Applying self-compassion to parenting can be incredibly valuable, according to psychologist and author Kristin Neff, Ph.D, in her book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
It’s especially helpful if you’re raising a child who’s under 5. As Neff writes, “Raising infants and toddlers, with their constant need for supervision, picky food habits, tantrums, not to mention dirty diapers, has to be one of the most challenging jobs around.”
In Self-Compassion, Neff shares the work of Australian psychologist Rebecca Coleman, Ph.D. Coleman has developed a parenting program called Mindful Awareness Parenting (MAP). It teaches parents mindfulness and self-compassion skills and helps them make good decisions in tough situations.
Neff explains that MAP also teaches parents to empathize with their kids, and help them nurture their kids’ needs.
Specifically, in order to respond to your child’s needs, it’s important to be fully present — body and mind. This helps you build a secure attachment, the best kind of connection you can have with your child. According to Coleman on her website:
“Children learn about themselves by the way we communicate with them. For children between birth and five years this is mostly non-verbal, so they need to see our eyes & face which mirror that they are worthy of our kind attention, love & delight. Our loving presence enables our children to experience being protected and understood which builds their confidence and trust in life. Fifty years of research supports the long-term benefits of having a secure attachment relationship with Parents and Caregivers. Secure attachment is formed when we sensitively and consistently respond to our child’s relationship needs with strength and kindness (‘tuned in’ or ‘attuned’). When we are preoccupied with the past or worried about the future (in ‘automatic pilot’), we are physically present with our children but are mentally absent. Children do not need us to be fully available all the time, but they do need our presence during connecting interactions. This includes needing to be welcomed by us when frightened or supported to explore their environment when curious (attachment & exploration needs).”
Mindfulness and self-compassion also help to repair your relationship when you inevitably make mistakes. Coleman writes:
“Being a Mindful Parent means having intention in our actions so we can purposefully choose our behaviour with our child’s emotional & social well-being in mind. Parental self-compassion helps our children to learn that perfection is not the goal and rewards are not just for perfect jobs. Repairing relationship disconnections is the key to being a ‘Good Enough’ Parent, which basically means making mistakes with our children and knowing how to fix them. With mindfulness & self-compassion we can repair relationship disconnections with our children, which is a crucial aspect of developing secure attachment relationships with our children. ”
Helping Your Child Express His or Her Feelings
When their kids have an outburst, many parents give them a “time-out.” Neff, however, suggests giving your kids a “time-in.” In her book she includes a helpful exercise based on Coleman’s MAP protocol. It aims to help your child process “big feelings,” such as a tantrum or crying.
When kids misbehave, sometimes it’s because they’re seeking support and connection, Neff explains. This exercise helps you connect to your child and teaches them to express their emotions healthfully.
According to Neff, this exercise “allows your child’s feelings to ‘be felt’ and accepted. It shows your child that you are willing to help him and that your love means you will be welcoming and accepting of his emotions – even difficult ones.”
Neff gives the following suggestions for creating a “time-in”:
- First, make sure you’re calm yourself. This way, you can truly tend to your child’s needs. If you’re not, tell your child that you’ll need 10 seconds to calm down.
- Have a specific spot for “time-in,” like a chair or cushion you can move throughout the house. Both you and your child will sit there.
- Invite your child to come to this spot. “If he is emotionally out of control and presents a danger to others, he may need help getting there.”
- Keep your tone “firm, reassuring and kind.” Be sensitive and sympathetic. Try to be present, in the moment.
- Observe your child closely and try to figure out the feelings and meaning beneath their behavior.
- Help your child describe their feelings when they’re finally relatively calm. Neff suggests saying something like: “You look like you’re struggling with this …” or “This looks hard for you; are you angry/afraid/sad?”
- Wait for your answer, and listen intently. “Acknowledge and accept the answer (or lack thereof).”
- Share your own feelings, using sentences such as “When you did _______, I felt _______ (emotion) arising in me.” Try to convey your feelings in a straightforward but non-blaming way.
- When your child is calm, help them find another activity to do, or continue with your plans, such as eating dinner or going to bed.