What is Emotional Competence?

Local column: What is emotional competence?

The first step for parents is to role model the behavior you would like to see in your child, writes Taryn Yates.

I’m happy to say that I’m expecting my second child.

However, I’ve been fairly stereotypical in the sense that pregnancy makes me cry more easily than normal.

One day I was crying over an animal-related video on Facebook while my son played next to me. He noticed my tears and came over to me. “Mommy sad” he said, touching my face.

His little eyebrows were drawn together and I was at once touched at his attention and a little embarrassed to be “caught” crying over Facebook. “Mommy is fine, baby, I’m just pregnant.” I said with a shrug.

He stroked my cheek for a second and, satisfied with my answer that I’m sure he didn’t actually understand, he resumed playing.

As it struck me what had happened, I smiled with pride. At 25 months old, my son just demonstrated the ability to name an emotion based on my facial expression. This is the first step toward developing social and emotional competence — a quality in children that protects them against child abuse and neglect.

What exactly is social and emotional competence? It involves various abilities. For example, a person with a high level of this skill would be able to perceive the emotions of others based on facial expressions and nonverbal cues.

Not only can they “read” and respond to others, but they also have a good grasp on their own emotions. They are able to identify and regulate negative emotions such as anger and sadness. They can also respond appropriately in social situations.

A child with a high level of social and emotional competence may be perceived as “easier” by parents and adults. Their personalities are likely more laid-back and cooperative and they can control their emotions better, meaning fewer melt downs.

Some children will not be able to develop this trait easily because of either a congenital condition or because trauma they have experienced has rewired their brain to be on alert. These children often demonstrate difficult behaviors and are more likely to experience child maltreatment.


Programs like the Infant Toddler Connection (ITC) through Health and Welfare are designed to aid children and families affected by these delays early to promote physical, mental and emotional development.

ITC can be accessed by calling 211. Fortunately, for most children, social and emotional competence can be learned.

The first step for parents is to role model the behavior you would like to see in your child. Children instinctively mimic their parents’ behavior, so if you want your child to learn to control their anger, you must do your best to control yours.

To further prove this point, if you struggle with anger issues and yelling, I’m willing to bet you had a parent who was the same way (so give yourself a break — undoing learned behavior is hard!).

Second, label their emotions. Say, “You must be frustrated” or “I’m sorry you are so sad.” Then suggest a positive coping strategy. “Do you want to scream into this pillow?” or “Can you take a few deep breaths with me?”

I can say from experience that teaching social and emotional competence is an ongoing process. My 2 year old still has meltdowns (which is developmentally normal), but he’s making progress.

We use the deep breathing technique so often, that he now does it without my prompting. The trick is to have patience and compassion with both yourself and your child — the results are worth it. Teaching your child to effectively communicate and interact will build positive relationships that will strengthen your family and last for the rest of their lives.

Yates, Master in Social Work, is a grants manager and planner for the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund/Prevent Child Abuse Idaho.

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