It would be a understatement to say that we are living in uncertain times. To put it mildly, our world has been turned upside down with the cornoavirus pandemic. People are sick and dying. Families are suffering. Businesses and schools are shuttered up, and most of us are quarantined inside of our homes. These aren't scenes out of some late- night cable dystopian movie. It is the new reality we are all living. If all of this is disconcerting to us as adults, imagine the mental stress it is inflicting on the children in our lives.
Children may not know it, but they intrinsically crave structure and predictability. During uncertain times like this, they need our compassion more than ever. We need to be there to reassure them that we will all get though this. In addition, it is beneficial to their long-term well being if we can help them strengthen their self-compassion skills. Their cultivation of self-compassion skills will not only help them during this difficult time, but their attainment of these skills can play a pivotal role in enhancing their overall quality of life.
If you think about it, we can't control what our minds do. It's not like we make a conscious decision and say to our minds, "I'm going to be filled with self- doubt and beat myself up mentally tomorrow at 9:00 AM." It happens on its own. Trying to resist or repress these kinds of negative thoughts only makes them stronger. So what can we do? We control can control our response to these thoughts through self-compassion. It enables us to "flip the script" a bit and let go of negative ruminations quicker. Think how better off the world would be if every child could learn the importance of self-compassion at an early age. From a macro perspective, it is difficult to give self-compassion to others if we don't first have it for ourselves.
Dr. Kristen Neff, an expert on the subject of self-compassion at the University of Texas at Austin, offers three elements of self-compassion to practice (with ourselves and our kids):
1. Self-kindness vs self-judgement. This entails realizing that none of us are perfect. We all fail. Life can be difficult. Instead of getting angry or upset when things don't turn out how we want, bring kindness to yourself. Happiness doesn't depend on circumstances. There is no need to resist things you have no control over. This only increases suffering. Resisting reality increases our stress, frustration, and self-criticism. On the other hand, accepting reality with kindness brings about greater equanimity.
2. Common humanity vs isolation. Put quite simply, you are not the only one suffering (right now or at any time). All of us suffer. This message resonates strongly during times like what we are facing now with the cornoavirus pandemic upheaval. It is also important to note that we all make mistakes, and none of our lives are perfect. We can free up much of our suffering by realizing that that personal inadequacy is part of our shared human experience.
3. Mindfulness vs over-identification. Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that our feelings are neither suppressed or exaggerated. Mindfulness teaches us how to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity in a non-judgmental way. By doing this, we can hold them in mindful awareness. With an observant, curious approach, we learn to understand what we are feeling without over-reacting or suppressing our thoughts and feelings. As I like to say to students in my mindfulness classes, "We are not our thoughts and feelings. Instead, we are the observers of our thoughts and feelings."
Using Dr. Neff's Three Elements as the foundation for building for self-compassion, I offer the following activities for further cultivating your child's self- compassion:
Ways to Help Kids Build Self-Compassion
Loving Kindness Meditation. There are some great loving kindness Meditations available online. Experiment with some of them. Use the ones you or your child likes. There are many outstanding loving kindness meditation teachers who offer resources. My personal favorite is Sharon Salzberg.
Metacognition. This is simply "thinking about our thinking." The practice of metacognition build awareness and understanding of one's own thought process. By teaching our children this approach, they are more apt to understand that thoughts are "mental activity," not always absolute truths. Over time, it will also teach them to accept their thoughts/feelings and challenge catastrophic thinking.
Treat yourself as you'd treat a friend. When your child is having difficult time during a tough situation, ask him or her what advice they would give to a friend in the same situation. it is important to realize that we are often much harder on ourselves than we are on others. Teach them to care for themselves as they would treat others. This is a great way to get the point across.
It's OK to make mistakes. Work with your child to cultivate a growth mindset, because perfection is not attainable. Encourage risks. Without risks there is no growth. Instill in them that there is no failure if there is a lesson learned from any given experience. Furthermore, teach them that on the road to success there will be many setbacks. It's a part of life. As the old saying goes, "The obstacle is the way."
Write yourself a letter. There is something therapeutic about putting pen to paper and expressing our thoughts and feelings when something does not turn out the way we planned. Encourage your child to "write it out." One such way is a reflective letter to themselves, expressing their feelings and explaining what lessons were learned from the experience.
Model it for them. As educators and/or parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to model for them what self-compassion looks like. Kids are sponges. They soak up and emulate everything we do. Therefore, when things don't go for us the way we want them to, instead of reacting with anger, extreme frustration or self-defeating behaviors, we can choose to enact some degree of self-compassion. They will pick up on this and start doing it as well.
Language matters. When it comes to helping our children attain self-compassion, it is not just how we talk to them that matters. What is equally important is how they talk about themselves. Encourage them to use positive words when speaking to themselves or about themselves. This will not only build their self-compassion but their self-esteem as well.
Self-Sooth. If our children are having a bad day or going through a difficult situation or experience, we can help them by teaching healthy ways of self-soothing. Doing this gives them the opportunity to exhibit some self-compassion while engaging in an activity they enjoy. Possibilities are endless depending on the passions of each individual child. Some examples: drawing a picture, listening to favorite music, exercise, playing a musical instrument, spending time with a pet, going for a walk, taking a bath, cleaning, meditating, helping with cooking, etc.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, the current Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, will begin his tenure as the school's Director of SEL & Mindfulness in June. His website is www.greggraber.com