Opening the Heart of a Child
Cultivating Compassion in Children and Teens
Posted Dec 04, 2012
With the holidays approaching, expectations of peace, love, giving, receiving, and forgiving abound. My mind and heart naturally wander to thoughts of compassion and self-compassion and where these very critical values stand in our consciousness. Especially at this time of year when many feel they are supposed to be joyful yet are not.
Perhaps nowhere is the importance of kids developing compassion more keenly felt than in the opening scene of this year’s documentary Bully. A dazed father talks about the suicide of his son, a victim of bullying. Later, another boy deadpans his own experience. “They punch me, they strangle me, they take things from me, they sit on me.”
One wonders how could anyone be so cold-hearted, so without compassion, that they have no awareness of, or care about, how their actions effect others. The fact that 13 million children are affected by bullying in the U.S. each year is staggering and points to a desperate need to develop the skills of compassion.
Does compassion need to start with oneself? A profound example is how kids can torture themselves when it comes to body image. At a conference, “It’s Our Turn,” this past February at the private Brentwood School in Los Angeles, Lady Gaga, one of the biggest pop icons of this generation, revealed that she was bulimic in high school, desperate to transform herself from "a voluptuous little Italian girl" to a "skinny little ballerina.” She couldn’t appreciate her naturally curvaceous body and almost permanently damaged her vocal cords and her health. Through the support of her yoga teacher she announced on The Ellen DeGeneres show, "My yoga teacher … says 'Please try every day to have 15 minutes of compassionate thoughts by yourself.'” When she added: "Love yourself. Love who you are," the idea of self-compassion catapulted to her massive fan base.[i]
A simple definition of compassion is sympathy for the suffering of others, often including a desire to help. For most, there is a natural capacity for compassion. Yet for some kids, compassion, empathy, and kindness don’t always come naturally. And stress, peer and family pressures can make it difficult to express. Research at Stanford University found that compassion training “increases self-compassion and self-care, reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, and enhances connection with others.”[ii] Daily meditation practices can develop loving kindness and empathy. Basically, compassion training supports one’s own health, happiness, and well-being.
In my experience, when kids appear cold-hearted, when they seem to not care about the suffering of others, and sometimes even inflict that suffering, they are often detached from feeling – for themselves as well as others. It’s as if their hearts are closed. So connecting with, and opening the heart is key and crucial in cultivation of both self-compassion and compassion for others.
Here’s a short heart-centered and heart-opening meditation. It’s a great way to shift a child’s attention from her buzzing head-brain into her calmer and more intuitive heart-brain[iii]. The physical touch can also bring great comfort. Adjust the wording for age and developmental level. You can read the script to a child or teen, make a recording for them, or they can make their own recording.
“Breathe in and out slowly… sending your breath two to three inches below your navel. Focus on your Heart Center, the area in the middle of your chest at heart level. Place your hand over your Heart Center, allowing yourself to be comforted. As you breathe, continue to bring awareness there.”
"When you're ready, notice if any thoughts... pictures... music... or messages come from your Heart - from your Heart's wisdom... Ask your Heart what it wants you to know today. Listen… You can even have a conversation with your Heart and ask anything you want. Take your time.”
"When you're ready, be aware of your breathing, your body, your heart remaining open, and, remembering everything, slowly return." [iv]
One of my patients, 8-year-old Deidre, learned to develop self-compassion by tapping into her imagination. She felt that the middle of her chest was filled with intertwined red and brown wires – her Heart was wired shut! Initially she claimed she couldn’t forgive her parents for criticizing her, but she really needed to forgive herself… for her negativity, her poor behavior, and most of all, for her normal imperfections. When I asked if she could have compassion for herself, she was open to the idea but didn’t know how. I suggested she imagine which colors represented self-forgiveness. She breathed pink and purple into her Heart, and the tangled wires began to separate. Slowly, her anger, sadness, and jealousy left, and she said: “It’s as if all my bad thoughts went to the bottom of my heart and got smaller and smaller till they disappeared, and all the good things floated to the top.”
There’s a wonderful, compassion building exercise in the Buddhist tradition called Metta. It’s simple and transformative. It’s easy to adapt to almost any age – for the youngest you might give examples or choices. Kids often enjoy this practice while walking – and can be considered a walking meditation. It’s also a perfect fit when walking the dog with a parent. You start with focusing on yourself (self-compassion), move to thinking about and bringing up an image of an inspiring person or mentor, then a loved one, followed by a neutral person, and finally think about someone you have difficulty with. One repeats the series of sentences five times (for the five people you are thinking about.) And if there’s not a lot of time, just focus on fewer people. A softening of the heart occurs, and kindness and compassion develop organically.
“May I be happy. May I be calm. May I be safe. May I be peaceful. May I live easily.” As you move along to each person, substitute the name and image of that person. For example, “May (name of person you’re thinking about) be happy. May (name) be calm…” and so on.
Another family, a mom and her 17-year-old son came into my office torn apart by their almost constant arguing the last two years. They terribly missed their past loving relationship, but so much had transpired, they didn’t know how to repair the rift. We talked about what the concept of compassion for each othermeant to them. Ideas of letting go of hurt, resentments, and anger – and starting afresh came out. We did a variation of the following heart-connecting guided meditation.
“Focus on slow deep breathing into your belly, imagine a favorite place or time when you were happy and peaceful. Get a clear picture of yourself there. What does it look like? Sound like? Smell and feel like? If nothing comes, it’s okay to make up something as long as it’s soothing.”
“In this special place, picture a protection circle around you. Make it as large as you like. You are safe inside. Imagine inviting your mom (or son) to sit across from you. As you breathe, slowly and deeply, allow feelings of caring inside you to grow stronger. Let go of any squabbles. This is a place to remember you are connected to each other by the love in your heart. Imagine receiving their love in return. What is that like? Allow their love to fill your Heart. It can grow so big that it sends and receives love from all of your family. There is always enough to share, and always room for more.”
“Visualize sending caring to the other in any form you wish. Then picture it being graciously received. Give yourself permission to absorb their returning love. Imagine her (or him) saying something wonderful to you… something you’ve always wanted to hear. Notice what warm wishes you want to return to them. Take your time.”
“You can remember and spread these good feelings as you go about your everyday life. And you can come back to this special circle any time you like. When you are ready, slowly return, bringing all you have learned, all you have felt, into your Heart.”
Here are five more practical exercises you can share with your children and teens or clients to cultivate compassion.
Make a Gratitude List: This is especially helpful for turning the tide when a child is feeling down. Even a short list of one or three "I'm grateful for's" can make a difference. Each time have them write the whole sentence out: "I am grateful for this new day." "I am grateful my brother didn't punch me on the way to school." "I am grateful for my B in science." "I am grateful my parents love me." You get the idea...
Practice Forgiveness: Encourage a child to forgive herself as well as others. Have her visualize what forgiveness looks like, or sounds like. Is it a color, a feeling, a character, music? She can feel where compassion, forgiveness, and love live in her body, and picture what color and shape they are, then notice what happens as she expands these qualities through her breath and intention. Or ask, "What do I need to do or understand before I can forgive... my parents, my friend, myself?" Have her bring whatever she imagines into her Heart.
Offer Kindness Each Day: Suggest a child do one kind act a day - for himself - or for another. Helping others gets those feel good juices going. He may surprise himself - surprise a friend or family member. Or he can do something kind without anyone knowing. Ask how does that feel?
Look For the Good: In oneself... in one’s family... in any situation. When her Dad became seriously ill (and thankfully later recovered), one teen saw it as a challenge to sharpen her compassion and helping skills. She babysat her younger brother, prepared simple meals, and did the dishes, all so her Mom could be at her Dad's hospital bed. She saw that learning to take on more responsibility was a way to stretch her kindness muscles.
Talk to Yourself Inside - Nicely: Sometimes we have to practice talking positively about ourselves and others. Have a child think of one or two nice things to say about himself, family members, and friends. He can make an ongoing list and stick it on the fridge as a reminder. And if he slips, for each mean thought, he can correct by saying three nice things to compensate.
What happened to that mother and teen? Their compassion for themselves and each other blossomed. Although they didn’t want to minimize what had happened between them, both realized that they loved each other. That was most important – everything else could be worked out. They hugged and couldn’t let go. Tears were streaming down both their faces
Here are a few authors/sources to consider:
Jack Kornfield - A Path With Heart, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace;
Sharon Saltzburg - The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love and Compassion
Pema Chodron - Awakening Loving Kindness; Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living
Christopher Germer - The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D. is a child educational psychologist, a former UCLA Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, and author of the LA Times bestselling book, "The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success" (Perigee/Penguin). In addition to her private practice, she creates therapeutic relaxation CDs for children, teens and parents, and teaches workshops internationally on the healing power of children's imagination. She also has a 30-year meditation practice. You can find out more about her at http://www.ImageryForKids.com
[i] Jean Fain, LICSW, MSW. Lady Gaga's Yoga Teacher on America's Addiction to Being Skinny. Huffington Post. February 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jean-fain-licsw-msw/self-compassion_b_1286246.html
[ii] Stanford University’s The Compassion Training Course (CTC) http://ccare.stanford.edu/sct
[iv] From Charlotte Reznick, The Power of Your Child’s Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success (page 232). Perigee/Penguin, NY, 2009 and The Cave of Great Wisdom CD. Imagery For Kids, 2009.
*Adapted from article written for the Los Angeles Psychologist, a publication of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association.