Building Independence in Children

Building Independence in Children

To understand this EI skill of independence, let us read a case study on how this EI skill will affect how your child deals with difficult challenges, where the child is likely to excel, and what could have been done differently to promote higher emotional intelligence.

Joey was the fourth child in a family with three older sisters who were between four and eight years older than Joey. The whole family was thrilled when he was born; his parents had wanted a male child and his three older sisters loved having a living “baby doll” to play with. From the beginning, Joey was a little fussy, but his sisters could always provide enough distraction and entertainment to change his mood. They doted on him, handing him his pacifier, reaching things he pointed to and generally providing constant entertainment. His speech development was somewhat delayed, but no one was worried about him because they knew he didn’t have to say much in order to communicate his needs.

He would simply cry, gesture, or point and usually someone in the family knew what he wanted. As a toddler, Joey got really frustrated by things he couldn’t do that his sisters did such as swim, go on a bike ride, or write his name. He was constantly trying to keep up with them but couldn’t. Sometimes he would just dissolve in tears. Usually someone quickly dropped what he or she was doing to attend to Joey, distracting him with food or doing something exciting like taking him on a “piggy back” ride around the house. His speech improved, but he lagged behind other kids in his vocabulary and even how he pronounced his words.

Joey’s parents were so busy with work and having four children that when he went through the stage of throwing tantrums, they usually just gave in to what he wanted. When it came time to go to kindergarten, Joey was excited because now he would ride a school bus like his sisters. But, the first week of school did not go so well. He got frustrated when his teacher and friends kept asking him to repeat things because they couldn’t understand him and also when the teacher made him do things for himself, like open his juice box or hang up his coat.

By the second week of school, Joey was throwing a tantrum in the morning because he didn’t want to go to school. When his parents asked him what was wrong, Joey didn’t know how to explain it. Finally, they just told him to quit crying, that he was going to have to go to school; things would get better they reassured him. And, although things did get better, Joey still had a hard year.


Are tantrums to be expected with preschool children?

Tantrums will be more frequent for children who have not been taught how to use words to express their needs or feelings. And, it’s also likely that if a child gets upset enough, he may have a tantrum even if he is skilled at communicating with words. The key to ridding your child of tantrums is to provide healthier ways to express feelings and not give in to his demands.

EI Analysis for “Building Independence”

You probably noticed some things that Joey’s family could have done differently to help him develop emotional intelligence skills that in turn would have made his kindergarten experience much easier.

When infants are young, they only have two ways of communicating; first they can cry and later that first year they add gestures such as pointing or holding their arms out in a gesture that says “pick me up.” It’s absolutely fine to respond to those gestures, but it is also important to encourage verbal communication. For example, label objects and the child’s feelings as you respond. If the child whines and points to a container of Cheerios just out of reach, label the behavior and the emotion. Saying something like “You want the Cheerios; are you frustrated that you can’t reach them?” This will help the child develop his vocabulary so that he can communicate needs verbally starting sometime during the second year of life. And, adding a comment about the emotion the child is probably feeling will help him to do likewise for himself as he ages. Even if your guess about the emotion is incorrect— maybe Joey was mad and not frustrated—the mere act of teaching the child to pay attention to his emotions and how they influence behavior is what’s important.

In EI language, you would be teaching emotional self-awareness, probably one of the most important EI skills because it’s foundational to development of some of the other EI skills. Back to Joey. How could his family have helped him with developing more independence?

Teaching him how to do things for himself would have had multiple benefits. First, it would have increased his skills—whether in learning to dress himself or open a straw—and more important, it would have increased his belief that he is capable of doing things on his own, which builds self-regard. Children will confront many new challenges in school and the more success he’s had at mastering new skills, the more independent he will be when faced with new challenges.


Think about how you can make it easier for your child to practice independence. Buy Velcro shoes instead of tie-up shoes and clothes with big buttons that are easy to work. Put a stool by the kitchen counter so that your three-year-old can deliver her plate to the counter. Make environmental changes that support independence!

Did you notice that Joey may have developed some intolerance to stress? When you protect your child from stressors, they don’t get practice dealing successfully with stress. And, since everyone faces stress every day, protecting children from demands is exactly the antithesis of what you should do. If two children are arguing about a toy, give them a chance to work things out before intervening. Or, if a child is experiencing frustration learning to button clothing, stay patient yourself and offer encouragement. If you jump in and rescue your child by performing a task for him that he needs to learn to do, you’re stifling independence and teaching him that someone will come to the rescue at the first sign of difficulty (stress).

Did you notice that Joey’s impulse control needed development? It’s not helpful to be unrealistic about children’s ability to tolerate frustration and thus, don’t expect a four-year-old to stand in line for thirty minutes or wait for an hour to eat when she’s very hungry. Every toddler will throw tantrums; your role is to teach a child other ways to handle her impatience or frustration. You can’t expect a child to suddenly develop good impulse control if the skill has not been practiced.

When small frustrations arise—a five minute wait to check out at the grocery store—take the opportunity to teach the child how to deal with it. Sing a song, point to different things in the cart and label them, or play a simple game. As the child gets older, put more responsibility on her to handle the frustration without losing control. Think about an adult you know who sends rash emails or texts when angry, can’t control the urge to eat or spend, or can’t wait a realistic amount of time for things she wants. Learning impulse control will prevent many problems in adulthood that arise from rash or impatient behaviors.


Joey clearly lacked independence when he began school. The authoritative style of parenting encourages children to develop appropriate amounts of independence.

Excerpted from “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Emotional Intelligence in Children” by Korrel Kanoy, PhD.

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