or you become overwhelmed by a big emotion such as anger, pause and take a deep breath to reset. Then, share your feelings with a trusted friend. Afterwards, openly state (in front of your teen) how those actions (hopefully) helped you to calm down.

Allow yourself time to process and choose how you wish to respond after hearing about that thing your child did that you explicitly asked him not to do. When that happens in my home, I often say, “I am feeling very frustrated right now, so we are going to discuss this a little bit later when I feel calmer.” 

Consistently demonstrate the ways in which you decompress from a tough work day or week: journaling, listening to music, taking a ten-minute walk around the neighborhood.

Empathy & Understanding

Another way of being emotionally intelligent is knowing how someone would feel in a certain situation and understanding why they feel what they do. For example, if you offer your friend a snack only for them to quickly refuse, seeing their uncomfortable facial expressions and body language should tell you not to pressure them.

Imagining what a person could be feeling at any given time and taking into consideration their feelings and point of view is called empathy

The skill of empathy helps us to know what the appropriate thing is to say or how to behave toward someone who is showing intense emotions. 

In addition, empathy also helps to cultivate an awareness and appreciation of difference. In today’s diverse world, empathetic youth become emotionally intelligent leaders who are able to build culturally and generationally diverse teams with unique experiences and perspectives. Empathy is an essential part of welcoming various strengths and leveraging those strengths towards creative problem solving. 

When teens develop empathy, they are better able to understand and relate to themselves and others.

Relationship Management

Let’s face it, people are going to annoy or disappoint us. Even those we like or love. Emotional intelligence is a skill your teen can use in any social situation. Recognizing, understanding, and using your emotions can make a difference in maintaining relationships with anyone you meet. 

Listen to your instincts if you feel like what you are about to say is not wise in the given moment. If a friend or loved one is hurting, be able to provide comfort and love. When your teen reaches adulthood, it will be easier for them not to just recognize their own emotions, but also the emotions of those around them.

Teach your teen to know when it is best to talk about something that may be hard for the other person to hear as well as where and how. If they see that their friend is feeling sad, that is not the time to brag about how good their day is going. As the teens I counsel often say, “Read the room!” 

Instead, a better option would be for a teen to speak to that person in a gentle voice and let the other person know they are available to talk.

Conflict is a part of life. A useful communication strategy to teach your teen is to make “I” statements. When we are agitated or feeling hurt, “You” statements tend to flow more naturally and quickly.  However, “You” statements imply that the other person is solely responsible for your feelings. It can also trigger defensiveness.

“I” statements, on the other hand, enables a person to take responsibility for how they feel but also what they need. Such statements require that a person has a level of understanding of their own needs (as we discussed in the self-awareness section) and then helps that person to make a request. 

You can teach your teen this tool by utilizing this helpful sentence stem: 

“I feel ___________ (identify the emotion) when ___________ (identify the cause of the emotion).”

For example, “I feel frustrated when you say you are going to do something and then something seems to come up at the last minute.” 

By identifying the cause of the big feeling, your teen will have a better idea of what can be done to resolve the issue or make them feel better.

Then add the request by identifying the specific action you would like to have happen:

I need/want/prefer __________.  Would you _________?

For example, “I would prefer if you can let me know if something comes up in advance so I’m not left waiting and wondering if you will show up. Would you do that?”

While there is no guarantee that the other person will always respond positively or seek to meet your request, using this tool will increase the likelihood that your thoughts and feelings will be heard. 

Just a brief word of caution. This tool is particularly useful in mutually trustworthy relationships. It’s not always appropriate where there is a steep power dynamic, such as if your teen is communicating with his or her manager or if the other person is a consistently unsafe or uncaring person. 

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