Children, just like many adults, can be very harsh on themselves when something goes wrong with their plans or efforts. Self-compassion is a process whereby a child learns that in many cases, blaming themselves for something that hasn’t worked out is unduly harsh, inaccurate and unnecessary.
Self-compassion for children 3-8 years old
Very young children tend to become angry and upset when something doesn’t work out for them. Perhaps they might cry, scream or throw a temper tantrum if something, their building with blocks, a toy gets broken or they’ve spilled their drink etc.
That anger though is often not targeted at a specific individual. Even if they might lash out at another child in frustration, they’re usually very ‘general’ in terms of their discontent.
By the time a child reaches 3 or over, they might start to increasingly allocate blame when things go wrong. Sometimes that might be directed at say a sibling, friend or toy but to a surprising extent, they can also direct their unhappiness inwards to themselves.
That can result in them starting to think they can’t do things, can’t do things well, aren’t clever and so on. Most child development specialists regard that as being potentially detrimental to a child’s development if it reaches levels where a child is starting to blame themselves irrationally.
It might be acceptable for a child to recognize that they have failed to do something where they had a degree of control and a realistic chance of success. It’s also healthy for them to accept responsibility for that, where it results in them trying again and working until, they achieve their objective. This is essentially a normal learning strategy.
It might though be more concerning when a child starts to take on blame for things that have gone wrong where they had no such control, little or no prospect of success or where initial failure was perfectly normal and part of learning. An illustration of this might be a child describing themselves as “useless” because they have not immediately succeeded in mastering riding a bicycle.
That degree of unnecessary self-criticism and denigration is potentially harmful and might ultimately result in low self-esteem in later life if it is allowed to continue and expand to become the child’s normal reaction to failure.
How to grow self-compassion in children
There are three guiding principles for parents:
- Don’t ignore your child’s failures or disappointments – where you can see them. Find the time to intervene to discuss what’s gone wrong;
- make sure they understand, where appropriate, that they are not to blame for something having gone wrong or simply not succeeding. Talk to them about how everyone sometimes gets things wrong, stressing they’re not alone in that because everybody experiences it. Be sure they don’t blame themselves for things they couldn’t control – such as not being invited to a party;
- do not tolerate them denigrating themselves by saying things such as “I’m not good at anything.”. Carefully instead encourage them to start talking about the things they are good at and encouraging them to try again to work out whatever it was that has failed. Make sure they end up talking about all the things they’ve recently done brilliantly well and end on a positive note.
As children grow up, a defining characteristic that will hugely influence their adult lives is how they will handle failure or perceived failure/rejection. Positive parental intervention in this area at the earliest ages may make a huge difference.