You may well subscribe to the aim of spreading kindness like confetti… but when it comes to being kinder to yourself how do you fare? When you struggle as a parent, how do you treat yourself? Do you tend to criticize yourself for not living up to your own expectations or do you treat yourself with compassion? Read educational psychology researcher Phoebe Long’s advice on how we can learn to be kinder to ourselves through self-compassionate parenting.
A large body of research shows that treating ourselves with compassion when life feels hard, while contrary to instinct, can help us regulate our emotions, act skillfully in our relationships, and reduce parenting stress. Modelling a kind attitude towards yourself in front of your children may encourage them to be more self-compassionate as well.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion simply refers to treating yourself like a good friend, particularly during painful moments. Kristin Neff, pioneering self-compassion researcher, describes three key components of this way of relating to the self: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. Mindfulness involves recognizing one’s experience without avoiding or exaggerating it; common humanity refers to understanding that you are not alone when you struggle or feel inadequate; and self-kindness means self-soothing through self-talk and physical gesture.
We could all stand to be more self-compassionate when things don’t go our way. For children, developing a kind attitude towards themselves can promote resilience to the inevitable challenges of life, such as academic obstacles, difficult emotions, and trying relationships. In adults, self-compassion is linked to less anxiety and depression and more happiness and life satisfaction—all the more reason to teach our children self-compassion and to practice it ourselves!
Becoming more self-compassionate
One of my favorite practices from Kristin Neff and Chris Germer’s Mindful Self-Compassion Program is the self-compassion break. You can find other practices on Dr. Neff’s website at www.self-compassion.org. The self-compassion break can be practiced in a few seconds or a few minutes, meaning you can do it during a difficult situation (e.g. when your child is throwing a tantrum) or if you are able, during a short, private moment. The break simply involves cultivating the three dimensions of self-compassion:
1. Mindfulness. Recognizing you’re having difficulty, whether it’s in reaction to a child’s tantrum or a difficult moment at work, is an important step towards treating yourself kindly. Mindfulness involves noting your experience objectively, without either ruminating on or attempting to avoid the difficulty. To do so, you can try to locate where in your body you feel tension—in your chest, your face, your shoulders? You can say to yourself—“this is hard right now” or “this is a moment of suffering.”
2. Common humanity is the recognition that you are not alone in your difficult moment. You can imagine that of the millions of parents in the world, you are not the only one to feel inadequate, to struggle with a child, or to feel sometimes that life is imperfect! You can say “This is what it’s like to struggle” or “Other people have felt this way, too.”
3. Self-kindness involves actively soothing yourself and wishing for the alleviation of your suffering. You might place a hand on your cheek, your heart, or some other comforting place. You can also say, “May I be happy,” “May I get through this,” or any other phrase that feels kind and caring to you.
For children, teenagers, and adults it may be easier to access self-compassion by imagining what a good friend or family member might say if you told them about a difficulty you are experiencing.
A self-compassion letter writing activity can be found here.
Why we need self-compassion
As humans, we will inevitably face challenges, disappointments, and feelings of inadequacy throughout our lifetime. However, we can choose to reduce our suffering, rather than exacerbate it, by treating ourselves kindly during life’s difficult moments. As parents, self-compassion can help you model to your children that life’s challenges can be opportunities for growth rather than obstacles to be avoided.
Phoebe Long is a doctoral candidate in the Educational Psychology program at The University of Texas-Austin. Her research centers on how self-compassion may help students manage their emotions and motivation in academic settings. You can learn more about her work at www.Phoebe-Long.com.