We all experience moments when we fall short of our expectations. We make mistakes and we feel like we have let ourselves and others down. Thankfully, we know how to step on the mental brake pedal and stop our momentary feelings of discouragement, shame, or feelings of criticism towards ourselves, with self-compassion.
Self-compassion is essential. It nourishes our mental well-being by reducing anxiety and depression. It keeps us from making self-limiting choices and from thinking thoughts about ourselves that can stifle our motivation and initiative.
When our children learn self-compassion, they are gentler on themselves. They recognize that everyone struggles and that nobody is perfect. Without self-compassion, our children fail to identify their own abilities, and they easily fall into the trap of self-defeating thoughts that sound like, “I can’t do it” and “It’s not good enough.” Self-critical thinking is especially common for autistic children, as they often compare themselves to the world and to what the world portrays as “normal.”
As a parent, how can you help your kids develop self-compassion?
Do you practice self-compassion? Our children mirror what they see in us, so it is especially important to be aware of our own language and reactions.
Related: Change Starts with You, Mom
The first step in teaching our children self-compassion is to model it ourselves, and if you need to work on self-kindness, you can so do as you teach your kids:
By practicing positive thinking and self-talk we encourage mindfulness.
Teach your children that It is okay to feel disappointed. When we recognize that we are having an emotional reaction (hurt, anger, disappointment, etc.), learn to treat it as a flag that we need to rebound and be kind to ourselves.
Practice positive self-talk phrases
Phrases such as, it is okay to make a mistake, everyone makes mistakes, I do not need to be perfect, it is okay to not be normal (we are all different…and normal is subjective), it is okay to laugh at my mistakes, and it is okay to feel frustrated, but that does not make me who I am.
When your child makes a mistake, teach them to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and speak positive self-talk phrases.
Encourage your child to notice the positive things in their life, and to celebrate good experiences when they occur. Teach your child to be present in the positive things in their life.
Teach empathy by using phrases, such as, I know this is difficult, that was hard to go through, it would be hard for anyone.
Help your child process what they are feeling, by giving their emotions a name and saying, “I see you are hurt (sad, mad, frustrated, etc.).” Then talk your child through their emotions so that they recognize that self-compassion is a valid and needed response.
Empathy and Shared Humanity
Help your children understand that they are not alone with their experiences.
The most important piece of self-compassion is that we recognize that our feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are mutual. Encourage your children to not only have empathy for themselves but for others as well.
Teach your children that everyone has difficulties and that they do not define us. We are defined by just being ourselves…and that is more than adequate in our imperfect world. A world where things happen regardless of how good we are.
When your child has a ‘moment’ and starts to beat themselves up, encourage empathy by asking, “If your friend, _________, had that happen, what would you say or do?” This also teaches your child resilience. When something happens, they can reframe their thought pattern from being hard on themselves to having compassion and doing what they would do for others.
When your child knows that you accept them for themselves, not because of their behavior or actions, you can help your child to feel intrinsically worthy, and this is foundational to their sense of self-compassion.
Be careful to highlight behaviors and not the child. This ensures that the child feels worthy despite any actions or accomplishments.
When talking with your child about poor decisions or actions, use terms such as, “that was hurtful to your brother,” instead of, “you are a hurtful person.” This helps your child to understand that you are talking about their actions, and not about their personal being.
When talking with your child about their accomplishments, use terms such as, “that was a smart idea,” versus, “you are a genius.” If your child then makes a mistake, they will be less fearful that you will see them differently.
Related: The importance of being cautious about your message to your kids
One Parent’s Mission
Liane Holliday Willey, EdD, professor, author, and autism advocate who speaks and writes from personal experiences (from both her and her daughter’s Asperger’s diagnosis), shares powerful words about parenting in the aspect of teaching self-acceptance to children (excerpt from her book, Pretending to Be Normal):
“I have learned to accept the fact that I will make mistakes at nearly every turn, but that those mistakes can be softened if I am honest about who I am to my girls…
If I can show them it is okay to make mistakes and that perfection is not a key to happiness, I will have given them self-acceptance.
If I can teach them tenacity and courage in the face of confusion and doubt, I will have given them the will to achieve. If I can show them individuality and freedom of expression are prizes worth fighting for, I will have given them the chance to find themselves….
If all these things are to be part of who they are, then I will have been a good role model after all. I will have helped them to find goodness in all people and peace in themselves.”
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