Four Steps to Help Kids Grow Self-Compassion

Father son pairHow many of us know someone – an adult, teen or child – who could benefit from the resource of self-compassion? We might think, Wow! That person really needs to be kinder to themselves and stop beating themselves up! 

But what is the best way to help another person to develop the resource of self-compassion? When I contemplate this question, I am reminded of the following quote by Albert Schweitzer: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

While helping another individual develop self-compassion involves more than just our example, the power of example cannot be overstated. This is expecially true when it comes to children. The process of helping children grow self-compassion involves four steps, which are built upon the foundation of caregivers’ self-compassion.

Four Steps to Help Children Grow Self-Compassion

  1. Caregivers learn the skill of self-compassion either on their own or alongside their child.
  2. Model self-compassion in the presence of children.
  3. Be the external voice that you want children to internalize.
  4. Children learn and practice offering themselves self-compassion.

STEP 1: Caregivers learn self-compassion.

We can’t help children to acquire a skill that we do not possess. That’s why our first step as caregivers is to grow the personal resource of self-compassion. If, when you were a child, your parents modeled self-compassion and also consistently soothed you when you were struggling, lovingly encouraged you to own your mistakes, appreciated your strengths and supported you in becoming your most authentic self, then it’s likely that you already possess the resource of self-compassion. If you are like the rest of us who received parenting that was somewhat less ideal than the above description, you likely need to do some learning and practicing to acquire the skill of self-compassion. You can strengthen your self-compassionate voice by using adult resources such as Mindful Self-Compassion training and books such as the Mindful Self-Compassion workbook, and/or you can take a parent-child self-compassion class and learn alongside your child. 

STEP 2: Model self-compassion in the presence of children.

Modeling self-compassion as caregivers means that we appropriately name our struggles in the presence of children and model giving ourselves encouraging and/or tender support for our difficulties. This might look like giving ourselves a hug or audibly offering ourselves reassurance or support when we feel distressed. We might let kids know that we are going for a walk, calling a friend, or making ourselves a cup of tea as a kind response to our struggles. When we name and model compassionately responding to our struggles we create a bridge between children and ourselves. Our example lets kids know that it’s okay to struggle and that they can seek out support (including their own kindness) during difficult moments. Our self-compassionate example can then be internalized as a model for children to emulate when they struggle. As caregivers, we need to have our own self-compassion practice (step 1) in order to model self-compassion for children.

STEP 3: Be the external voice that you want children to internalize.

When you speak to children, ask yourself the question: Is this the voice that I want my child to internalize? Is this how I want children to talk to themselves in their own minds? Because children internalize the voice of their caregivers (including tone), as much as possible, we want our words to convey compassion – sometimes tenderly soothing and sometimes encouraging and motivating. When we are successful at speaking to a child in this way, our words contribute to the development of a child’s compassionate voice. When we fall short of this aspiration, as we all do, it becomes an opportunity to acknowledge our human imperfection and offer ourselves compassion. We can show children that just like them, we are on the learning team when it comes to treating ourselves and others with kindness.

STEP 4: Children learn and practice offering themselves self-compassion.

Explicitly teaching children self-compassion and scaffolding their practice can sometimes be tricky, especially when teaching our own children, but it is a vital step. Many caregivers find it helpful to use resources, such as self-compassion books or a parent-child self-compassion class to help children consciously learn and practice the skill of self-compassion. After children have learned self-compassion practices, caregivers can begin to gently and selectively encourage self-compassion practice. When a child is having a difficult moment, it usually works best if caregivers first provide the child with compassionate support, and then, if the child seems receptive, invite the child to offer compassion to themselves. It’s important not to push a child to practice self-compassion as this can have an adverse effect. If a child resists practicing self-compassion, it can be helpful to focus primarily on the first three steps described in this article (increase caregivers’ self-compassion, model self-compassion, and use a compassionate voice with children).

It’s important that we, as caregivers, have a long-term view of children’s self-compassion development. We can normalize and offer ourselves compassion when children develop the resource of self-compassion more slowly than we would wish. It’s important that children know that we are learning and practicing self-compassion along with them, and that it’s self-compassionate to allow ourselves to grow slowly over time.

What if I Were Grandma

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grandmother with grandchildren

My children are growing up. As they enter the second half of their childhoods, I am increasingly aware that my time with them is finite. Like many parents, I often function in a sort of survival or efficiency mode. What do my children and I need to get done today? What goals do we want to achieve? What tasks can be eliminated? While this type of thinking is efficacious, I know that I am missing moments with my children that I would like to savor, moments that I will miss when they are gone.

Recently, I’ve developed an internal archetype of a grandmother.  This grandmother archetype is a future version of myself. My grandmother self is less concerned about her to do list, about efficiency and order. My grandmother self delights in the laughter of children, enjoys sensory experiences and idiosyncrasies, and lingers in the moment.

In my daily life, I’ve begun to ask myself the question: What if I were grandma?

Ghost imageI was up in the attic the other day, and I found a ridiculously loud ghost stuffed animal. When you press a button on the ghost it vibrates with hysterical laughter and shouts, “Happy Halloween!” Should I donate the stuffed animal to Good Will before my kids see it again? It’s so obnoxious! I thought to myself. And then came a voice with the question, What if I were grandma?

If I were grandma, I would definitely bring that ghost stuffed animal down from the attic. I would delight in my children’s smiles and laughter at the loud, vibrating ghost. And so I did.

This morning I went for a walk to the lake. A part of me wanted to take off my shoes to feel the cool sand beneath my feet and the gentle waves lapping around my ankles. Another part of me didn’t want to have to deal with the grittiness of the sand and wanted to avoid the inefficiency of cleaning the sand off my feet before putting my shoes back on to walk home.

Shoes on rock by beach What if I were grandma? I wondered to myself. If I were grandma, I would definitely take off my shoes and enjoy the texture of the sand beneath my feet. And so I did.

The scenarios are endless: grades, whipped cream, playdates, choices about my work schedule. Each situation provides an opportunity to invoke the wisdom of my inner grandmother. Grandmothers oftentimes give themselves permission to be present with their grandchildren and enjoy the moment in a way that wasn’t accessible in earlier years.

I want to embody my grandmother archetype. I want to enjoy the moment now.

She’s Going to be Okay

A few weeks ago, my ten year-old came home from her first field hockey practice with some news that touched my heart. She said that the first half of practice she had been practicing self-criticism and comparing herself to others, but then the second half of practice, she remembered self-compassion, and she began to repeat the kind wishes in her head that we’ve been practicing together for the last few years (May I be joyful…May I be the person I wish to be…May my heart be full of love and connection…). 

My heart leapt with joy at her compassionate inner voice, and I thought to myself, “She’s going to be okay!” This is the same thought that I had when my now fourteen year-old began to report that she had an inner voice that soothed and encouraged her when she felt “less than” in middle school. When a child develops an inner self-compassionate voice, I know they are going to be “okay.” They have an inner ally that will soothe them during difficult times and help them to grow and change in positive ways.

It is my deepest wish that all of us – adults and children – can develop an inner self-compassionate voice that helps us to know that we are “okay” and loved. As grown-ups, we can grow our self-compassionate voice by taking self-compassion training or learning about self-compassion, and then intentionally practicing our inner soothing and encouraging voice. We can also encourage the youth in our lives to take a self-compassion class or read self-compassion books to support them in learning and growing the compassionate voice that they have hopefully been hearing from the grown-ups around them.

My favoritie self-compassion program for families is the parent-child self-compassion class. I love it because it enables children and their grown-ups to learn self-compassion side-by-side. It is beautiful indeed when both caregivers and children encourage each other to remember to be self-compassionate during their difficult moments (see the below one-minute video).

Wishing you and the youth in your life the resource of self-compassion.

With love,
Jamie Lynn 

How Self-Compassion Saved My Daughter…and Me

My older daughter Maya was born sensitive, curious, and creative.   As Maya grew, I learned that all of her five senses were extra sensitive.  For her sounds were louder, smells and tastes more acute, she had a strong draw to everything tactile, and she saw  “light shows” that made artificial lighting both intriguing and exhausting.  Maya’s overstimulated nervous system made it difficult for her to regulate her emotions, and full out meltdowns were a common occurrence.  When Maya was given free time, her curiosity and creativity allowed her to engage herself in a task for hours.  At the same time, transitions and rote tasks were incredibly challenging for her because they pulled her away from the mesmerizing present moment. 

When Maya became preschool age, I felt challenged as to how to both support her curiosity and creativity as well as facilitate her acquisition of simple life skills and lead her to accept redirection.  Maya’s intense wonder and curiosity made walking from her preschool to the car parked in front of the building a half-hour endeavor (with periodic meltdowns), and brushing her teeth a task that required many, many redirections.  

I practiced mindfulness to stay calm.  I tried making tasks and transitions playful.  And I tried “love and logic” to see if consequences would help her to acquire a bit of self-discipline.  As much as I tried to be neutral or compassionate when Maya failed to complete a “simple” task, Maya picked up on my subtle signs of frustration.  Over time she began to develop the low self-esteem that comes from knowing that you are not living up to the standards of the adult who you so desperately want to please.  She began to push herself to try to complete a task (like hanging up her jacket) with intense effort and self-criticism.  She began to be ashamed of her curious, creative, sensitive, beautiful self.

To have my daughter begin to lose her sense of self-worth was my worst nightmare, and  I began to see a helping professional in the hopes that I could learn to be more patient and less reactive to Maya’s distractibility and frequent tantrums.  The professional who I worked with suggested that I needed more self-compassion.  She suggested that I was “too hard on myself.”  Hmmmm……

I read a little bit about self-compassion, and then I signed up for a Mindful Self-Compassion training course.  I learned how to truly “be there” for myself in my difficult moments.  I learned how to let go of shame about my imperfections because I began to  understand deeply that we all have imperfections.  I began to ask myself how I could be more kind to myself.  I had always been good at “self-care,” but I began to practice self-kindness.  And a remarkable thing began to happen, as I began to apply self-compassion to myself, I naturally began to help Maya to acquire  self-compassion as well.

As I learned how to walk myself through the voice of shame into the sunlight of compassion, I was increasingly able to walk Maya through the voice of shame into the sunlight of compassion.  As I learned how to embrace my own imperfections, I became able to help Maya to embrace her imperfections.  As I grew in self-love and self-appreciation, I helped Maya to grow self-love and self-appreciation.  And my daughter and I both began to thrive.

Self-compassion proved to be the missing ingredient to helping Maya learn to apply self-discipline with kindness.  She can now acknowledge that because of her intense curiosity and creativity, performing a rote task can be incredibly challenging for her.  And she has been increasingly able to use her strengths to make a game out of routine tasks.  Self-compassion is not so much a technique as it is a way of being.  A way of being with ourselves that naturally transfers to those we love.  Learning to practice self-compassion on myself was the best gift I could ever have given my daughter.  It saved her from a voice of shame and self-criticism, and it gifted her with an appreciation for her unique and beautiful self.

Listening to the Many Parts of Ourselves

A few weeks ago I was contemplating schooling options for my daughters for next year.  Even though my daughters currently attend a wonderful, progressive school that is a block and a half from the home where we are living, every so often I hear a little voice that tells me that I should enroll my children in a Montessori School.  Lately, I have heard so many wonderful things about Montessori schools, that I decided to ask my older daughter, Maya, if she would even be interested in attending a Montessori school.

When I discussed the idea of Montessori schooling with Maya, she expressed what I like to call “side by side” feelings about the idea of changing schools.  She expressed excitement at the prospect of having more autonomy in a Montessori School as well as fear about the prospect of leaving her friends at her current school. 

That same evening that we had had the Montessori discussion, I found out that the home that we are currently renting is going to be put up for sale.  My mind started to swirl with possibilities because our lease only goes through the end of the month after next.   During dinner that night, I shared with my daughters that there was a possibility that we might be moving in the future, and we had a little discussion about that idea as well.

When it was time to put Maya to bed that night, she was so full of feelings about the idea of a new school and the possibility of moving that I realized that we would need to do a little “integration” work before putting her to bed.   Luckily, inspiration supplied me with an idea that involved clay, a flashlight, and a little “feelings” imagination.

I asked Maya to name the feelings that she had in relation to the possiblity of potentially changing schools and moving.  Together we named and created clay characters for the “amygdala” (Maya’s idea–colloquially known as STRESS), excitement, balance, the “leaper,” sadness, fear, denial and joy/love. 

After we had created all of the figures that represented the different feelings and voices that she had in her mind, we took turns shining the flashlight of awareness on each figure as we listened to what it had to say.  The leaper was excited about the prospect of changing to a Montessori School; denial said that nothing would change….ever.  Balance suggested a balanced approach and sadness talked about the feelings that Maya would have if she no longer went to school with her best friend.  Love and joy reminded us that our family would be together no matter what, and that throughout any change or absence of change, love and community would be a constant.

As we took the time to listen to each of the many voices, Maya began to feel calmer and more ready for bed.  Instead of pushing down her fear or sadness, we had taken the time to listen to and integrate their voices.  Maya went to bed peacefully that night, and I found that I, too, had benefited from our feelings integration session.

Indeed clay figures are not just for children.  In the weeks that followed the announcement of our home going on the market, I created additional clay figures (the voice of the dollar, the nurturer, the curmudgeon) and spent time listening to and contemplating the input from the many voices.  Even though part of me (the “leaper”) is still excited about the prospect of Montessori schooling for my daughters, I am also listening to the quiet voice of wisdom that encourages me to have them continue to attend the wonderful school down the street that they love.  Similarly there is a steady voice that is advising me not to move yet and to instead explore the possibility of purchasing the home that we are currently renting.

Ultimately, what is important is not the decisions that our family makes-to change schools or not, to move or stay put. What is important is that I am listening to the many voices with openness and curiosity and listening still further for the steadiness beneath them all.  What is important is that I am asking the questions, “What do I need?”  and “What do my children need?” and listening carefully to the answers to these questions.

This poem by Mary Oliver, entitled The Journey, illustrates some of the truths that I am finding on this journey of questioning and listening (click on the title of the poem to read it).  Thank you for sharing in this journey of rediscovering wholeness with me.