Ways to Develop a Compassionate Mindset in Kids (and Parents!)

Unlike simply being kind, showing compassion to someone—including yourself—is about intentionally showing sympathy or understanding for suffering without judgment. Having a compassionate mindset means being able to listen to someone express their pain in a way that helps them feel heard and cared for. It’s an authentic response to wanting to provide support—not play the hero, and it’s something that can be cultivated at any age.

If you’re looking to help your child or teen develop a more compassionate mindset, we encourage you to listen to our interview with Dr. Phil’s resident parenting expert, Donna Tetrault. In it, she discusses her book, The C.A.S.T.L.E. Method; Building a Family Foundation on Compassion, Acceptance, Security, Trust, Love and Expectations plus Education, and ways to help families feel connected based on her countless interviews with doctors, psychologists, educators, teens, and parents. 

Here are some of the highlights from the conversation that focus on developing compassionate mindsets in kids (and parents):

1. Model self-compassion.

Before we can expect our kids to develop a compassionate mindset, we need to develop it ourselves. As Donna explains, parents are going through their own challenges and struggles, often learning how to work through child rearing without a lot of guidance or even good role models of their own. 

“I think that we’re so hard on ourselves because when did we ever learn how to parent?” she asks. “The education piece in the C.A.S.T.L.E. method is to empower parent to educate themselves and to not feel that pressure, but just do the best that you can … and give yourself that self-compassion. ‘I was doing the best that I can. I’m a new parent. I’m a new toddler parents. Then I’m a new kindergarten parent. Then I’m a new first-grade parent.’ You’re learning. And it’s a constant learning.”

2. Model compassion towards others.

Modeling compassion for others is vital as well and there are countless ways to do that, regardless of your child’s age. Your child can help you pick out new toys—or donate their old ones—to shelters or a specific family in need. Or they can volunteer with you or accompany you to visit a friend or loved one in a nursing home or hospital. 

Use the opportunity to discuss the feelings of the people you’ll be supporting and how your child’s actions or donation might lift someone’s spirits. Give examples of opportunities that they may encounter to demonstrate compassion, such as offering to take an elderly shopper’s grocery cart to the cart corral for them or opening the door for the person behind them.

You can also model compassion by showing your child or teen respect and trusting their decisions rather than simply demanding that they blindly “follow your rules” because you’re the adult. 

Showing respect might look like explaining why you believe a certain rule (e.g., no electronic devices after 9 p.m.) or chore (e.g., doing the dishes) is important, taking the time to hear your child’s reasoning for breaking the rule or not doing the chore. 

The example Donna gives is demanding that a teen stops what they’re doing immediately to complete a chore you want done. Rather than saying, “You’ve got to get this done right now,” which is disruptive of the activity they’re currently engaged in (no matter how unimportant or inconsequential you perceive it to be), try being respectful of their time and interests. As Donna recommends, “What you could do is say, ‘Okay, I see that you’re involved in this (movie, video game, TV series) right now. What time do you think you’ll get the dishes done?”

By approaching the situation from a place of respect, you’re modeling compassion and showing your child or teen that you trust them to take care of their contribution to the family “castle.”

As the Brainy Moms host, Dr. Amy Moore, points out, giving your child or teen some flexibility in getting chores done does more than just show respect and compassion for them, it also helps build an important cognitive skill.  “The fact that you ask the question, ‘What time will you get this done?’ or ‘What time can I expect that this will be done?’ actually puts the responsibility and accountability on them,” explains Dr. Moore. “And that’s an executive function to plan like that!”

3. Encourage emotional expression in girls AND boys.

It’s pretty hard to express compassion for others if you were told that emotions should be bottled up. As Donna explains, “There’s a lot of science behind the fact that girls are allowed to express their emotions via society and boys are not. Boys are allowed to show their anger, but they are not allowed to show their sadness. And so what this does to the family as our kids grow is continue the cycle that’s telling our boys that they’re not allowed to feel.”

By encouraging boys to feel and express their emotions, they’re more fully able to recognize feelings in others and respond in a way that is compassionate.

4. Explain why name-calling and exclusion can be as hurtful as hitting.

Children and young adults may not always be able to see how their actions—or those of others—can be hurtful, especially if they come in the form of name-calling, excluding someone from an activity, or even spreading rumors. 

Turn to open-ended questions that may help your child put themselves in the other person’s shoes. “How do you think Anthony feels when you tell him he can’t play catch with you and your other friends?” 

This is also a good time to teach children about reading body language and facial expressions. You can use different emojis and point out things like tears, watery eyes, pursed lips, a red face flushed from embarrassment, or even sitting with your arms crossed or running away from the situation. Again, ask open-ended questions, such as “What made you think that Ivy might be sad when you saw her after a girl called her ‘dumb’?”

5. Praise compassion when they display it.

Like any form of behavior you want to reinforce, a child demonstrating compassion should be acknowledged and praised. That’s certainly not to say that poor behavior shouldn’t be addressed; but your children can just as easily be taught through positive reinforcement. 

If you see your child displaying compassion—for a friend, family member, stranger, or even animal, celebrate it! Tell them in private how proud you are of them for making an effort to be a good friend or simply helpful and talk about how the recipient of their compassion might feel after your child extended kindness or support.

6. Demonstrate and teach that apologies are a sign of strength.

No one is perfect, including parents, and kids greatly benefit from seeing adults model apologies when they make mistakes that hurt or inconvenience others—even when it’s not intentional. 

Turn to specific examples of times you’ve made a mistake and needed to apologize, and offer an explanation as to why you felt the need to say you were sorry. For example, “I was late picking up Daddy at work today because the dog’s vet appointment ran long. Even though it was somewhat out of my control, I apologized to him because he was very tired and had to stand out in the sun to wait for me for an extra 30 minutes. I apologized to let Daddy know that his comfort and feelings are important to me and I was sad that he worked so hard all day but then didn’t get to come home and rest right away.”  

Compassionate Mindsets Come With Practice

It’s not going to happen overnight, but with small intentional changes, you and your kids can work together to grow this quality in your family.
If you want more information about creating a loving, respectful and compassionate foundation for your family, check out Donna’s episode on The Brainy Moms podcast.