How to Teach Self-Compassion to Children
by Miki Tesh, LSCW
Imagine this ….
You feel terrible about something. You might be overly critical of yourself, maybe even more critical than you would of a friend or a stranger. You feel like if you are self-critical, it will keep you “inline” and make things better.
Sometimes, you might think you are alone, and few people are going through situations just like yours. Maybe, you are overwhelmed by your feelings. You avoid people and activities. You might drown yourself in food, beverages, work or unhealthy relationships to distract yourself from thoughts and feelings.
The problem with being overly critical of ourselves is that it does not prevent bad things from happening. It probably makes the situation worse. We don’t want to avoid problems, but we don’t want to be overly critical of ourselves either. If we are overly self-critical, we will avoid feelings or we could go in the opposite direction and go overboard with our feelings. The important thing to remember is that, sometimes, we can all be too self-critical or think we are different from other people.
Self-Compassion is an approach that can help change these thoughts. It reduces depression and anxiety, increases overall motivation, and increases compassion for others and ourselves. To apply self-compassion, you will want to consider these three concepts:
Self-Kindness: Accept, understand and have compassion for ourselves, as we would have for a best friend, family member, child or pet.
Common Humanity: Know we are not alone and many others have similar feelings, thoughts and experiences.
Mindfulness: Awareness of our feelings and thoughts. We do not ignore them, but we try not to become overwhelmed either.
Self-Kindness, Common Humanity and Mindfulness are easy to learn, and practice helps prevent us from becoming complacent in an on-going internal dialogue of self-criticism. One of the best things we can do is model self-compassion for children, but we can also teach it using activities. Below are some activities you could use or modify for kids (and adults):
- Self-Hug – Say to a small child, “Remember how when someone hugs us, it makes us feel better? Let’s practice hugging ourselves so that when we feel bad, we can remember how much we love ourselves and each other.” Ask an older child to put their hand on their heart as a way to self-sooth. Talk about how it feels.
- Appreciation Journal – Have the child/children write down different things they appreciate about themselves and their lives.
- Self-Kindness Rocks – Have a child decorate and write “kindness” on a rock with a Sharpie. Ask the child, “Where will you keep your rock so you will remember self-kindness and kindness to others?”
- Bridges – For five minutes, have the child draw a picture of him/herself. Then, ask the child to add other people to the picture. Discuss things they have in common with other people. Have them draw a line, bridge, flower trail, paw prints or anything to connect them to the other people. Talk about how we are connected through our thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- Help a Friend – Have a child pretend someone came to them with the exact same problems or feelings they have. Have them write down what they would say to help them feel better.
- Similar Leaves – Draw a tree with empty branches. Have the child/children make leaves with thoughts, feelings and experiences. Fill the tree up with the leaves. Talk about our common humanity.
- Teddy Bear Meditation – Have the child/children sit and close their eyes while holding a teddy bear (or something age appropriate). Talk to the child/children quietly during the meditation by saying things like: “Pay attention to the sounds you hear.” “Think about how it feels to have your feet touching the floor.” “Pay attention to what the teddy bear feels like.”
- Pleasant Walk – Go on a nice, slow walk with a child/children. Help them to notice different things around them to pay closer attention to what they see. Help the child/children notice things that they might normally ignore. Help them pay attention to and enjoy the details around them.
- On a Swing – Have the child close their eyes and imagine themselves on a swing (let the child pick anything they want, like a surfboard, snowboard, etc.). They imagine they are sitting on the swing, and they notice the ground underneath. Pretend the ground is thoughts, feelings or an experience. Just look at them. We do not want to get down yet because then we cannot see them as well. Now, get off the swing and walk around the ground. Get back on the swing and look at everything from above. Ask the child this: “Are all of your thoughts true?” “Are we making them bigger than they really are?” “Are we trying to not look at them at all?” “Are our thoughts, feelings and experiences not as bad as we might believe?” “Now, say something kind about yourself to counteract self-criticism.” “Think about how others are similar to you.”