Teaching Children to Build Self-Compassion

Many of my clients, regardless of age, know by now that I am big supporter of developing self-compassion. Self-compassion may seem like self-esteem, but the two are actually different. Self-esteem is based on how different we are from others and how much we like ourselves. Self-esteem teaches us that we should be above average in order to feel good about ourselves, and that it is not okay to be just like everybody else. For many perfectionists and highly anxious individuals out there like myself, trying to achieve greatness could lead us down a problematic path.

Meanwhile, self-compassion is not based on how we perceive ourselves. Dr. Kristin Neff, the pioneer of self-compassion, states that “people feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits”. This important life skill is far more valuable for our children than teaching them to build their self-esteem.

As much as we would love for our children to grow up in a world with no pain and suffering, children do not benefit from living in such a bubble. Children need to understand the good and bad parts of life, and how to accept all emotions no matter how distressing they may be. Children need opportunities to deal with their pain in order to become successful adults. Parents can start by helping their children become more mindful of their emotions. Depending on their age, parents may name the emotion for their child or help them find the right words to describe how they are feeling. Showing empathy and normalizing their feelings will help children understand that it is human to feel this way sometimes. That there is nothing wrong with them having negative or difficult emotions, even anger.

“People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits”

Dr. Kristin Neff

Although coping skills are helpful and often encouraged, short-term coping may not always be the solution. Helping your child find ways to feel better immediately is a great way to avoid dangerous situations or to deal with a crisis (ex. Listening to music, go for a walk, scream into a pillow), but children also need to learn how to cope with their life stressors in the long run. You can help your child learn to feel their emotions, patience, and how to plan ahead for similar circumstances.

In order for children to have self-compassion, we also need to have compassion towards ourselves. Children learn by watching their parents. Being compassionate with yourself will teach your children ways they can deal with issues in their own life. If they see their parents being critical of themselves, that is what they will learn. If we can all be kinder to ourselves, we will be able to radiate kindness out there into the world and towards those around us.

Read more about self-compassion on Dr. Kristin Neff’s website.

If you have any concerns for their well-being, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional. If you would like to speak about yourself, your child, or teen attending therapy, reach out at 858-522-9415 for a free consultation today!