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Teaching children self-compassion by modeling it ourselves

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“That was not a good choice,” I growled at my 3-year-old from my hands and knees as I soaked up milk from the cup he had thrown across the room. Frowning, he threw his right arm wide and brought his hand down hard across his own face, smacking himself. Tears welled in his sad blue eyes.

The gesture stunned me; a swelling, stinging silence hung in the air. Frozen, I stared up at him from the floor while questions raced through my mind. We never engaged in hitting or any sort of corporal punishment in our home. Where did this come from? Why did he do it?

I wondered what this display said about the way I conveyed my own feelings.

Struggling with three kids under 4? Give yourself a break.

Whether they intend to or not, adults teach children how to act and react to their world from a very early age. There is evidence to suggest that even children in utero respond to stress independently of their mothers. Kids may absorb our mannerisms, our fear of snakes or our annoying habit of slurping cereal, but one of the most significant skills they glean from their caretakers is emotional regulation, or the ability to manage their emotions.

This control establishes the concept of self-compassion, where children are able to accept and navigate through mistakes and difficult feelings.

Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., explains why this concept is so vital for physical and mental health. “There are a lot of ways our emotions affect our physical bodies,” she asserts. According to Cadieux, poor emotional regulation can result in increased physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches, overeating, food withdrawals and changes in sleep habits.

The responsibility to model proficient emotional self-regulation and self-compassion for our children might seem like a heavy burden, especially for parents for whom emotional resilience does not come easily. Even my son’s display of smacking himself, something I would never do to him, hearkened to the way I often dealt with my own shortcomings: by yelling in frustration, or vocalizing ‘I’m such an idiot!’ I habitually gave in to my shame and anger instead of practicing self-kindness.

How do we start the process of teaching our children self-love and compassion when we struggle with those processes ourselves?

It might be easier said than done, but if we want our children to be able to navigate negative and positive feelings, we have to practice treating ourselves the way we treat our kids.

Accept our feelings

Adults, and especially parents, are no strangers to disappointment. In times of rejection, anger, and sadness, it can be tempting to suppress and ignore our negative emotions. Michelle Cutler, an associate professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, advises that “emotional disregulation doesn’t come from the feelings themselves, it comes from not being able to express them in a way that is healthy and safe.” She suggests that accepting our feelings, rather than judging or concealing them, enables us to move on from our negative experiences and embrace self-compassion. Continuing to love ourselves through mistakes and experiences we may not be proud of promotes our own well-being as well as our children’s. “The more we talk to ourselves that way, the more we send those messages to our kids,” Cutler says.

Label emotions out loud

In times of distress, our words matter; it can be very tempting to scream back at our screaming child, but rarely do we say anything positive about them or about ourselves when emotions run high. We set the tone for how our kids react to stress and frustration by how we react to difficult situations ourselves.

When experiencing intense emotion, Cadieux recommends taking a moment to specifically label and vocalize our negative feelings. “Once you say it aloud, it takes the some of the power away and gives you a brief moment to realize how you are responding and reduce the experience. When we are upset in the heat of the moment, we aren’t going to be able to model good decisions.” Using specific phrases such as “I’m so frustrated right now,” or “I’m angry and I need to take a break” can help us respond appropriately to flaring emotions. Adults and children whose feelings do not dictate their behavior are better equipped to be compassionate to others and themselves.

Apologize when necessary

The roles of apologies and forgiveness are critical to self-compassion and control. No matter how many times we make mistakes or wrong our children, it is important to make apologizing a priority in our relationships. “Mistakes in themselves are not necessarily going to disrupt our relationship with our kids or even take back all the work we’ve done to help teach them about emotional regulation,” Cutler says. Parenting is always imperfect. When we make our inevitable mistakes, explaining ourselves to our children and expressing our apologies demonstrates to them that failures, however serious, are not final.

“Modeling that can do huge things for kids’ self compassion,” Cutler says.

Mindfulness, meditation and self-care

When it comes to practicing self-compassion and emotional regulation, the chaos of work, financial, and social responsibility often interferes with our best intentions. Conscious techniques such as mindfulness and meditation enable us to discern our needs by cultivating self-awareness, deep breathing, and giving attention to the moment we are in.

Mindfulness and meditation provide numerous benefits to our mental and physical well-being, and these practices can easily be taught to children as well.

Cutler maintains that modeling these techniques as an adult, along with self- care, “helps kids to be able to figure out what they need to be able to calm down.” Mindfulness and meditation also present opportunities for adults and children to remove themselves from an overwhelming situation, giving them permission to take a break and come back to the situation when they are better able to control themselves.

The process of cultivating emotional regulation in young children echoes our journey toward self-compassion as adults; it is complex, dynamic, and difficult. We might lose our temper more than we’d like, react in a manner we aren’t proud of or fall short of our own expectations. It can help to bear in mind that all we can do is try our best to give our children love and support as they learn to cope with their feelings. As Cadieux says, “when we can be compassionate toward others, we can be more compassionate to ourselves.”

Mandy Lange is a teacher and writer. She lives in Lansing, Mich., and you can follow her on Twitter @MandyWall23

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