As a homebound parent with a preschooler, I’ve had emotional highs and lows during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve felt sad and worried about how many people are becoming ill, and confounded as I’ve tried to juggle homeschooling and my work responsibilities.
But I’ve also felt gratitude for kindnesses that have punctuated so many of my days, like when a neighbor left herbs from her garden at my gate or when a faraway friend I hadn’t heard from in years sent text messages of love.
These experiences have affirmed for me that when times are tough, our common human response is to show compassion.
We often assume that emergencies lead to panic, but research consistently shows that people tend to act in solidarity with a sense of togetherness. They volunteer, donate supplies, and spread goodwill, strengthening social bonds and helping everyone be resilient together.
“Affiliative, supportive, prosocial behaviors are more common, where widespread sickness and debility evoke acts of mutual aid among members of a community in crisis,” explains Steven Taylor, professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in his book The Psychology of Pandemics.
Compassion—noticing others suffering and being motivated to provide relief to them—grows early in life. Five-month-old babies prefer helpers over hinderers. When babies between eight and 10 months old see people bump their knees or hurt their fingers, they already show the seeds of empathy with facial expressions, vocalizations, and gestures that reflect concern and a desire to understand others’ distress. By 14 months old, toddlers help others by handing them objects out of reach.
How can parents help their children realize their instinctual capacity for compassion during the COVID-19 pandemic? Scientists have suggested three ways children develop compassion that are relevant to these times.
1. Show Compassion to Kids so They Experience It
During the pandemic, many of our children feel uncertain amid the upheaval, just like us parents. They miss school, their friends, and playing sports. For young children who don’t have the breadth of words to express their worries and fears, or older children who don’t have the emotional agility to get through tough moments, it can be overwhelming.
Our kids may be irritable or have more meltdowns and tantrums than usual. But rather than seeing children as uncooperative, parents can consider whether their children’s behavior is simply a sign of suffering.
If we offer children warmth and tenderness when their routines are gone, we can help soothe them. Parents can extend compassion by making space to help their children become better aware of and process their feelings. Acknowledging and being sensitive to our children’s emotions can act as a salve and help them to see that this moment of hardship will eventually pass.
Parents can also frequently talk to their children about all the members of their extended family and broader community who have cared for them both recently and in the past. For example, parents can tell and retell their children stories of neighbors who brought gift baskets after their pet died or dropped off dinners when a grandparent was in the hospital. These conversations serve to remind children that they are connected to a network of people who are a generous source of compassion from which they can draw strength during times of suffering.
When children receive compassion, the have a first-hand experience of what it feels like.
2. Teach Kids to Practice Self-Compassion
In turn, just as children receive compassion from parents, they can also learn to offer it to themselves.
When children are having a hard time during the pandemic, parents can encourage them to listen and respond to their bodies and minds with greater awareness, acceptance, and kindness. For example, parents of older children can teach them to take self-compassion breaks to pause and notice their suffering amid stressful moments.
For younger children, this might mean guiding them to first pause and notice their tense muscles, rapid heartbeats, and racing thoughts. Ask them to recognize that they’re having a moment of hardship and children all over the world are having these kinds of moments, too. Teach them to breathe deeply from their bellies and offer themselves words of tenderness such as “May I feel calm.”
Parents can also encourage their younger children to cultivate self-compassion by helping them plan enjoyable activities to look forward to after a hard day of home schooling or after realizing summer vacation plans are canceled.
Self-compassion allows children to process and cope with difficult emotions. Eventually, it can help them see their common humanity—that everyone suffers sometimes—and know that it’s all right to feel bad.
Tending to their intense emotions helps children feel restored and renewed, which in turn prepares them to serve others. Overwhelming personal distress can make children singularly self-focused and less able to attend to others’ suffering. Self-compassion practices can help them think of others and extend compassion to them.
3. Encourage Kids to Extend Compassion to Others
During the coronavirus pandemic, even though children are inclined to help, it can be hard for them to know exactly what they can do.
Children can start with small acts of compassion with the family—sending kind thoughts to essential workers, regularly FaceTiming with isolated, older, or immunocompromised family members, or helping gather canned goods for the local food bank. Parents can also review ideas suggested on the website of Youth Service America to help inspire children toward compassionate acts.
Research suggests that small differences in language matter when we’re encouraging our kids to help. Parents can nurture the motivation of young children by inviting them to “be a helper,” which can instill in them a compassionate self-identity. But there’s a catch: When tasks are too difficult and children experience a setback, those who were asked to “be a helper” are less likely to try to help again compared to children who were simply asked “to help.” So, in circumstances when children might not succeed at helping with something, it’s better to just ask them “to help.”
Even young children have undoubtedly picked up on their radar that life right now is quite a bit different than it used to be. What if this pandemic became an opportunity for them to learn that being human during hard times involves transformation and resilience, and that compassion helps us all to thrive?
Maryam Abdullah, Ph.D., is the parenting program director of the Greater Good Science Center. She is a developmental psychologist with expertise in parent-child relationships and children’s development of prosocial behaviors. This article was originally published on The Greater Good Magazine online.