How to Help Kids Develop Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Learning how to manage your emotions is a lifelong process that even most adults could work on. Emotional intelligence training begins early in life through mirroring others, so being a good role model is vital.

Grant Glas
July 26, 2022
Kids Ministry Leadership

5 Ways to Nurture Empathy in Kids

Kids showing empathy towards each other

Empathy and emotional intelligence go hand in hand, and an emotionally healthy church will raise caring and compassionate young adults. For stronger community bonds and kinder people, focus on being there for your kids.

Learning how to teach empathy to kids starts with these five tips. 

Proverbs 22:6 

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.

What is emotional intelligence, and why is it important?

Emotional intelligence is a relatively new term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in 1995. It refers to someone's ability to identify, manage, understand, and process emotions. Each of these profoundly impacts how we navigate all social experiences, from dealing with workplace conflicts to building friendships.

Catholic Counselors highlight the importance of emotional intelligence in the church setting as it influences community bonds by supporting an environment of love and care. That’s why churches, not just families, must play a role in teaching empathy and emotional intelligence to kids. 

Emotional intelligence is more important than IQ in determining career success and life satisfaction. Prioritize teaching your kids how to manage their emotions, and you will equip them with the self-regulation tools needed to thrive. 

1. See emotional situations as an opportunity for connection.

Mom hugging and connecting with her son while he is upset

Emotions can get too much sometimes, and this is as true for adults as it is for toddlers. When we feel overwhelmed by our feelings, it’s easy to lash out and say hurtful things we don’t mean, which can harm our relationships and opportunities. However, shutting these emotions out without processing them isn’t the solution.

When you witness your child having a temper tantrum, feeling overwhelmed by sadness, or becoming irritable and frustrated, it is an opportunity to connect with them. Practicing emotional coaching will help them through this tough time while giving you an insight into the way their mind works.

2. Label their emotions so they have the vocabulary.

Mom teaching daughter how to label her emotions to understand how she is feeling

Don’t leave them to work out why they feel like they might explode from the inside out, but ask them directly. Asking how they are is step one, but investigating with questions like "Are you mad?” or “Are you sad?" gives them the words needed to express themselves. 

Using descriptive words like these will help them express their emotions, enabling them to assess their feelings independently. Kids need help relating to their emotions, so use your experiences to guide them through the ups and downs. 

What’s important is to remain neutral. Expressing a positive or negative stance toward these feelings might lead them to block and repress some emotions. Give them the space to experience their feelings in a neutral environment.

3. Empathize with them, even if you don’t agree.

It's easy to laugh at some of the ridiculous things kids get upset over. Sometimes their troubles are so absurd that we almost brush off their emotions as insignificant, whether it's a toddler crying over a toy they want or a teenager mad that they can’t go to a party.

Adults have bills to pay and responsibilities to manage, which makes the complaints of kids almost meaningless in comparison, but a child’s emotions are valid, even if we don’t understand the depth of what is upsetting them. We all long to be understood, so don’t laugh or look down on their problems.

Expressing empathy and recognizing their perspective will help them come to terms with their emotions. It feels nice to know you have someone on your side, so be the solid rock your kid needs to process their feelings. It might feel out of proportion, but remember that you don’t know what this means to them.

Learn more about how demonstrating understanding encourages empathy and emotional intelligence with this handy guide by Aha! Parenting.

4. Teach them useful ways to manage their emotions.

Father teaching daughter how to manager her emotions

Be there for your kids through the rollercoaster of emotions that is life, but don’t allow all behaviors. Differentiate between emotions and actions, as all feelings are valid, but not all reactions are acceptable. Teaching problem-solving skills will equip them with the tools needed to self-regulate.

One of the most powerful ways to solve emotional problems is through communication. Show your young ones that using their voice constructively instead of yelling or pushing is much more effective. When they are struggling with their emotions, let them know you are there and are willing to hear what they are going through.

In addition to this, share useful practices they can use throughout life, from journaling as a way to vent without harming others to the power of counting down from ten. Everyone has little tricks like this up their sleeve to calm down, so share your most effective methods with your kids.

For more methods to help your kids cool down, check out this article from HighScope.

5. Model empathy through an emotionally healthy church.

Showing empathy during church song service

Offering emotional intelligence training for leaders in your church will ensure that your children’s ministry team is aware of the nuances of empathy for kids, and can care for them accordingly. Processing emotions (not repressing them) can be difficult without guidance.

Lead by example at your church by showing care for the emotions displayed by people of your community. Loving thy neighbor starts with empathy and emotional intelligence as it encourages an altruistic worldview and generosity to others. 

Read our blog on how Acts 2 can inform what a healthy church should look like.

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