Sitting mother is embracing her daughter

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

When I teach self-compassion to kids in schools, I do an exercise in which kids imagine that a friend of theirs has lost or broken something special. How would they respond to their friend?

I then ask a second question: How would you respond to yourself if you lost or broke something special? I invite kids to consider the difference between their responses to the two questions. Feel free to consider these questions yourself.

“I would help my friend lift themselves up, but if I lost it, I would never forgive myself.” —Marcos, age 12

“I have compassion for a friend, and I feel angry at myself.” 
—River, age 9

“I almost explode when it happens to me, but I know it will pass when it happens to my friend.” 
—Abbie, age 12

When I teach children (and adults) self-compassion, most say they would offer their friend encouragement, but they would be angry at themselves. Kids, just like grownups, need the resource of self-compassion.

When we practice self-compassion, we treat ourselves with the same kindness that we would offer a friend when things go wrong. This includes soothing ourselves when we struggle and motivating ourselves with kindness. Whereas a habit of self-criticism increases anxiety and depression, adolescents who practice self-compassion become less anxious and depressed. Self-compassion helps kids cope better with challenges and experience more well-being and self-esteem.

But just how do we help kids to develop an inner self-compassionate voice? Here are three ways to do that.

Be the voice that you want kids to internalize

The way we talk to kids makes a big difference in how kids talk to themselves. When kids have repeated experiences of being validated and cared for, the external support can become internalized as an inner self-compassionate voice. Research suggests that when parents are supportive and empathic, their kids learn to respond to themselves with kindness. Meanwhile, parents who are critical of their children are more likely to have kids who are self-critical.

A good question we can ask ourselves when we are addressing a child is this: Is this the voice that I want this child to internalize? Is this how I wish for children to respond to themselves? Some phrases you might consider using include the following:

  • You’re feeling sad/mad about that. It makes sense that you feel that way. I sometimes feel like that, too.
  • I see you’re having a hard time. How can I support you?
  • I’m here for you. I care about you. You’re not alone.

What do we do when our voice is not the voice that we want children to internalize? Ironically, we need to give compassion to ourselves. Being hard on ourselves when we fall short as caregivers can be just as counterproductive as being hard on children. When we struggle with showing up as we wish for children, we can offer ourselves the three elements of self-compassion, saying phrases like these aloud or in our heads:

  1. Mindfulness: I’m struggling right now.
  2. Common humanity: I’m not the only one who struggles like this.
  3. Kindness: I’m still a good person, and I can try again.

Model self-compassion (it’s good for you, too!)

Sometimes parents think that they are supposed to model “having it all together” for their children. Ironically, kids who see “perfect parents” aren’t being equipped with the skills they need to cope with their own imperfections. Children need caregivers who are appropriately vulnerable with their struggles and model self-compassion. This could be as simple as naming that we are having a hard day and that everyone sometimes struggles like us.

Sometimes caregivers don’t have the skills of self-compassion to model. Luckily, caregivers can learn self-compassion on their own through programs like Mindful Self-Compassion training or by doing The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. Caregivers can also learn self-compassion along with their children. The Self-Compassion for Children and Caregivers program is an approved adaptation of the Mindful Self-Compassion program that I designed to be offered to kids along with their caregivers.

In the program, parent-child pairs are co-learners as they playfully practice mindfulness and self-compassion skills together. Each session includes parent-child sharing, mindful movement, a comic with animal friends, and interactive self-compassion exercises. A popular exercise from our first session involves the following supplies: a plate, different colored crayons, and a washcloth (or tissue). The plate represents our awareness, and the crayons represent different emotions. During the exercise, parent-child pairs talk about the emotions that they have in response to different scenarios, including taking a self-compassion class together (some kids are less than thrilled at the outset!). As parent-child pairs share about each emotion, they add a different colored crayon to the plate. They then identify the challenging emotions, such as frustration or sadness, and wrap those emotional crayons in the washcloth—metaphorically “hugging” difficult emotions in self-compassion.

Research finds that children who complete the program decrease in depression, and caregivers also see benefits, including less parenting stress and more mindful parenting and self-compassion. In this way, learning self-compassion together can provide intergenerational benefits and increase the parent-child connection. One parent who attended the class with her nine-year-old daughter said:

This [class] opened up conversations about our feelings and gave us a common set of concepts. I feel like it created a stronger bond and connection, and I especially loved the emphasis on accepting weaknesses . . . and that everyone won’t find the same things soothing or helpful and that it is OK. A very helpful framework moving forward to help us communicate about our feelings, and a reminder of the need to focus on the good. I feel like it has made me a more empathetic parent.

Playfully teach and compassionately scaffold kids’ self-compassion practice

For caregivers who would like to teach children self-compassion–related habits, it’s helpful to begin by learning and embracing our own habits around feelings. The Feelings Habit Animal Quiz provides a great way for parents (or teachers) and kids to begin to talk about their current feeling habits: Do you hide feelings (chameleon), explode with feelings (bear), obsess about feelings (beaver), or feel ashamed of feelings (deer)? In my work with children, I have found that kids open up to talking about feelings when it’s approached in this playful and non-judgmental way.

After kids are aware of their feeling habits, they can begin to consciously learn self-compassion–related resilience skills. Because it’s hard for kids to learn during moments of stress, caregivers can playfully teach children how to integrate the three components of self-compassion (mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness) during moments of well-being. Caregivers can use resources such as the playful series of self-compassion activity books entitled The Quest for Self-Compassion, which I use with children in both home and school. There are also delightful children’s books, such as It’s Okay: Being Kind to Yourself When Things Feel Hard.

After children have learned resilience skills, caregivers can compassionately scaffold the use of these skills during difficult moments. It works best when caregivers first compassionately respond to a child’s distress and then offer a gentle suggestion of how children might be kind to themselves. For example, you could suggest they try a self-hug or think about what words they would offer to a friend in a similar situation.

If kids are not open to practicing self-compassion, it’s important not to push them. Just offering your own kind presence will help kids grow self-compassion over time.

At first, it can feel awkward to treat ourselves with kindness. Discomfort is normal any time we learn something new, but this gets better with time. Just like it takes practice to learn to ride a bike or do math, so too it takes practice to develop a self-compassionate voice.

In the classroom, I playfully explain both the challenges and payoff of practicing self-compassion. I ask children if they’d be willing to practice something hard, such as writing with their opposite hand, if it meant that they would have their best friend with them every day for the rest of their life. I usually receive an enthusiastic “Yes!” to this question. I then let kids know that while this is not true about writing with their opposite hand, it is true about self-compassion. If kids keep practicing self-compassion, they will have their best friend with them every day for the rest of their lives…because they will become their own best friend.

Note from Jamie Lynn: Please share this blog and/or the Greater Good article with others! Self-compassion not only makes kids more resilient, but the kindness ripples out into our relationships with others to create a more wonderful world!

Wishing you Joy and Self-Compassion,

Jamie Lynn