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Raising Compassionate Children

August 20, 2015 | by Miriam Manela, OTR

How to reinforce this important quality in your home.

The Talmud states that the Jewish people have three innate qualities: they are merciful, bashful and kind. Perhaps that explains Jewish people’s propensity to give so freely of their time and money. Being caring, compassionate and generous is as inherent to Jewish identity as our commitment to education.

But without proper cultivation, compassion can remain dormant. That’s why it’s important to teach children compassion at a young age and keep reinforcing this message as they grow.

Show Your Child Compassion – Acknowledge Their Feelings and Emotions

One way to model compassion is to allow your child to express the broad range of their feelings – and let them know their feelings matter to you.

Explain (in age-appropriate language) that it’s okay for people of any age to feel conflicting emotions such as dislike, embarrassment, disconnection, rejection, isolation, love, sadness, compassion, jealousy and forgiveness.

One of my client’s parents are going through a difficult divorce and this ten-year old is struggling with feelings of both love and anger at them. We discussed that it’s okay to like or love someone and sometimes feel disappointed or even angry with them. She was so relieved to learn this.

Mistakes Are a Learning Experience

As an occupational therapist who specializes in children’s behavior, my work involves helping parents and children find healthy ways to bond. Even parenting mistakes can strengthen the parent-child bond.

If you’ve lost your temper, for example, you can apologize. This shows you care about your child’s feelings. By saying you’re sorry and asking for forgiveness, you’ll also teach the value of forgiveness, a vital component of compassion.

Parents can also model forgiveness by showing we forgive others. This helps kids understand that we’re able to have compassion on someone who has hurt us, without alleviating them of responsibility for their harmful deeds. Teaching children that “hurt people hurt others” can help them let go of resentment.

Caring Conversations

We all need to feel accepted, understood and safe. If you need to talk to your child about important issues, create a comfortable setting to have serious conversations.

  1. Get in sync with your child. Talk while you’re both sitting on a porch swing or rocking chairs, or bouncing on therapy balls. Creating a relaxing rhythm can help your child or teen relax. You don’t have to tell them what you’re doing, just start swinging, rocking, or bouncing.

  2. Try to sit at the same level. (Don’t stand over them.) If your child is very young, you can hold them on your lap, otherwise, remain at eye level while having serious discussions. This lets them know you want to connect.

    I often sit lower than or on the same level as my own children – we like to talk while sitting on the floor or their beds. For my clients, I may join them in a large spandex swing I have in my office (I call it the “spandex river”) while discussing delicate topics such as sibling rivalry or a parent’s illness.

  3. If you find it difficult to speak calmly, wait. A softer, more relaxed voice is more conducive to connection. For younger children use a rhythmic sing-song. It helps a young child feel safe and open. Using a lecturing voice makes people of any age feel defensive and likely to reject your message.

Sometimes, less is more: saying fewer words and waiting for a response is a way to allow children to take the conversation where they need it to go. Helping your child dial down intense negative feelings while supporting him, teaches him how to do this for himself. This kind of self-regulation is a key to healthy emotions.

Being compassionate – to yourself, to your child, to others – is perhaps the best way to get across the idea that compassion matters.

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