Kindness Counts Cultivating Self-Compassion in Children
by Lauren Sophia Kreider
In the course of their lives, children face innumerable losses, challenges, heartbreaks and disappointments. Children’s resilience depends, in part, on the quality of their relationships with themselves. In other words, how well children persevere through adversity appears to be strongly associated with their ability to relate to themselves with kindness and compassion.
What is Self-Compassion?
Kristin Neff, international expert and pioneer researcher in the field of self-compassion, says, “Self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat those you care about—your good friends, your loved ones.”
According to Neff, self-compassion is comprised of three elements:
Self-kindness: “I respond to my flaws and shortcomings with understanding and care.”
Common humanity: “It’s not just me. Everyone makes mistakes and struggles with difficult feelings.”
Mindfulness: “I can feel uncomfortable feelings without pushing them away or distracting myself.”
Why Self-Compassion Is Helpful
As a researcher, author and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Karen Bluth has spent years studying the impact that self-compassion and mindfulness have on our youth’s well-being. In one study, Bluth and her colleagues found that cultivating self-compassion in teens appears to enhance their resilience as well as their interest in learning other healthy ways to cope with stress.
A growing number of researchers have found similarly encouraging results. Neff and colleague Christopher Germer write, “Research increasingly suggests that the degree to which one treats oneself with care and compassion plays an important role in psychological health.” They go on to highlight growing evidence that self-compassion is an effective way to enhance wellbeing both within individuals as well as between them.
Strategies for Teaching Self-Compassion to Children
The following strategies may be used individually, in pairings or as a collective whole. Children as young as 5 or 6 can begin to understand the concept of self-compassion.
Define It and Discuss It
Define compassion and self-compassion for the child.
- Compassion is wanting to lessen the pain of someone or something. A person can show compassion by saying, doing or thinking things that are kind or bring comfort.
- Self-compassion is saying, doing or thinking things that bring comfort to ourselves when feeling sad, mad, scared, lonely, regretful or embarrassed.
Ask the child one or more of the following questions:
- "Think of a time that you felt sad, scared, lonely, or embarrassed and needed compassion. How can you show compassion to yourself the next time you feel______?”
- “How might showing compassion to yourself be helpful?”
- “What things bring you the most comfort when you are disappointed or something difficult happens?”
Create a Mantra
Help the child create a mantra that can repeated when experiencing a challenging situation or uncomfortable emotion. A mantra is a word or phrase that can be silently said to oneself. Instruct the child to choose words and phrases that are comforting, kind, and encouraging. Popular mantras include, “feelings always change, I love myself, and I am brave.”
Bring Awareness to the Body
When calmer, ask the child to locate the place in the body where she felt the uncomfortable emotion. The child may notice tightness, jitteriness or pain in one or more places in the body.
Practice deep breathing with the child. Take a deep breath in through the nose, filling the belly with air. On the exhale, breathe out through the mouth as the belly gets flatter.
On the next exhale, invite the child to send compassion to the identified body parts. The child may offer compassion through a mantra, image or imaginary hug. Many children like to offer an ice cream cone to the identified body part.
The next time there is a disappointment or failure in life, practice one or more self-compassion strategies in front of a child.
As educational consultant and author Michele Borba writes, “Example is everything. In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle years ago said that the best way to teach character is by modeling good example.”
Perhaps there is no greater gift we can offer children than the ability to respond to life’s losses, challenges, heartbreaks and disappointments with resilience and to relate to themselves with care and compassion. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Life is hard, but so very beautiful.”
Lauren Sophia Kreider has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is the owner of Sophia Says Mindfulness Teaching. As a grief counselor at a local hospice, she provided individual and group counseling. She lives in Lancaster with her husband and son. Connect with her by email at [email protected] or visit Sophia-Says.com.