Compassion is a central aspect of the human condition. It refers to the ability to be present to our suffering and that of others without ignoring it, minimising it, judging it, or running away from it, and responding with a desire to relieve this suffering with an attitude of kindness, care, and support.
Being compassionate has been linked to increased well-being (Shapira & Mongrain, 2010; Zessin et al., 2015), and it is no different when it comes to parenting. It has been shown that compassionate parenting promotes better parent-child relationships (Duncan, Coatsworth & Greenberg, 2009), which in turn helps our children to grow up feeling more secure, connected, and ultimately more compassionate themselves.
So, how can parents show compassion in their daily interactions with their children?
1. Generate a safe space
Parents’ primary responsibility is to foster a safe space where the child feels able to communicate freely and openly. You may begin by inviting your child to share their feelings. And when they start to open up, just listen. Make sure the child is not interrupted or criticised but be listened to non-judgmentally. This will help to really get to know our children, bond with them, and cherish them.
2. Being a child is not so easy
Remember that there are numerous stressors that children need to manage, such as school pressures, getting good grades, making friends, emotional and physical changes, social media, amongst others. Yet, they are expected to manage all these stressors despite lacking in life experience to guide them. So, the next time your child gets upset about “little things”, see if you can understand the situation from their perspective. What might seem trivial to a parent, might mean a lot to the child.
3. Parent to prepare
Despite our good intentions, when we try to protect our children from experiencing failure, we are holding them back from developing the skills needed to tolerate their difficult experiences and do what is needed to relieve their suffering. For example, failing an exam does not need to be portrayed as a catastrophe. Instead, validate and allow yourself to be present with your child’s feelings by saying something like “It’s disappointing when you don’t pass an exam” and encouraging them to try to make up for it in the next exam.
4. Believe your child has the capability to be compassionate
The beliefs that children develop about themselves are very much influenced by their parents’ beliefs about them. For instance, if the child is branded as a troublemaker, it is likely his behaviour will eventually end up reflecting that belief. Conversely, if we believe the child is capable of being compassionate, this can help us respond to them more compassionately without criticism, blame, or shame, thus fostering the belief that the child is worthy of compassion. In other words, what we believe about our children goes a very long way!
5. Be compassionate to yourself when setbacks happen
Parenting is hard work and there are many challenges that parents face daily. In order to be compassionate towards your children, you need to first learn to give compassion to yourself. You may do this by first noticing when you are being hard on yourself (e.g., “I’m such a bad parent”), remind yourself that raising children is an important and difficult job, and finally offer something kind to yourself, such as “Parenting is hard and I’m not alone in this”. If you would like to learn more about how to develop your self-compassion, I encourage you to follow this link.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.
Duncan, L. G., Coatsworth, J. D., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). A Model of Mindful Parenting: Implications for Parent-Child Relationships and Prevention Research. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 12, 255-270.
Shapira, L. B., & Mongrain, M. (2010). The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 377-389.
Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The relationship between self-compassion and well-being: A meta-analysis. Applied Psychology, Health and Well-Being, 7(3), 340–364.