Is self-esteem that important?
I came across a NY Times article recently on self-compassion, and how people who are more compassionate with themselves have less depression, anxiety, and tend to be more resilient, optimistic, and happier. So it got me thinking about how we encourage self-esteem in children, yet we don’t spend as much time and energy on cultivating self-compassion.
What does it mean to be self-compassionate and how can we teach children how to become more compassionate?
Adams and Leary (2007) define self-compassion as the ability to react with self-kindness and understanding when encountering difficult situations. In addition, self-compassion involves mindfulness of nonjudgmental awareness, and acceptance of one’s common humanity and understanding that they are part of a larger experience, and that others too share the common experience of difficult situations and emotions. Those who exhibit higher traits of self- compassion are less extreme in their reactions and fixate less on problems than those who exhibit lower self-compassion.
Although self-esteem (feeling good about one’s self and maintaining a positive self view) is related to self-compassion, it has been noted in research that when experiencing negative events a self-compassionate mindset may be more beneficial than high self-esteem.
As a child there are days when you get picked on, forget your homework, get totally embarrassed by a friend or a teacher. Encouraging self-compassion in children reduces negative emotions and increases personal responsibility for an undesired situation, whereby a child realizes their mistakes, without being overwhelmed by negative emotions. In doing so they are less likely to melt down or shut down or avoid feelings or circumstances in the future, and are likely to increase their ability to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors.
So how can you help your child increase their self-compassion?
- Give them an opportunity to process the experience through play or art. Children often will explore their emotions and feelings through art and creative play (yes, even teens). Before you try to have a talk with your child allow them some space to understand and explore the experience of what happened. Provide them with a favorite creative activity, such as drawing or building with legos, or give them some quite time in their room.
- Model compassionate self-talk. If your child is struggling with a situation or problem let them express what they are feeling. If you find they are becoming negative and self-blaming acknowledge their feelings (“yes, I understand you are mad”…) then encourage your child to be compassionate in how they talk to himself or herself (“everyone has a bad day, today was a difficult one, tomorrow will be different”).
- Encourage flexible thinking. Children who are at a younger developmental level will often think that things are ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, meaning they made a mistake then they believe they are bad. This black and white thinking may keep your child stuck perseverating that they are “not good enough” or “there is something wrong with them”. Acknowledge the situation and then encourage all the different ways your child could have handled the situation or can cope with it next time. Be playful and allow for divergent creative thinking and downright silly ideas.
- Ask them what they would they say if it happened to a friend. This gives your child some distance from the problem and allows them the opportunity for awareness and kindness.
- Consider Consequences. Parents often struggle with consequences and worry about too few consequences or too many consequences. Criticism and discipline from an authoritarian “my way or the high way” parenting style will impact your child’s development of self-compassion; whereas an authoritative parenting style provides structure, support, guidance and feedback while helping your child resolve the issue.
- Notice how you model your behaviors. Children naturally mimic the adults in their lives, so be aware of the messages you send when you make a mistake or encounter a problem. Modeling self-compassion is the best gift to give yourself and your child too.
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