Self-Compassion: Why We and Our Children Need It

Published Monday, August 3, 2020
by Brenda P. Haas

What if the most powerful lesson we could teach our children is to be kind to themselves? What if our children learned they can fall down, make mistakes, and are still worthy with their imperfections? 

So many of us and, in turn, our children struggle with being tough on ourselves, harshly judging our professional and academic achievements, physical appearance, and artistic and athletic ability. As the school year unfolds, children experience increased stress and performance pressures. Families, children, and teens feel the pull to try to “do it all” and do it well. Somehow as these external stressors mount, the internal pressure grows exponentially. Yes, it’s important to be motivated to learn and succeed but when that motivation is overtaken by perfectionism, we can become our own worst critic. 

While we learn to be compassionate to others, we rarely learn to practice compassion to ourselves during challenging and frustrating moments. New research by psychologist Kristin Neff, Ph.D., the foremost expert on self-compassion, has empirically shown that practicing self-compassion is a powerful tool, vital for adults and youth. It is linked to reducing feelings of anxiety and depression, improved physical and mental health, greater emotional coping, and overall contentment. Self-compassion can calm the sympathetic nervous system, reduce stress hormones, and activate the release of oxytocin and endorphins, increasing feelings of safety and security. 

Self-compassion consists of three core components, according to Dr. Neff: 

Self-kindness over self-judgment: Self-compassion requires that, when we make mistakes, we treat ourselves as we would a good friend in the same situation--with encouragement, patience, and gentleness. 

Common humanity: Self-compassion emphasizes our connectedness with others rather than our isolation or alienation. It entails recognizing that everyone struggles and we are all imperfect. 

Being mindful: Self-compassion requires that we pay attention to our suffering, including our thoughts and words, rather than ignoring our pain. With mindfulness, we can notice the thought “I am just not good enough to get that promotion,” or “I never have as many ‘likes ‘on my Instagram feed as so-and-so” as just that, a thought. In this way, we give the negative thought less power. 

How can we foster self-compassion in our children? We must begin with ourselves and talk the talk: the words we use matter. Children are quick to pick up our behavior and habits, including negative self-talk. Are we speaking kindly to ourselves or judging ourselves on our shortcomings or appearance? We can notice when a dose of self-compassion is needed for ourselves and other family members. We can help our children slow down and breathe when they go into negative thought mode. We can support our children in shifting their perspective. When they are struggling, ask them what they would say to their friend to offer help and comfort in this situation, and then encourage them to repeat these things to themselves. 

When we cultivate the powerful experience of self-compassion, we encourage our children to focus on the present over perfect and build healthy resilience. As we model being fallible and patient with ourselves, we embrace the uniqueness of our humanness…and give ourselves a welcome hug and a break. 

Brenda P. Haas, LMSW, ED.M. is the Coordinator of WJCS GPS (Guiding Parents Through Services), a service of Partners in Caring and a Partners in Schools Consultant at The Leffell School (formerly Schechter Westchester). Contact Brenda at [email protected].  A version of this article was first published in Westchester Jewish Life and is published on wjcs.com with the permission of the Westchester Jewish Life publisher.

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