It would be an understatement to say that we are living in uncertain times. To put it mildly, our world has been turned upside down with the coronavirus pandemic. People are sick and dying. Families are suffering. Businesses and schools are shuttered up, and most of us are quarantined inside of our homes. These aren't scenes out of some late-night cable dystopian movie. It is the new reality we are all living. If all of this is disconcerting to us as adults, imagine the mental stress it is inflicting on the children in our lives.
Children may not know it, but they intrinsically crave structure and predictability. During uncertain times like this, they need our compassion more than ever. We need to be there to reassure them that we will all get through this. In addition, it is beneficial to their long-term well-being if we can help them strengthen their self-compassion skills. Their cultivation of self-compassion skills will not only help them during this difficult time, but their attainment of these skills can play a pivotal role in enhancing their overall quality of life.
If you think about it, we can't control what our minds do. It's not like we make a conscious decision and say to our minds, "I'm going to be filled with self- doubt and beat myself up mentally tomorrow at 9:00 AM." It happens on its own. Trying to resist or repress these kinds of negative thoughts only makes them stronger. So what can we do? We control can control our response to these thoughts through self-compassion. It enables us to "flip the script" a bit and let go of negative ruminations quicker. Think about how better off the world would be if every child could learn the importance of self-compassion at an early age. From a macro perspective, it is difficult to give self-compassion to others if we don't first have it for ourselves.
Dr. Kristen Neff, an expert on the subject of self-compassion at the University of Texas at Austin, offers three elements of self-compassion to practice (with ourselves and our kids):
1. Self-kindness vs self-judgment. This entails realizing that none of us are perfect. We all fail. Life can be difficult. Instead of getting angry or upset when things don't turn out how we want, bring kindness to yourself. Happiness doesn't depend on circumstances. There is no need to resist things you have no control over. This only increases suffering. Resisting reality increases our stress, frustration, and self-criticism. On the other hand, accepting reality with kindness brings about greater equanimity.
2. Common humanity vs isolation. Put quite simply, you are not the only one suffering (right now or at any time). All of us suffer. This message resonates strongly during times like what we are facing now with the coronavirus pandemic upheaval. It is also important to note that we all make mistakes, and none of our lives are perfect. We can free up much of our suffering by realizing that that personal inadequacy is part of our shared human experience.
3. Mindfulness vs over-identification. Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that our feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Mindfulness teaches us how to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity in a non-judgmental way. By doing this, we can hold them in mindful awareness. With an observant, curious approach, we learn to understand what we are feeling without over-reacting or suppressing our thoughts and feelings. As I like to say to students in my mindfulness classes, "We are not our thoughts and feelings. Instead, we are the observers of our thoughts and feelings."
Using Dr. Neff's Three Elements as the foundation for building for self-compassion, I offer the following activities for further cultivating your child's self- compassion:
Ways to Help Kids Build Self-Compassion
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, the current Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, will begin his tenure as the school's Director of SEL & Mindfulness in June.