How to Model Self-Compassion for your kids:
Changing the narrative from improving self-esteem to improving self-compassion
Written by: Lindsey Anuzis, MA, LCMHCA, NCC, RBT
As a therapist who is especially passionate about supporting middle school, high school, and college aged girls as they navigate various concerns related to stress, anxiety, life transitions, relationships, and depression; I often hear common themes of self-doubt and negative self-talk. Clients will make comments like “not being or feeling good enough for…”, “not being smart enough”, “not feeling pretty enough”, “not being the best”, etc.. This script of constant negative self-talk can be damaging to self-worth and have a variety of lasting negative implications on overall well-being.
The statements above clearly indicate a struggle with self-doubt and low self-esteem, and they also indicate a lack of self-compassion. In my work, I strongly believe that a main focus in treatment should be on improving self-compassion over self-esteem, and here is why; Self-esteem is contingent on success; success of self, and the success of others. It promotes comparison by nature, which can lead to increased stress, anxiety, depression among other mental health concerns.
Self-compassion on the other hand, revolves around unconditional kindness, self-support, and connection. Connection and kindness with oneself, and others. Compassion says “what can I do to help”. When we are self-compassionate we reframe our language to be kind, supportive, and understanding when we make mistakes. Acknowledging things as they are can help us recognize the things we do and do not have control over. Being more kind to oneself can have tremendous benefits for overall mental health, and mood.
Dr. Kristen Neff, co-founder of the Mindfulness Self-Compassion Center has identified three elements to self-compassion.
- Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement- Is being critical of ourselves constructive or destructive? What if, instead, we spent more time being understanding toward ourselves? When we are self-compassionate we are gentler toward ourselves and during inevitable life difficulties. When we accept our reality with kindness we will feel more calm rather than frustrated.
- Common-Humanity vs. Isolation- As humans we all struggle and are imperfect. Self-compassion is the mindset that this is all part of the shared human experience, we are not isolated in our sufferings and imperfections.
- Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification- Rather than suppress or exaggerate our negative thoughts and emotions we can observe them with openness and clarity. Mindfulness helps us to avoid “over-identifying” with our thoughts and emotions.
So, how can we flip the script to improve self-compassion over self-esteem in our children? Parents, it starts with you! Below I have included 3 ways to promote self-compassion in your kids, as well as an activity to help start the conversation when your child or adolescent engages in that habitual inner critic self-talk.
- Model your own self compassion out loud
- Provide children with reinforcement and affirmation not based on achievement
- Help teach them when and how to practice self-compassion
Model your own self-compassion:
A great way to do this is by practicing being kind to yourself out loud so your child can hear you. An example could be if you drop a glass in the kitchen. You can pause before the automatic negative thought, and instead tell yourself out loud, “its okay, and it was an accident”. Phrases such as, “It is okay I made a mistake, I know how to do better next time” and “I know other parents are having a hard time with balancing virtual school and work too. I am not a failure and I am not alone” are also great examples of ways to model self-compassion.
Providing encouragement and affirmations to your children doesn’t have to focus on achievements, or comparison to others! It can sound like you telling them “ I am so proud of how hard you are working” or “You are more than a test grade, or goal scored”, “you are such a kind sibling/friend/daughter, etc.”.
Help your kids with their own practice:
A great way to teach self-compassion to your kids is by encouraging them to take a moment to pause after disappointment. Not only does this help to pause the automatic negative thought process, it also allows you to prompt them to think about how they would respond to or support a close friend who was experiencing the same disappointment. This exercise encourages kids to practice self-compassion by reflecting on how they would treat a close friend who was suffering, which promotes perspective, empathy, and introspection.
I have included a more detailed version of this specific exercise below, which was pulled directly from Dr. Kristen’ Neff’s website, selfcompassion.org. Her book, Self-Compassion, is another resource I would also highly recommend to parents and older adolescents!
Exercise 1: How would you treat a friend?
Please take out a sheet of paper and answer the following questions:
- First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself or is really struggling in some way. How would you respond to your friend in this situation (especially when you’re at your best)? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
- Now think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
- Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
- Please write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering.