The self-compassionate child: exploring how self-compassion and mindfulness enhance children’s resilience and psychosocial wellbeing

PhD Thesis

Barclay-Timmis, Victoria. 2019. The self-compassionate child: exploring how self-compassion and mindfulness enhance children’s resilience and psychosocial wellbeing. PhD Thesis Doctor of Philosophy. University of Southern Queensland.

The self-compassionate child: exploring how self-compassion and mindfulness enhance children’s resilience and psychosocial wellbeing

TypePhD Thesis
AuthorBarclay-Timmis, Victoria
SupervisorBurton, Lorelle
Beccaria, Gavin
Institution of OriginUniversity of Southern Queensland
Qualification NameDoctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages321
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Middle childhood is a period of development characterised by opportunity, challenge, and transition. Evidence suggests that interventions designed to build resilience may offer the key to promoting wellbeing and protecting children’s mental health during this period of emerging adolescence (Watson, Rich, Sanchez, O’Brien, & Alvord, 2013). In recent years, the Positive Psychology movement has brought about a shift in the popularity of psychological interventions favoured by practitioners in both mental illness and wellness fields; along with the ever-growing interest and adaptation of mindfulness-based interventions, curiosity as to the application of self-compassion has begun to proliferate the literature. However, the encouragement of children to become more self-compassionate—that is, develop a healthy self-attitude and reduce their tendency to engage in harsh self-evaluation—has yet to receive full attention within this field of research.

To fill this gap, this thesis aimed to expand the current understanding of self-compassion by examining the relevance of this construct in children in their middle years of childhood. The key terms of this paper are defined as follows. Mindfulness is understood as 'the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present' (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 822). Self-compassion is most succinctly defined as 'compassion turned inward' (Neff, 2016b, p. 265). Resilience is understood from an ecological perspective as a dynamic process of adaptation, involving interactions between a range of risk and protective factors at individual and social levels (Olssona, Bonda, Burns, Vella-Brodrickc, & Sawyer, 2003). Lastly, psychosocial wellbeing is also defined from an ecological orientation, encompassing social aspects as well as life satisfaction and positive and negative affect (Keyes, 2006).

This research was conducted in two main phases via a mixed-method design. Phase 1 involved the design, delivery, and evaluation of the Peace by Piece program, a 10-week group-therapy program designed to teach skills of mindfulness and self-compassion to children, with an accompanying parent, in a clinical setting (Study 1). Participating children’s ages ranged from 7-9 years. Program evaluation was conducted both qualitatively and quantitatively. Findings provided strong support for the feasibility of this novel group-therapy intervention. Acceptability was high
and attrition rates low; satisfaction surveys indicated that the program content, duration, format and delivery were well received. Efficacy data suggested that this group intervention brought about a range of benefits for child participants. For example, thematic analysis revealed that children’s wellbeing and resilience were positively influenced primarily via improvements in emotion regulation. Benefits for parent participants included an expanding capacity for emotion regulation leading to less reactive parenting and improved parent-child relationships.

Encouraging findings from Study 1 provided the platform to commence the second phase of the research, which involved quantitative data collection for Study 2. Study 2 had two main aims. The first aim was to design and pilot test two-new measures of self-compassion for preadolescents (defined in this study as children aged 9-12 years). The newly developed Self-Compassion Scale-Preadolescent (SCS-P) and the Self-Compassion Scale-Preadolescent-Parent Report (SCS-P-PR) were both were modelled from Neff’s Self-Compassion Scale (SCS; 2003b). The second aim of Study 2 was to examine the relationships between self-compassion, mindfulness, and a range of psychosocial indicators of wellbeing and resilience in preadolescents. To this end, the SCS-P and SCS-P-PR, along with a battery of self-report measures designed to measure psychosocial wellbeing and resilience, were administered to 193 Year 5 and 6 students aged 9-12 years and 108 parents from five schools in the Toowoomba region of South-East Queensland.

Findings from Part A of Study 2 indicated that the SCS-P and the SCS-P-PR were both psychometrically reliable and valid measures of self-compassion for preadolescent children. However, current results did not support the use of a total score as an overall indicator of self-compassion. Such findings are in contrast to the current recommended practice when scoring and interpreting the SCS (Neff, 2003b, 2016b; Neff et al., 2019). Rather, results indicated that both measures tapped into two statistically and theoretically distinct constructs: the tendency to respond to the self with compassion (termed ‘compassionate self-responding’), and the tendency to respond to the self in a negative fashion (termed ‘uncompassionate self-responding’).

Findings further revealed that compassionate self-responding and uncompassionate self-responding were both significant predictors of the majority of psychosocial wellbeing and resilience variables in preadolescent children. Compassionate self-responding was the strongest unique predictor for resilience and the positive indicators of psychosocial wellbeing (i.e., positive affect, satisfaction with life, and prosocial behaviour). Meanwhile, uncompassionate self-responding was the strongest unique predictor for the negative indicators of psychosocial wellbeing (i.e., negative affect and psychosocial difficulties). It was theorised that that that the tendency to treat the self with kindness and acceptance is linked to positive interactions and feelings towards others, which can lead to a greater sense of resilience and satisfaction with life. Meanwhile, the tendency to treat the self with judgement and non-acceptance is more closely linked to a reduced sense of psychosocial wellbeing.

The finding that both the positive and negative elements of self-compassion simultaneously, yet independently, influence preadolescent resilience and psychosocial wellbeing led to a series of mediation analyses (Part B of Study 2). Results were consistent with the conceptualisation of compassionate self-responding as a protective ‘buffer’, that can reduce the detrimental impacts of uncompassionate self-responding on psychosocial wellbeing, and uncompassionate self-responding as a vulnerability factor, that weakens resilience and psychosocial wellbeing, even when compassionate self-responding is present. Together, findings from Study 2 suggest that it is equally important to teach preadolescent children how to reduce their propensity for harsh self-evaluation, whilst also encouraging the development of compassionate self-responding.

Findings from Study 1 and Study 2 contribute valuable new knowledge to the field of self-compassion as well as point to directions for future research. Importantly, this thesis was the first to report on a group-therapy intervention targeting self-compassion in a clinical group of children. Results suggest self-compassion is a relevant, and potentially highly efficacious, target for intervention when working with this cohort. Findings strongly support the ongoing development and evaluation of interventions designed to improve self-compassion within this cohort.

Furthermore, this thesis was the first to design and pilot-test a parent-reported measure of self-compassion, the SCS-P-PR. Significant, moderate correlations between the SCS-P-PR and SCS-P for both the positive and negative aspects of self-compassion (r =.30 and .40 respectively), suggested that self-compassionate attitudes and behaviours in children are, to some extent, visible to their parents. Validation of the SCS-P-PR—and the SCS-P self-report measure—represent unique and valuable contributions to the toolbox of assessments available for the assessment of preadolescents. Should future validation research replicate the promising psychometric findings described herein, the SCS-P and SCS-P-PR can be adopted by researchers interested in expanding the knowledge regarding the predictors of self-compassion in preadolescent children, as well as factors that may mediate or moderate outcomes. The measures may also be used for applied purposes, such as the evaluation of group-based interventions targeting the promotion of self-compassion within this cohort.

Finally, this research adds to the growing body of literature that cautions against the common practice of viewing self-compassion as one overarching construct (as originally articulated by Neff, 2003a). Rather, the findings from this research support the contention (e.g., Brenner, Heath, Vogel, & Crede, 2017) that self-compassion is best understood as two separate—and equally important—constructs, termed by this research compassionate self-responding and uncompassionate self-responding. Thus, a comprehensive assessment of self-compassion in the preadolescent age-range entails recognising the role of these constructs in both protecting, and increasing vulnerability to, a variety of psychological outcomes. Meanwhile, the assessment of self-compassion can be further enhanced via administration of a parent-reported measure, such as the SCS-P-PR.

Future research is recommended to take a qualitative approach, in order to deepen the understanding of how compassionate and uncompassionate aspects of self-responding interact and influence mental health and wellness within young people.

Keywordsself-compassion, mindfulness, child, preadolesent, resilience, wellbeing
ANZSRC Field of Research 2020520399. Clinical and health psychology not elsewhere classified
Byline AffiliationsSchool of Psychology and Counselling
Journal TitleBMC Health Services Research journal
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