How to help kids practise self-compassion, even on tough days

Deborah Kris

THE WASHINGTON POST – When I was a kid, my favourite picture book was “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Alexander starts the day with gum in his hair and ends it with lima beans for dinner, soap in his eyes, a marble down the drain and railroad train pajamas (and he hates his railroad train pajamas). His day was the pits, and I couldn’t look away.

I recently read this book to my own kids. Snuggled in bed, they giggled and moaned in all the right places. And then I got to that brilliant last page, where author Judith Viorst puts a sun-kissed bandage on Alexander’s emotional scrapes: “My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia.”

I am not Alexander anymore. I am the subject in my kids’ “My mom says …” Viorst reminds me that my words will become part of their mental script as they navigate no good, very bad days.

Kids’ internal chatter is not always kind. I’m a teacher, too, and you can see the critical self-talk on students’ faces when they get a bad grade or forget their lines or miss a basket or face a social rejection. It’s the voice that says: “I’m stupid. I can’t believe I did that. I’m such a loser.” In the uncomfortable moments, that voice weighs in with such authority. And kids don’t always have good strategies for bossing it back.

When my inner voice nags me about an “awful day” I’m having, I try to remind myself that I’m having a “human day,” thank-you-very-much. I adopted the phrase “human day” as an experiment of self-compassion. A couple of years ago, Kristin Neff, the author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” shared with me, “When we are self-compassionate, we remind ourselves ‘I am a human and the human condition is imperfect for all of us.’ “

Very few days are exclusively wonderful or terrible. They are an amalgam of emotions – of lost shoes, lost tempers and goodbye hugs, of spilled coffee and kind baristas, of caregiving and care-taking. And on these human days, we could all stand to treat ourselves to a little extra kindness.

There is power in modelling compassionate self-talk with kids, said Neff: “When you fail or make a mistake, talk it through out loud with your kids. Use language that communicates, ‘It’s OK to make mistakes. Everyone messes up sometimes. Now what can I learn from this?’ “

When my daughter was in kindergarten, she wasn’t a fan of getting things wrong. And no matter how much her amazing teacher and I told her that mistakes are a part of how we grow, her self-talk was louder.

So I made her a deal: Every afternoon, we would ask each other, “What was your ‘oops’ today?” We would each share one mistake we had made that day, followed by a high-five. That caught her attention.

One day she told me about something that “wasn’t really an oops, Mommy.” It was a situation on the playground that made her feel sad inside. We decided to call it a blah – an event that felt frustrating, confusing, sad, scary or boring – and we added the question, “What was your ‘blah’?”

And because we didn’t want to neglect the more pleasant emotions, we added “What was your ‘yay’?”

Over the years, this language of yay, oops and blah has evolved and become part of the fabric of our family. Often, it’s one of the kids who starts the conversation in the car or over dinner. “Did anybody have an oops today?” my six-year-old son might ask; “Who wants to hear my yay from music class?”; or “Ugh, I had such a blah at recess today.”

Earlier this month, we were halfway to school when my daughter realised she didn’t have her backpack in the car – the backpack filled with the homemade Valentines she had spent hours crafting. Turning around meant she would be late for school and I would be late for a meeting at work.

I turned the car around.

After a moment of silence, she said, “Well, I guess this is my oops for today. But hey, no one in the car is freaking out, so at least it’s not a blah!”

Every once in a while, one of the kids will call me back to their room after lights out and ask, “Hey, Mom, did you have any blahs today?” And I know it’s code for, “I can’t sleep. I need to tell you something that happened today … but you go first.” So I share, and then they share, and it helps quiet that inner chatter. And if it was one of those days when the blahs really outweigh the yays, I might whisper, “Wow, it sounds like you had a really human day.”

Because some days are like that. Even in Australia.