As a mom, teacher, friend of lots of moms, I too often hear about our failures as parents. ‘I should have worked harder on helping them with those skills’, or ‘I lost my temper when he had a meltdown at the shops’, or ‘I so regret the things I have said to my little girl’. It is natural to want to be kind and compassionate to our children. It is a given that we will provide support and direction to those we are nurturing. But what about doing the same for ourselves?
I listened to a talk recently by Dr. Kristen Neff, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. I would love to share a few gems that she presented about self-compassion and how it can make us better parents. I see so many exhausted parents due to the amount of time and effort they give to their children. You need to look after yourselves as well!
When a child is melting down, we need to be compassionate to ourselves as well. We need to turn the lens of our kindness and support inward, and not always to the child. We need to acknowledge the difficulties it can be to parent or we will burn out and become frustrated.
This is a mind shift. We have to give ourselves permission to care for ourselves, and as a result, this gives us more room to include others too.
When there is a problem, the usual strategy is to think that we need to ‘fix it’. When there is a problem, we can feel threatened and we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.
If we feel that the problem is ‘us’, we fight ourselves to reduce the threat and try to control everything in the way we think is best. Or we flee and hide, isolating ourselves in shame. Or we freeze, ruminating on things, and getting stuck in our thinking.
It is natural to want to fix the problem to feel safe. But we have a natural, inbuilt safety system - this is our attachment system where the art of parenting comes from. When we feel connected, feel touch, or hear a warm tone of voice, we naturally feel safe. It is natural to use this safety system for our children. Some of us were brought up by our own parents with the attitude of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’. This was used to belittle and threaten. We are now aware that nurturing warmth and kindness is more supportive. We have moved onto parenting in this way, but we continue to use the ‘rod’ for ourselves too often! We need to unconditionally love ourselves. We need to give ourselves support so we can be a good parent to our children. We cannot give what we don’t have.
Our human brain is designed for empathetic resonance. We are able to feel the emotions of others. We tune into what other people are feeling, which allows us to cooperate and survive. We are so connected to our children we feel their pain. When our child is going through hard times, we are literally feeling the hurt of our child. We too often forget that our children also have empathetic resonance. If we are being harsh to ourselves, if we are feeling shame, then our child is picking up on that. This empathetic resonance happens pre-verbally. Children tune into us, and we can help our child regulate their emotions if we can regulate our emotions.
When you are next feeling upset over your child’s behaviour, or the situation, and your child is struggling, turn 95% of the attention to yourself, comfort yourself, and think, ‘I am here for me’. In this way, you will be more able to be there for your child, and give him or her kindness and warmth. When your child is with someone who is peaceful and full of love, they will be able to calm down more easily.
The greater the challenges of the child, the greater is the need for self-compassion. A child with high needs can quickly suck the energy out of a caregiver.
How do we practice self-compassion? First of all, we have to be aware that we are struggling. Dr. Neff said that the human brain does not really differentiate between self-touch and touch from others, so go ahead, and give yourself a hug, or put your hand on your face. Talk nicely to yourself as well. Think of what you would say to a friend in this situation? We are often so harsh to ourselves, and say things to ourselves that we would never say to others.
We also tell ourselves that everyone else has it together. Everyone struggles, all parents have difficulties with their children, whether it is for health issues, mental challenges, or behavioural issues. The fact that each parent has problems they have to face with their children should unite us – we should not feel judged by others, but should be able to share and feel supported.
The end quote from the talk was: ‘Best thing I ever did for my child was to give myself self-compassion, so I had the gift of connection and presence for my child’.
Give yourself permission to be compassionate to yourself!
If you wish to read more about Dr. Neff’s work visit her at SelfCompassion.org
Having summarized Dr. Neff, I have kept to what she has said, but would like to add to this. As God’s child, I rely on Him, and not myself. I cannot fix my children or myself without His guidance and love. When I am battling, I ask God for His direction, His wisdom. Our God, who is so full of compassion, passes His peace onto the situation and me. We are broken, and for a broken person to fix a broken situation seems so much harder than just asking God to give me guidance and support, so the God of compassion helps me be compassionate to me, His creation.
The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. — Psalm 116:5