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The most important thing you probably aren't teaching your child

July 10, 2017

One of the many hats that parents, caregivers, coaches, teachers, and child life specialists (like myself) wear is that of a cheerleader. We encourage kids to feel smart, capable, strong, creative, and to be kind to others. But what do we do to teach kids about being kind to themselves?

My last blog post was about empathy development in children and how it is so important that we work to guide them in opportunities to practice and extend this gift to others. But to take it a step further, what does empathy look like when applied to ourselves? This skill, called self-compassion, is a lifelong process that can have a huge impact on a person’s emotional health.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is often confused with self-esteem, which is defined as a confidence in one’s own worth and abilities. Awesome, right?! It definitely can be. But self-esteem is something that is based on comparisons to others, recent successes or failures, achieving physical ideals, or feeling different and special. While we know that negative outcomes and behaviors can be associated with low self-esteem, it is possible that the stress of achieving a high self-esteem and an emphasis on comparison can be problematic as well. Self-compassion instead teaches kids that they are worthwhile and important, simply by being themselves. This view of self, not based on achievements or valuation through others, tells kids to treat themselves the same whether they score the winning touchdown or experience heartbreak.

Self-compassion instead teaches kids that they are worthwhile and important, simply by being themselves.

So how do we teach this?

Mom Comforting Girl at Doctor's OfficeIn a moment of suffering or pain, ask your child how they would talk to a good friend who was experiencing those emotions. Have your child notice their tone and their advice, their compassion, and their ability to encourage and comfort. Comparing this to the toughness we often apply to ourselves in times of defeat or frustration, ask your children to think about the difference. Why is there a difference? Finally, have them practice this kindness to themselves.

While in college, I took Human Anatomy twice. Being the perfectionist that I am, I read, and I practiced, and I colored countless color-coded skeletons. And on test day, I blanked. This happened over and over again. I remember calling my dad, struggling to tell him that his high-achieving daughter failed another test. And I’ll never forget how my dad responded- asking me gently if I had done my best. I didn’t feel that I had because the grade didn’t reflect it. His response though reinforced that I was loved and valued because of who I am, not the grade that I received. He encouraged me to do something I enjoyed, to take a little break, recharge, and get back to work. He wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t ashamed, and I still saw myself as a capable person.

Become your child’s best example

As with all teaching opportunities, modeling can be one of the most important tools. Demonstrate moments of kindness and self-compassion out loud and in front of children, as appropriate. Whether you are experiencing a disappointment from work or a physical insecurity, verbalizing self-compassion in front of children can condone and encourage self-forgiveness.  

Celebrate your child’s victories and successes. Encourage and honor goal setting and the persistence and determination that are learned from it. But also, teach mindfulness and compassion for moments of defeat. Help equip children with the tools to process and manage their emotions in loss so that they can move through it.

For more helpful resources on self-compassion, visit self-compassion.org or innerkids.org

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