Self-compassion is vital for adults. It reduces anxiety and depression. It’s been linked to greater well-being, emotional coping skills and compassion for others. Unfortunately, many of us have a hard time practicing self-compassion. Instead we default to blaming, shaming, and bashing ourselves. We assume that self-criticism is a more effective approach. (It’s not.)
This is one reason why it’s important to teach self-compassion to our children — to give them a solid foundation for the future. A foundation for being kind and gentle with themselves and processing their thoughts and feelings without judgment. These are important skills for being a healthy adult and building healthy relationships.
But kids also need self-compassion now.
“My younger clients often bring to therapy the same concerns as their adult counterparts, [such as] feelings of worthlessness, and frustration with their abilities and how they feel others perceive them,” said Rebecca Ziff, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in working with kids, teens and families.
Kids and teens commonly criticize themselves over their looks, athletic abilities, academic performance, popularity, and likability, she said.
When kids who are struggling practice self-compassion, powerful things happen: Their sense of self-worth, resilience, and ability to cope with problems improves in all sorts of settings, she said.
So, as a parent, how can you help?
Below, Ziff shared five strategies for helping your children cultivate self-compassion.
Practice on your own
Because kids mimic what they see and hear, it’s especially important to practice compassion with yourself. Ziff suggested paying attention to the language you use in front of your kids.
Do you make negative comments about your looks and weight? Do you beat yourself up when things don’t go well at work? Do you criticize yourself for being tired or making a mistake? Do you use harsh words to describe yourself? Do you hyper-focus on your own supposed faults and flaws? Do you judge yourself for being anxious, angry, or overwhelmed?
If you do, make it a priority to focus on your own self-compassion. Start with these techniques and these additional techniques, which are especially helpful when self-compassion feels foreign—and you don’t think you’re deserving of kindness.
Teach your child the loving-kindness meditation
Ziff has used this meditation at her practice with kids, teens and adults. “In the meditation you send love and kindness to yourself; those you hold dear; those you may not hold dear or have positive feelings toward; and then the universe,” she said.
Practice this with your child during calm moments. This page and this additional page have been adapted for kids and teens.
Ask your children to change perspectives
When your kids are struggling with something, ask them how they’d treat a friend and what they’d say to their friend if they were going through a similar situation, Ziff said.
She shared this example: Your child says she’d (or he’d) hug her friend. She’d tell a friend: “I know you’re disappointed, but you are an awesome singer. Maybe there just wasn’t the right role for you in the play. You are good at so many other things, too.”
Then ask your child to say this about herself, replacing the pronouns with “I” and “me.” Ask her to name some of the things she’s good at. Encourage her to give herself a hug or pat on the back.
Teach your children to accept their thoughts and feelings
According to Ziff, “A developed sense of self-compassion allows children or teens to label and be aware of their unpleasant thoughts and feelings; accept those feelings and [accept] that sometimes things don’t always go our way; and to not beat themselves up about it.”
To help a younger child better understand emotions, she suggested reading books together. You can pause periodically and ask: “What do you think that character might be feeling or thinking in that situation?” Talk to your kids about how others might be thinking and feeling. Ask them if they’ve ever felt the same way. (Ziff recommended reading Visiting Feelings by Lauren Rubenstein.)
To help teens identify emotions, ask them similar questions when watching a show or movie together, she suggested. Ask them if they’ve been in similar situations and felt those feelings, too.
To help your kids accept both their positive and negative feelings, Ziff suggested empathizing and validating their experiences and emotions. Avoid being dismissive or rushing them to feel better. Give your kids the space and permission to process their feelings, whatever they are, she said.
“If your child is crying after a fight with her sibling, instead of saying, ‘Sweetie, stop crying; he didn’t mean it,’ give her the language to express herself: ‘I can tell you’re very sad right now; it frustrates you when your brother grabs things from you and breaks them.’”
Help your children challenge catastrophic thinking
You can do this by helping them search for evidence that dispels their beliefs of worthlessness or failure, Ziff said. She shared this example: Your child gets rejected from the high school or college he really wanted to attend. He says, “I’m never going anywhere in life! I’m the only one who didn’t get in.”
First, help your child identify his feelings of sadness and disappointment so he can effectively process them. Next, help him think about other friends who didn’t get into their first-choice schools. Help him ask people he looks up to if they got into every school they applied to.
“Your children will be surprised to learn after interviewing many family and friends that they are not alone in their struggle, and their experience and feelings are universal. [This can lead] to a feeling of self-compassion and acceptance.”
Self-compassion is essential for all of us to learn, kids included. Of course, it can be tough to be gentle with ourselves, to accept our feelings, to remember that we’re not alone in our pain. Which is why you and your kids require practice. All skills need us to try, try and try again. And that’s a great thing.
If you’d like to learn more about the research behind self-compassion, check out this page from psychologist Kristin Neff.