How to Raise Self-Compassionate Children

research Sep 26, 2019

By Shannon Thompson

“For only as we ourselves, as adults, actually move and have our being in the state of love, can we appropriate models and guides for our children. What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.”

~ Joseph Chilton Pearce

In my work as a mental performance coach, I am constantly working with athletes who are too hard on themselves. One poor game, one bad moment, one let down in personal standards, and they fall apart. They begin to tell themselves that they’re no good and don’t deserve to win. In my work, I try to help these athletes see things differently and cut themselves a break. Unfortunately, many of them have learned unhelpful thought patterns long before we ever begin working together. Growing up, many athletes learn lessons that stifle their self-confidence and keep them from being their best selves—both on
and off the field. 

Sadly, I’ve found that some parents with the best of intentions steer their child down a path of mental fragility. And since I can’t talk directly to some of these parents (it’s a breach of the coach-client alliance), I wanted to write a blog about what I would say to them if I had the chance. In doing so, I hope that my thoughts will be helpful to the parents of both athletes and non-athletes.  If you have a child who you fear is being too hard on themselves, this blog is for you. 

How to Help Your Child Cultivate Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is the ability to treat oneself kindly through difficulty. For thousands of years Eastern philosophies have advocated for “right thinking” and “right action,” which has always included kindness toward oneself and others. In Western society, the embracing of self-compassion is a comparatively new concept. Our more capitalist, individualistic society extols toughness, ambition, self-reliance, and that “anything is possible.” Although this bold perspective on life has great value in many contexts, it has neglected the critical element of self-compassion. This is unfortunate, because those with healthy levels of self-compassion experience lower rates of anxiety and depression, remain more resilient in the pursuit of difficult goals, and are more successful in relationships. Contrary to the perception that self-compassion leads to “softness,” it actually leads to the kind of flexibility and agility necessary to achieve dreams and enjoy the process. Below are seven tips about how to raise self-compassionate children. Hopefully this article will also help you become more compassionate toward yourself! 

1. Demonstrate Empathy and Compassion Toward Others

If you are a parent you will be all too familiar with the fact that your children are always watching you. How you act speaks more loudly than what you say. Be mindful of how you talk about other people. Your children are likely to apply the judgments you make about other people onto themselves. For example, if your children hear you criticize another person’s clothes, or skills, or manner in a demeaning way, not only will they be more likely to criticize others similarly, they will also see themselves as vulnerable to the same judgment from you. Instead, when another person is experiencing difficulty, notice the difficulty, and help your child consider what that person might be feeling. Perhaps share a time when you experienced a difficulty and felt a similar emotion to what the person who is struggling might be feeling. By demonstrating this response to your children, you will increase the likelihood that they will view others compassionately in the future. You will also demonstrate that you are a safe person with whom to share struggles. Your children will also become more likely to treat themselves compassionately when they encounter difficulties because you have shown them that compassion for struggles is appropriate. 

2. Tolerate Uncertainty

One reason people are hard on themselves is because they are hoping to gain a sense of control in the midst of uncertain circumstances. If someone berates himself with all sorts of facts and instructions regarding what he “should” have done differently, he can create a feeling that he has the matter in hand, and therefore is in a position to prevent a similar occurrence from happening again. However, one person is almost never wholly responsible for an outcome. Most results in life are due to numerous underlying factors. An objective exploration of one’s role is useful, as is consideration about what is and is not within one’s control. But often we simply don’t have enough information in a given moment to guarantee that we will know what to do in order to bring about the outcome that we are seeking. We are living beings, not robots. We can only do the best we can within our human limitations. Recognizing these limitations, and offering ourselves compassion for situations where errors were made, keeps us more aligned with reality, and therefore ready to meet the next challenge than an angry reproach of ourselves ever can.

3. Offer a Broad Perspective on Success

Whether we realize it or not, children often perceive themselves as extensions of their parents. What we wish for ourselves, we wish for them—and often more so. When a parent is excessively hard on a child, his desire for the child is usually equally well-intended. And often their behavior was learned from their own parents. For example, many of us have experienced moments like these: 

  • You received a poor grade on a test and your parent grilled you on your study habits. 
  • You made a mistake in a sporting event and your parent precisely told you what you should have done. 

Or, on the more “positive” side…  

  • You got an A on a paper and your mother is so warm and proud. 
  • You were promoted at work and your father responded by feeling relaxed and close. 

Through parent/ child interactions like these, the availability of love can be perceived by the child to be dependent on achievement. This can be true, even if love is verbalized. Because again, our patterns of action speak far more loudly than what we say. By being harsh with your child about meeting external expectations (even though the harshness comes out of love and desire for him to be safe), a parent’s love can feel like it’s on the line. In addition, children will also learn a harmful self-criticism pattern of their own. Over time, children can start to believe that self-criticism will prevent future mistakes, or circumvent others’ criticism by making it redundant. “A verbal assault doesn’t have quite the same power when you’ve already said it to yourself,” psychologist and self-compassion expert, Kristin Neff explains. When we criticize harshly, children learn to do the same to themselves.

4. Prioritize Process and Learning Over Outcomes

Keeping the process of growth at the forefront, on the way to meaningful goals, can offer your child numerous opportunities for success. This attitude will communicate to your child that you are a safe source of support, which increases his resilience to the inevitable ups and downs of the path toward any meaningful goal.

There is a difference between being fueled by fear and being fueled by love. Fear drives urgent, rigid, actions rife with tension. Love drives brave, open effort. Love is an emotion that inhibits pain and fear and facilitates learning. The vast majority of the time, someone with true love for a craft will outperform the person afraid of failing. When love for learning and process is instilled in a child, truly “losing” becomes almost impossible. If the goal is to improve and gain experience, an outcome on the scoreboard cannot prevent this process. An athlete will learn and improve at rates far more rapid than his terrified peers. He will gain the skills that will make him a superior competitor, and enable him to compete as if there is nothing to lose (because for him, there isn’t). 

5. Respond to Both Wins and Losses with Equal Warmth and Curiosity

Similarly to how children observe how we treat others, they are also very sensitive to our actions and energy following their personal successes and failures. Regardless of what a parent tells them, if a parent reacts with anger or coldness following a poor performance, children will start to associate love and safety with performance outcomes. Even though rationally your child knows that you love her no matter what, if you yell corrections and instructions at her following a disappointing effort, she will be frightened and feel less love. Check your energy when meeting your child right after a performance. Greet her eagerly and warmly no matter the outcome. Ask her what the experience was like for her, what part of her performance she was most pleased with, and what she needs to work on in order to improve—whether a win or a loss.

6. Share Your Own Struggles

Whenever appropriate, share your own stories of struggle with your child. Include whether you thought you prepared the best you could, include unforeseen events out of your control, include stories of personal failings like disorganization, fatigue, emotionally weak moments, and confusion. Share lessons that took time for you to learn. Share current mistakes and weaknesses. If you can communicate that personal errors and moments of learning are a lifelong process, your child will feel more comfortable with his or her own.

7. Be Self-Compassionate Toward Yourself

Let’s finish where we began: how you act speaks louder than what you say. Because you're a human, you will make mistakes. You will make embarrassing, occasionally consequential errors, and some in front of your child. These are critical teaching moments when it comes to helping your child grow to be more self-compassionate.

When you make a mistake, follow these steps:

  1. Acknowledge the mistake and the emotion.
  2. Acknowledge that you’re feeling emotionally uncomfortable due to the event.
  3. Offer yourself some care for how you’re feeling.
  4. Point out that mistakes are part of the human experience.

When I consider the subject of raising self-compassionate children, I’m reminded of a story that one of my best friends, Susan, told me. Susan has a two-year-old son, Bryce. She and her husband, Brian, were working in their garden one afternoon when accidentally, Brian stood on some new flowers that Susan had just planted. “Brian! The flowers!” Susan said in shock. “Ah shoot, I’m sorry,” Brian apologized. “I feel awful, I didn’t see them.” “That’s ok,” Susan called, as she rearranged the flowers that thankfully had survived. Bryce witnessed this whole exchange. For at least a week following, Bryce would mutter, sometimes to Susan and sometimes to himself, “Daddy stepped flowers, Daddy sorry, Daddy ok.” What a wonderful teaching moment.

In my work, it never ceases to amaze me how different mental approaches produce different results. Some of the athletes in my care go into both academic, and athletic challenges with eagerness and curiosity. Others approach these challenges with dread, and varying degrees of anxiety. Some take defeats lightly; they note what they did well, what needs improvement and then set about working toward the next challenge. Other athletes feel rage, or cry, or isolate themselves. These athletes meet the following week’s training with unnecessary tension and sometimes struggle with depression. Unwittingly, parents are sometimes a major part of the problem. But it doesn’t need to be this way. By following the suggestions above, you will help your child cultivate greater self-compassion. In all likelihood, your self-compassion will grow as well.

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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