Model Compassionate Self-Talk
Adults can also model how they process challenges. “When you fail or make a mistake, talk it through out loud with your kids. Use language that communicates, ‘It’s OK to make mistakes. Now what can I learn from this?’ ” Compassionate self-talk reminds us of our common humanity, the inevitability of mistakes, and our ability to bounce back and keep going. It shifts the self-talk from “I am a failure — I am so ashamed of myself” to “Everyone messes up sometimes — let’s see what I can learn from this situation so I can try again.” In this way, self-compassion helps us move on to problem-solving faster, said Neff. Instead of getting stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and feelings, we can take a deep breath and move on to what to do next.
Be a Good Friend to Yourself
To make self-compassion a concrete idea for children, ask them to compare how they treat themselves to how they treat a friend. When we treat ourselves with the same kindness and care that we offer a good friend, we are practicing self-compassion. “By age 7, children have learned about the concept of friendship. A lot of their developmental energy is spent on learning how to be a good friend,” said Neff. So when students are feeling frustrated or upset, ask them, “What would you say to a friend in this situation?” This simple question can help students reflect on the situation and reframe their response.
Calm the Nervous System
When something goes wrong, students’ bodies may experience a spike of adrenaline. The heart starts to race, breathing gets more shallow — and this can make it harder to feel calm. Neff said that in these moments, we can teach kids to practice self-compassion by taking deep breaths while putting their hand on their heart. Gentle, caring touch releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel safe and connected. Neff said, “Touch is one of the most powerful symbols of care. So if you are feeling upset, put your hand on your heart. Hold your own hand. Hug yourself. Even if your brain at the moment is full of the storyline of how bad you are, you can put your hand on your heart and calm your physiology down.”
Self-Compassion and Trauma
Teaching self-compassion to children who have a history of trauma is particularly important — and particularly challenging. Dr. Patricia Jennings, associate professor at the University of Virginia and author of the new book, The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, said that these children “often feel very bad about themselves, and their ability to feel compassion for themselves may be impaired. They don’t even know how to accept compassion from other people yet.” In these situations, caring teachers can literally rewire some of the neural pathways associated with attachment.
Jennings said one of the most transformational messages these children can learn from teachers is, “I know there are people in the world who care about me.” This isn’t always easy: Children who have experienced trauma may exhibit challenging behaviors in the classroom. But with time and consistency, these children can begin to internalize the message, “I really care about you. I care about how you are doing. And I care about how hard you are trying,” said Jennings. Helping children feel and accept compassion from someone else is a “good first step to helping them develop self-compassion.”
For parents and teachers who are not used to offering themselves kindness, teaching and modeling self-compassion for children is a gift we can give ourselves. “Self-compassion is a way of reparenting yourself,” said Neff. “If you grew up with really critical parents, it’s a chance to treat yourself like an unconditionally loving, supportive parent.”