Teaching a child to be compassionate to a sick family member

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There will be times when a parent, a sibling or a grandparent falls ill. This is inevitable. And too often, it seems, I hear of children and teens behaving with purely selfish motives and an absence of compassion for the sick or failing family member. This may include complaints about how their life is affected or getting angry because an event is missed. At other times, this can take the form of mean-spirited comments about the sick or injured family member. Regardless, this is often frustrating for parents who want to see more compassion and understanding, rather than self-centered reaction.

Compassion is a learned process
At times, we find compassion and empathy in children, which seems to be a genetic attribute. These children have always been that way toward others and often toward animals and insects as well. However, this is not typically the case. More often, compassion is a learned attribute, as are many character traits. And at times, that learning is a slow process, depending upon the experiences a child has encountered. When a child has been bullied, raised in an atmosphere of anger or aggression, or has experienced pain themselves without adult compassion, these experiences create obstacles to compassion. Yet, the research suggests that we can overcome these obstacles. Let’s examine ways to teach children compassion in the face of family or friends who are sick or disabled.

Teaching compassion for the sick or suffering
1. Be compassionate. If children habitually see compassion in parents, this modeling process has a profound impact upon a child’s view of the world. In fact, this is most important. Here’s the rub: I find many parents who talk compassionately in one moment, yet judge harshly in the next moment. This doesn’t work. In almost every moment of judgment, we are turning away from compassion, and you can’t have it both ways. If you want your children to be compassionate, commit to a life where you seek first to understand and empathize, before commenting in a judgmental way.
2. Include acts of compassion. The literature is clear: We must not just talk compassion, we must actually show this in our actions. What makes the difference is when your children see you giving extra, taking the time to help or stopping your day to lend a hand. Action, not words, is what really matters. This is particularly true in relation to the sick or suffering. Make sure you bring the children along to spend time at the nursing home or to help as you assist someone who is sick. This “being an active part of” is key to a child’s integration of empathy.
3. Make sure your child gets compassion. When your child is struggling or hurt, make sure they receive compassion. Express your sorrow at their pain, but also assert that “you will get through this.” Don’t try to fix it. And do be clear about the difference between real pain or struggle, and drama. Too many children get attention for drama-based reactions, which should not get compassion. These should be ignored!
4. Watch or read about compassionate action. Engage the children in movies and stories that support compassion. This is the opposite of a video game focused on aggression and winning. Every experience teaches your child a lesson, be it large or small. Thus, if compassion for the sick or suffering is important to you, make sure that you include lessons on compassion.
5. Teach mini-meditations on compassion. Given the research on teaching compassion, it makes sense to spend a few moments daily meditating on compassion directed toward the sick or on a loved one of most concern. One simple daily exercise would be to pause before bedtime and, with eyes closed, hold that person in mind. Then, with your child, repeat the following simple statement: “May you feel better and be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” When you do this for a few minutes, there is a natural easefulness and calm that unfolds, and the consistent use of this meditation has proven to alter the brain. It is powerful. I encourage you to take advantage of each of these simple steps in your home. There are always those who are struggling or sick who can use our extra care and compassion. Inevitably, this will surely come around to serve you and your children.
Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit TerrificParenting.com.

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