The Most Valuable Tool in the Parenting Toolkit? Self-Compassion

Can there be a more joyful event—or a more stressful one—than the birth of your first child? A brand-new parent, staring down at this tiny, vulnerable, squalling bundle, may be overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, even terror! Where the heck is the owner’s manual?? I might break it!

Now compound that with the pressures from social media (all those glowing pictures of seemingly perfect families!), rapidly evolving technologies, a society in turmoil, feelings of isolation…it’s enough to make anyone anxious. No wonder that a first-time parent, especially one who might be barely out of childhood herself, sometimes reacts to the stress with grief or anger—anger that is often directed inward over perceived mistakes or failings.

So the first thing I want to say to every single new mom and dad on the planet is: There is no such thing as a perfect parent! Cut yourself some slack!

Parenting is the most important job we’ll ever do, and it requires seemingly endless energy, creativity, and self-confidence. But you can only summon up all those qualities—and teach your child to be kind, to make good choices, and to have compassion for others—when you learn to be kind and compassionate to yourself.

Practicing self-compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for yourself, and it doesn’t mean lounging on the couch in your bathrobe with a bowl of Froot Loops. As self-compassion researcher and professor Kristin Neff has noted, self-compassion means:

  • Forgiving yourself for your mistakes, while learning from them
  • Understanding that we’re all imperfect human beings
  • Slowing down to observe your own thoughts and feelings, without judgment or denial (mindfulness)

In other words, self-compassion means showing the same care and concern to yourself that you would show to a friend.

The idea of focusing on yourself and your needs may seem like a rogue idea—aren’t we always supposed to put our children first? Yes and no. Yes, we need to protect and safeguard our children. But we must be healthy ourselves in order to offer our children the good parenting they deserve, and to teach them the emotional intelligence (EQ) skills they will need to flourish in life.

Honestly, babies are getting an education in EQ the minute they’re born: They cry, we look at them. They smile, we respond in kind. Even a non-verbal infant is internalizing emotions from the get-go. So how can we, as stressed-out, over-tired parents, develop our own EQ skills in order to pass them on to our children?

  1. Stop, look, and listen—to yourself. Self-awareness is key. What events are triggering your insecurities or your anger? Which ones bring you joy? Learning to anticipate and recognize your own feelings, rather than just reacting emotionally in the moment, can allow you to tell yourself, “This is a really difficult moment and it’s pushing all my buttons—but I’m not a bad person for feeling this way. I’m human. And this is temporary.”
  2. Think about what kind of parent you want to be. What parenting models did you have—and do you want to embrace them or reject them? You have the freedom to choose. What hopes and dreams do you have for your children? Keep your eye on the big picture: It can keep you from feeling overwhelmed by the minutiae of the day-to-day.
  3. Identify your support network. Who do you talk to? Do you have a sibling, a parent, a friend, a colleague, a religious leader—someone in your corner? It’s important to have an escape valve so you can let off some steam, and a cheerleader to share your joys. Whether it’s an in-person lunch, a FaceTime call, or a chat on social media, a talk with a caring adult can give you a valuable sense of perspective.
  4. Connect with each other. Given the pace of life these days, particularly as your kids get older and have more activities, it can be difficult to find the time to be truly present with each other. But it’s so critical. Once a day, put the phones and devices away, put the work and homework aside, turn off the TV. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Share the highs and the lows. Read a book together. Play a game. Just. Connect.
  5. Be open to your kids’ feelings—and your own. Sometimes we inadvertently shut down communication with our children, dismissing their concerns or fears when we say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of” or “Don’t cry.” But we’ve all had concerns and fears of our own—so validate your kids’ feelings by sharing your own stories. That time you were left off the sports team, or a teacher embarrassed you in class, or you fell while learning to ride a bike. Showing empathy for your child’s experience helps them develop empathy toward others—and this is a major step on the road to emotional intelligence.
  6. Forgive yourself. The one constant in parenting is…we’re gonna make mistakes. Sometimes we harbor guilt for years over the terrible things we think we’ve done—but don’t do it! Guilt is a poison, and there’s nothing productive about it. The mistake is in the past; think about what you can learn from it, forgive yourself, and move forward.

Self-compassion and mindfulness are not just mind games we play: Research shows that these approaches can actually reduce parental stress and enable parents to be more connected, more adaptive to their children’s needs. These parents, in turn, are more likely to raise mindful, compassionate children—it’s truly a gift that keeps on giving.