Self-compassion: what is it?
Self-compassion is being kind to yourself even when things don’t happen the way you expect. It’s being aware of your feelings and treating yourself with the same warmth, care and understanding you’d give to someone you care about.
It’s also acknowledging that struggles and challenges are a part of life and that everyone goes through them.
Self-compassion: why it’s good for children
Self-compassion helps children deal with failures, mistakes, setbacks and tough times in a healthy way.
For example, if your child comes last in a race, they might feel disappointed. But self-compassion helps your child feel OK and handle their disappointment positively. Your child might say to themselves, ‘I feel disappointed, but I’m glad I tried my best’ or ‘I’ll try again next time’.
When children learn to treat themselves with self-compassion, they:
- are happier
- have more confidence and self-esteem
- are more likely to try new things or try again when things don’t work out the first time
- have more resilience, so they can ‘bounce back’ during or after difficult times.
Self-compassion helps children do well at school and develop new skills in areas like sport, music, dance and so on. Children with self-compassion also tend to get along with others and are more likely to help other children.
Self-compassion and strong parent-child relationships
A warm, supportive and caring relationship with your child helps your child feel safe and secure. When your child feels safe and secure, your child is more likely to try things and face challenges. They’re also more likely to be kind to themselves when things don’t go their way, because they know you won’t judge or criticise them.
You can build a relationship that helps your child feel safe and nurtures self-compassion in many ways. Here are some ideas:
- Spend time playing with your child and encouraging your child’s interests – for example, playing with Lego, doing jigsaws, kicking balls, reading and so on. This sends a simple message – you’re important to me.
- Let your child know it’s OK to have strong feelings like sadness, frustration or disappointment. For example, your child might be disappointed with a drawing, so they scrunch it up. You could say, ‘I can see you’re feeling upset. It’s OK. Things don’t always work out the way we want’.
- Forgive your child. For example, your child might have dropped and broken your favourite cup. You could say, ‘I feel sad about the cup, but it’s OK. Accidents happen’.
- Think of ways to show kindness in your family. For example, your family routines might allow for your child to have a break from the washing up on busy school nights. Or as one of your family rituals, you might take turns choosing favourite desserts for Sunday nights.
- Praise your child when they show themselves compassion. This builds your child’s self-compassion even more. For example, you could say to your child ‘I know you’re upset that you didn’t win an award. But I’m proud of you for saying that you’ll try again next time’.
Children learn about self-compassion by watching what you do and listening to what you say when things don’t go as planned. By role-modelling self-compassion, you’re helping your child learn that it’s OK to make mistakes, forgive yourself and try to do better next time.
Building self-compassion in children: three steps
Self-compassion is something your child needs to learn and practise. Try these three steps to build self-compassion in your child.
Pause and notice when your child is angry, frustrated or disappointed because things haven’t gone the way they wanted and they’re being hard on themselves. For example, your child’s craft hasn’t turned out the way they hoped or they weren’t chosen for the school choir. Maybe your child feels bad for being mean to a friend.
You might hear your child say things like ‘I’m the worst’, ‘I’m hopeless’ or ‘I’ll never be able to do it’. Or your child might be quiet and look upset.
Let your child know that it’s OK to find things hard and that everyone makes mistakes. It’s also OK to feel sad, angry, disappointed or frustrated – but it isn’t OK to say mean things about yourself.
For example, you could say, ‘I’d be frustrated too if I didn’t score a goal. But that doesn’t make you a loser’. Or if your child isn’t invited to a birthday party, remind them that it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them. We can’t control other people’s choices, but we can make an extra effort to look after ourselves.
Encourage your child to say something kind to themselves. It can help to ask your child what they might say to a friend who made a mistake or who’s going through a tough time.
Here are some options you could suggest to your child:
- ‘I’ve done my best.’
- ‘Everyone finds learning new things hard.’
- ‘I don’t have to be perfect.’
- ‘We all make mistakes sometimes.’
- ‘It’s OK that I can’t do this yet. I’ll try again next time.’
- ‘I’m a good and lovable person.’
Saying kind things to yourself is an important part of self-compassion. Doing things that help your child feel better is important too. For example, cuddles or quiet time with you might help your child when things don’t go well.
When children struggle with self-compassion or are very self-critical
Self-criticism is the opposite of self-compassion.
Self-criticism is judging yourself harshly or saying mean things to yourself. Everyone is self-critical sometimes, but if your child is very self-critical, it can increase their stress, affect their mental health, and lower their confidence.
Children who are very self-critical often say very harsh things about themselves. They might also say they can’t think of anything kind to say to themselves, even with your support. If this sounds like your child, it helps to be extra patient and persistent when helping your child learn to be kind to themselves.
If you’re worried that your child’s self-critical thinking is affecting their mental health, it’s a good idea to seek advice. You can start by making an appointment with your child’s GP. They can refer you to a suitable mental health professional if they think it will help.
Autistic children might find it hard to use self-compassion, particularly if they have difficulty recognising and managing their emotions. You can use everyday interactions, as well as tools like emotion cards and social stories, to help autistic children learn to recognise and manage emotions. Find out more about these strategies in our article on autistic children and emotional development.