During the toughest parenting moments, it’s important to take care of yourself, too.
When it comes to your kids, you might bash yourself for all sorts of situations, slip-ups, and shattered expectations:
- yelling at your tantruming toddler
- letting your kids use their iPads (for hours)
- letting work encroach on the weekend
- not getting them to eat more (or any!) fruits and vegetables
- realizing you’re not the super fun, creative parent you imagined you’d be
According to psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD, today’s parents feel a great deal of pressure to give their kids everything — from the best nutrition to intellectual stimulation to creative experiences — “while delivering the right amount of screen time, discipline, boundaries, and attention.”
In other words, coming up short isn’t some obvious sign that you’re a subpar parent; it means the bar is “unreasonably high” — and the resources too few, says Howes, author of the book, “Mental Health Journal for Men: Creative Prompts, Practices, and Exercises to Bolster Wellness.”
Maybe you realize that current standards are unrealistic, but you still can’t stop criticizing yourself. For many of us, being kind — or just not harsh — to ourselves is hard. But it is vital.
Particularly during the pandemic, being self-compassionate is critical. Many parents tell psychologist Susan M. Pollak, MTS, EdD, that their situation —trying to juggle it all, staying up well into the morning to get everything done — is unsustainable. They feel overwhelmed, stuck, and depressed. Add self-criticism to this, and we’re utterly depleted.
As Pollak writes in her book “Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself“: “The research suggests that when we criticize ourselves we trigger an increase in adrenaline, blood pressure, and cortisol.”
However, she notes, practicing self-compassion triggers “an increase in the release of oxytocin, the ‘tend and befriend’ or bonding hormone, which also increases feelings of calmness, safety, and generosity.”
This is the same reason self-criticism doesn’t motivate change or spark growth — contrary to popular belief. Judging and shaming ourselves activates our amygdala — the body’s threat system — which leads us to shut down or hide (or, in some cases, lash out), says psychologist Whitney Dicterow, PsyD.
When love, acceptance, and support activate our prefrontal cortex or soothing system, Dicterow says, we become open to learning, bonding, and growth. In short, “If you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear.”
We also don’t make the best decisions for our children when we’re parenting from a place of self-criticism and shame.
According to Howes, we might buy them too many toys, throw lavish birthday parties, and do things for them that they can do themselves. “When you over-function for your child, it actually teaches them to have less faith in their abilities.”
According to Pollak, self-compassion “is simply caring for ourselves the same way we would if a loved one was struggling.” Of course, this isn’t so simple when we’re used to criticizing ourselves all the time.
These seven strategies can help even the most unseasoned of us to practice self-kindness.
Acknowledge the struggle
Pollak suggests using this 2-minute practice to honor and validate your feelings and remind yourself that other parents feel the same way (especially now!).
Start by saying: “This is hard, really, really hard.” Next, say: “Parenting is full of tough moments. I’m not alone.”
Lastly, put your hands over your heart and say: “Let me be kind to myself.” Or if that feels difficult, try: “Let me aspire to be kind to myself.” Revise any of these statements so they feel authentic to you.
Discuss the realities of parenting
Talking honestly about parenting is another way to realize you’re not alone in your struggles and slipups, and we’re “all pretty similar,” says Howes. “Everyone has a boiling point, everyone gets exhausted at times, everyone has a parenting pet peeve.”
Use supportive self-talk
When you notice that you’re judging yourself, acknowledge that it hurts — and then change your inner dialogue to a kind, caring message, says Dicterow.
If you’re not sure what this actually sounds like, use language that “a wise and nurturing friend, parent, teacher, or mentor [would] use to gently point out how your behavior is unproductive, while simultaneously encouraging you to do something different.”
For example, Dicterow says, if you think you’re a bad parent for yelling at your child and not controlling your anger, you tell yourself: “Yelling felt awful, and parenting is tough! Now thinking about it, I lost my temper because I’m short on sleep, and I was trying to meet a work deadline, while my child was jumping around and screaming. So I don’t keep yelling, I can identify the early signs of my overwhelm and ways I can unwind every day. Now, I’ll take a walk and then apologize.”
Do a ‘good enough’ job
Being a perfect parent who responds to their child’s every need actually “prevents [kids] from building up resilience, self-soothing skills, and creative ways to solve their own problems,” says Howes.
Instead, the key is to be a “good enough” parent — a concept that comes from the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who coined the term “good enough mother.”
This means that you meet many of your child’s needs for love, attention, and validation, says Howes, but you might forget their favorite crackers, miss game night because of work, or not let them go to a party because you can’t give them a ride.
Experiencing minor disappointments helps your kids to learn to tolerate distress and grow stronger.
Chart your growth
Instead of comparing yourself to others or social media images, which only boosts self-criticism and shame, focus on the lessons you’ve learned in the past year, Howes says.
For example, one of his clients thought it was her job to make all her daughter’s meals. She learned “that she wanted to be needed, but her child was actually happy to have more responsibility and did a pretty good job doing this for herself.”
Create self-care moments
When we’re emotionally and physically depleted, it’s very hard to be the parent we want to be, says Dicterow. Which is why taking care of yourself is so important.
Of course, when your kids are constantly at home, your self-care may look different. For example, Dicterow notes, you might savor a book and hot cup of tea, meditate for a few minutes, or do a 10-minute yoga video.
Root into connection
When you feel isolated or need guidance, try this Tibetan-inspired practice from Pollak’s book for parents:
- Feel the weight and solidity of your body, letting yourself feel grounded and connected to the earth.
- Imagine that you have roots that go deeply into the earth and are connected to the core of your body.
- Feel yourself being anchored and steady.
- Imagine that branches with leaves and blossoms reach above your head to the sky. In the branches of your tree, there are faces of teachers, loved ones, sages, and saints.
- Feel your connection to each person, taking in their love, compassion, and wisdom.
Being kind to yourself might not come naturally, but the more you practice, the easier it will become. And if you’re not sure if you actually deserve it, remind yourself that self-compassion helps you learn, grow, and become a better parent.
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a freelance writer and associate editor at PsychCentral.com. She’s been writing about mental health, psychology, body image, and self-care for over a decade. She lives in Florida with her husband and their daughter. You can learn more at www.margaritatartakovsky.com.