Parents love to celebrate their children’s successes. Give a proud mom or dad a reason to praise their kid and they’ll leap at the opportunity.
But how can parents also help children embrace life’s inevitable failures and mistakes? What about when they face tough times, or when things don’t go as planned?
The answer, psychologists say, lies in teaching children about self-compassion.
“Self-compassion means being compassionate about your own positives and negatives, but not getting so down on yourself about the negatives,” said Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
It’s all about perspective.
“It also means learning to be compassionate with others in the same way, looking for the positives in others and not focusing on the negatives,” Dr. Cadieux said. “We need to try to understand that we are all human and we make good choices and bad choices and everything in between.”
Dr. Cadieux’s tips to help parents teach self-compassion:
1. Show yourself self-compassion and model it for your child.
The first way that children learn how to show themselves self-compassion is by watching their parents.
If we as parents accept and identify our feelings—both negative and positive—it helps children do the same. They see us continue to love ourselves, and them, through mistakes and negative experiences, Dr. Cadieux said.
“As children, and as parents, we must learn to forgive ourselves for our mistakes,” she said. “We can love ourselves in the moment despite our flaws, rather than cutting ourselves down every time we make a mistake.”
Start young. Preschool-age children are still learning to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings. Talking through things in words they can understand will help lay the groundwork as they get older.
“It’s important for parents to begin modeling self-compassion so they can feel OK about their successes and failures,” Dr. Cadieux said.
Failure, in fact, is a bit of a loaded word. But it’s really nothing more than a component in the learning process.
“We have attached so many negative things to that word failure,” she said. “We want them to learn, and we learn through our mistakes.”
2. Only apply the label “bad” to a child’s choices or behavior, not the child.
Dr. Cadieux encourages parents to point out to children when they have made a bad choice, and they should apply consequences appropriately.
“We can teach them that the choices we make do have consequences, but those choices are not reflective of who we are as a person,” she said.
When a child does make a bad choice or a big mistake, try to stay calm in the moment.
“That allows the interaction to be, ‘You did this, so this is what happens,’” she said. “When we put too much emotion into it, it becomes about the emotion and not the behavior.”
3. Forgive yourself and your children. Apologize.
“One of the things that gets us in trouble as parents is that we only have a limited amount of time and energy,” Dr. Cadieux said. “Sometimes when things happen, we get upset. We don’t always respond the way we should respond.”
But we can catch ourselves in these moments, or even after, to tell our children how we were feeling. And we can apologize and ask for forgiveness, she said.
“As parents, we do allow emotion to take control sometimes,” she said. “We can take that moment to step back and say, ‘I’m getting too upset right now to discuss this.’”
Then, come back later and talk about it when you’re calmer.
“You can say, ‘I was really frustrated when you threw the food, but I shouldn’t have talked to you in such a loud and angry voice. My voice was not OK,’” Dr. Cadieux said. “You can acknowledge the part that you played in it. That doesn’t mean they get out of the consequence.”
“Then our kids learn that even adults make mistakes,” she said. “And when you make a mistake, this is what we should do.”
4. Teach self-care.
Model for your kids how to take care of yourself.
“If we’re not caring for ourselves, it makes it a lot harder to care for our kids because we will not have the energy reserves to do it,” Dr. Cadieux said.
Tell your kids what you like to do to take care of yourself, whether it’s a hobby, exercise or simply time alone. Show them how you carve out time to do those things and encourage them to follow your example in their own lives.
“This helps them build an internal consideration to find their own form of self-care that will work for them,” she said.
5. Seek professional help if needed.
Despite parents’ efforts, some children are wired to be more anxious, depressed or hard on themselves, Dr. Cadieux said. This can result in emotional difficulties, as well as physical ailments such as headaches, stomachaches and poor eating or sleeping habits.
“This has nothing to do with anything other than how our brain works,” she said. “There’s a greater tendency to start that negative feedback loop.”
The teen years can be particularly challenging with fostering self-compassion.
As teenagers learn to develop their own identity, they might also experience conflicting feelings and desires that put them at high risk for lower self-esteem or general problems with mood or behavior.
“Some kids will compare themselves to others more than other kids,” she said. “The more we compare ourselves to others, the more we set ourselves up for feeling bad, because we look at someone’s positives and compare them to our negatives. That’s never a fair comparison.”
Remember that there are always professional counselors available for your child.
“If we have been trying to help our kids love themselves a little bit more and feel more positive about themselves and it’s not working, it’s a good time to reach out and try to get some help for our child,” the doctor said. “Especially if it’s impacting their mood, behavior or social interactions.”
Families can start with their pediatrician’s office, but most insurance companies allow patients to seek counseling without a referral, she said.
“Parents can’t do it all,” she said. “And that’s OK. We’re not supposed to be able to do it all.”