San Diego Moms: Why You Should Teach Compassion and How to Do It

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Did you know compassion can lead to being more prosocial and purposeful, which can then lead to living a happier life?

That’s the finding from the recently released book, “How to Navigate Life,” by Dr. Belle Liang, a clinical psychologist, and Tim Klein, a clinical therapist and teaching fellow at Harvard University. Both Liang and Klein have spent years supporting and mentoring youth as they navigate the challenges that come with life, school and careers. In their research, they’ve discovered that compassion is one key to living a happier life. 

Belle Liang. Courtesy photo

“Those who are compassionate tend to draw it out in others around them,” Liang said. Researchers have found that compassionate people are physically healthier and can even increase the physical health of those around them. For example, doctors who have a better bedside manner and more compassion have healthier patients.  Compassion  also decreases racial bias and other biases between diverse people.” 

In their research, Liang and Klein evaluated middle and high school students in different environments. They found that “parenting characterized by autonomy support (when kids feel like their parents’ trust their judgment) and trusting communication (when kids choose to tell their parents about their problems and troubles) was linked with prosociality/compassion.” 

Compassion was then linked with youth purpose, and purpose is defined as having a long-term goal or aspiration that’s personally meaningful and a contribution to the world, Liang said. 

Klein said youth who experienced adversity and advantages could lead to psychological growth, especially when it comes to compassion and purpose in life. 

So, how do parents teach compassion to children? 

“One of the most powerful ways of teaching compassion is to raise children’s sense of empathy and trust for others by acting that way toward them first,” Liang said. “Parents must foster in their kids a sense that they are trusted, that they are in a close relationship with their parents, and that they experience the psychological safety to communicate with their parents about even sensitive and challenging problems in their lives. Then in turn, kids who have experienced compassion and empathy have the blueprint and psychological resources for treating others this way. 

For children who have experienced adversity, ask them questions such as: How did this adversity affect you? Who helped you during this challenging time? What support didn’t you have that would have been helpful? Based on your experience, how would you want to support someone else going through the same thing?  How might you use your own experiences to help other people going through the same thing?

For children who have had limited adversity, ask them to reflect on their advantages by asking questions such as: What are you grateful/thankful for in your own life? Why? How does it make your life easier? What would life be like if you didn’t have this particular advantage? How would life be harder?  Not everyone has been afforded this advantage, so can you think of people who don’t have it in their life? How do you think that makes their lives harder? How might you use your advantage to help other people?

By having children reflect on their advantages, they’ll have gratitude, which can then spark compassion. 

Tim Klein. Courtesy photo

For teachers and child care providers, Klein said they can teach compassion in similar ways. 

“They can also give students a chance to make meaning of their own advantages and adversity,” Klein said. “Classrooms also lend themselves to community learning. Teachers can provide opportunities to help students celebrate commonalities and differences. Research reveals that people tend to feel compassion and empathy for those who are like them.”

Teaching compassion may be sidelined to focus on the pressures of academic success or career success, but it’s critical for growth and happiness, said the researchers.

“Cultivating compassion and ultimately purpose is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do if you want your kid to be happy and successful as they navigate their lives,” Klein said. 

For more information about Belle Liang or Tim Klein, go to howtonavigate.com.

San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.