What are your parenting goals for the new year? To spend more loving moments one-on-one with your family members? To be more consistent with your limit-setting? Sleep more and view screens less? These are all really good goals.
However, most New Year’s resolutions don’t work. Why? Because they are too big and unachievable. As you’ve probably read from the huge number of books and articles published recently, habits can be very hard to change. And the more stressors you have in your life, the more challenge you will experience with building your virtue quotient.
Between the strife of parenting challenges in “normal” times and the extraordinary stressors associated with the pandemic, who has the bandwidth for changing health habits? It’s like expecting to remodel a wrecked house in the midst of a hurricane.
That’s why my favorite New Year’s resolution is the Compassion Challenge — offering ourselves more self-compassion. Argh! — I’m hearing the groans among readers as I write this. Oh, that again. For many people, self-compassion sounds lightweight, New Age-y and even self-indulgent.
Put simply, self-compassion is giving yourself comfort and kindness when you feel badly about your behavior, life problems or personal shortcomings. Instead of self-criticism or ignoring your pain, you accept imperfections and the inevitability of disappointments.
There is enormous resistance to focusing on self-compassion among parents. The sections below present the excellent points parents have made about how hard it is to offer more compassion to both themselves and their children. They start with, “Self-compassion sounds good, but …” Listed below are the very valid “Yes, but’s” and my responses.
Yes, but self-compassion seems like one more burden.
During a webinar on pandemic parenting I conducted last fall, a mom had a mini-tantrum (on the screen). She screamed, “Self-care! Self-care! I’m sick of hearing that advice. It’s just one more thing I’m not doing that I get to feel guilty about!”
I wanted to hug this mom. I get it! When someone suggests that I do more stuff that’s good for me, I want to scream, too. It means others don’t understand that I’m already doing the best I can. I scold myself plenty as it is, so another “should” from an outside chorus can really bug me.
Parents yearn for some new trick that will make life with kids more pleasant, rewarding and smooth-sailing. Believe it or not, practicing self-compassion will do just that. But we tend to be resistant to this idea, because when our misery button gets pushed, we want change!
Parents have suffered hugely from pandemic stress due to the demands of work at home, homeschooling and isolation, all of which elevated to a fever pitch our worry about child mental health and lost opportunities. The most common concern I have heard from parents about their parenting was that their stress manifested in irritability, disconnection and reactive negativity — especially in the forms of criticism, shaming and yelling.
Yes, but shouldn’t I want to change my bad parenting habits?
A normal response to our own bad habits is “I need to change.” A natural appraisal of our children’s bad habits is that they need to change. It feels counter-intuitive to first summon thoughts of acceptance before you contemplate options for change strategies. Dialectical Behavior Therapy refers to this dilemma as the “dialectic of change.”’
What the heck is the dialectic of change and what does it have to do with parenting? As I explain in my book “Wise-Minded Parenting,” the dialectic of change refers to the balancing of the two opposites, acceptance and change. It embraces both, but the emphasis on acceptance is greater.
Yes, but how can I both accept myself for yelling and focus on my need to change?
Imagine an internal dialogue you might have about yelling at the kids. You accept that yelling at kids for naughty behaviors is quite understandable and you also want to change.
You comfort yourself with reassurance that you are working hard to do what you do all day. Your “to do” list is enormous, and the kids’ undesirable behaviors get on your nerves intensely. Reacting to stressors is natural, and you’d like to respond differently. You want less suffering for yourself and for your kids.
Maybe you decide to take more mini-breaks to breathe deeply, so that you aren’t reacting with harsh anger as much. Ideally, you start from a bedrock of self-acceptance while at the same time acknowledging that you want to do better, which is the change agenda.
One of the mantras I recommend is “I accept myself exactly as I am, and I want to do better.” Doesn’t everyone seek acceptance? Doesn’t everyone want to do a bit better?
Apply that “both/and” mantra to how you think about your children’s need to change, too: “I accept my children exactly as they are — given their age, stage and circumstances — and I know they want to do better.” First, we offer compassion to them in our minds and words, and then we decide how to handle their behaviors — at least we follow this sequence when we are at the top of our game.
Yes, but shouldn’t I address my kids’ misbehaviors directly?
What happens when someone tells you to “Calm down,” “You’re wrong,” or “You really need to do things differently.” This change directive usually incites defensiveness, if not rebelliousness. We want to say, “I’m not that bad!” or “Stop judging me!” or “You don’t get it!” — or even, “Go to Hades!”
However, it feels unnatural to lead with compassion. Even though most of us resent being told brusquely that we should change, we dish out “change” invocations to kids all day long. These directives are reflected in frequent “You should’s,” “You better not’s” and “Don’t you dare’s.”
Consider how common it is for parents to lead with a change agenda:
- "You should ignore your little brother's annoying behaviors, not scream at him."
- "You better not forget to take the recycling out again, or else ..."
- "Don't you dare snatch your devices from the cabinet during homework time!"
These directives imply kids shouldn’t be vulnerable to the same urges we struggle with. Do you sometimes react when someone is irritating you? Or delay doing aversive chores? Do you choose a goody (like screens) instead of doing dreaded work tasks? I do. So do most adults — and their kids! These urges are as common as any human weakness.
Why in the world would little kids, without fully developed brains and with years of learning self-control ahead of them, be able to override urges any better than we adults do? It’s kind of crazy, isn’t it? But it also feels weird to offer a compassionate and accepting statement before or instead of an efficient scolding. With the irrational expectation that adults or children can stay on task and act nicely all the time, we set ourselves up for a significant compassion deficit.
Yes, but won’t kids get the wrong message if it’s delivered with a spoonful of sugar?
Unfortunately, when we get upset by our wayward ways and those of our children, our judgmental brains rationalize that a harsh rebuke is called for. It’s tempting to just tell our kids they were wrong and should do it right, but harsh rebukes trigger more defiance than compliance. Consider this different approach:
“Honey, I know it’s really hard to ___. I understand that you are tired and stressed out, and it will take a lot of self-control and focus. It’s my expectation that you try your best.”
That compassionate statement of acceptance can be directed to ourselves as well as our kids when we make a big “ask.” I repeat — overriding urges of one kind or another is hard for all humans. Why not be compassionate about it?
Yes, but doesn’t compassion undermine discipline?
People sometimes mistake leading with compassion as “softy” parenting. Not so. Daily routines and established policies can do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to effective discipline. If kids comply with reasonable family policies, they get privileges and resources. When they fall short, parents follow through with the consequences. Consequences will vary from family to family, but criticism, shaming and yelling (or other harsh punishments) are neither necessary nor helpful for optimal learning.
When children squawk about your following through with consequences, you can be compassionate. Let’s say your child threw a fit and refused to do her chores. Compassionate discipline might sound like this:
I often want to skip chores too, especially when I’m tired and stressed out. You know the deal — no dishes, no more screens tonight. It totally bums me out to see you upset. I can feel my heartrate elevate with your distress. Love is like that. I know you’ll be mad at me for following through on the policy, and I accept that.
Rescuing children from unpleasant consequences is not compassion. Comforting them and accepting them for their essential good selves while they experience unpleasant consequences is.
Because life is rife with stressors and we are highly imperfect, we will make mistakes, experience disappointments in ourselves and others, and suffer. The Compassion Challenge involves understanding this core truth, accepting human shortcomings fully and leading with compassion instead of judgment.
Whether we suffer from a surplus of change agenda for ourselves or our kids, the list doesn’t feel as burdensome when we prioritize self-compassion. Furthermore, we are wiser about choosing realistic goals from the list when we are calm, self-accepting and reflective. In wise-mind mode, we expect baby steps toward progress and offer forgiveness for setbacks.
Yes, but my children’s behaviors push my buttons all day long!
Another big obstacle to leading with compassion is based in pure neuroscience. Negative triggers grab our attention and trick us into thinking we need to attack the problem — now!
Beyond the usual reasons for resisting self-compassion, there’s the parent trap of thinking we have to tackle every child misbehavior we see. Parents witness countless undesirable behaviors from their children every day.
Parents have told me in informal surveys that they are most frequently triggered by what I call the Typical Top Ten, or the Triple T behaviors: rudeness; disrespect; noncompliance; cruelty; laziness; emotional outbursts; risk-taking; selfishness; defiance; and rule-breaking. As “normative” as these behaviors are, they can drive any good parent berserk.
Flooded by stress hormones and the fight/flight impulse to “do something,” parents are usually compelled to attack the problem rather than take flight to a bath, yoga mat or tea ceremony.
Triple T behaviors (which have been exacerbated by the pandemic) can send a parent’s physiological stress-response system for a loop. A brain scan during everyone’s worst Triple T episodes would register lit-up circuitry in the amygdala equal to the response we’d have to an approaching tornado.
Our threat-detection system has evolved to save us from disasters, but it is very primitive and imprecise for helping us discern real versus perceived parenting emergencies. The only true emergency with Triple T behaviors is if they are associated with the very rare likelihood of imminent harm to a person or property.
When triggered by most child behaviors, it is better to breathe deeply and calmly first, summon compassion for both “me and thee” second, and consider action plans last. But that is much easier said than done when your amygdala is registering a child attack (on your moral sensibilities) and your chest-thumping deludes you into thinking an emergency countermeasure is required this second.
A good filter system for discerning whether you want to pounce on the Triple T offense is to ask this question first:
“You might be right, but are you effective?”
The Triple T misbehavior may be reprehensible, but does reacting to it by yelling or criticizing in the moment help the child mend their ways? Or motivate change? Most likely, your impulse to pounce is an urge, not an effective way to shape your child’s positive behaviors.
Yes, but I feel like I’m neglecting my job as a parent if ignore bad behaviors.
When a parent’s buttons are pushed, typical thoughts include, “It’s my responsibility as a parent to react to this nasty behavior right now” or “I can’t let them get away with that!”
While it is a parent’s responsibility to socialize children, we won’t be successful if we break the cardinal rule of staying mostly positive with them. And we can only stay mostly positive by solid discernment about which battles to pick.
Perhaps you’ll choose to overlook low-level infractions such as moody rudeness. Or you’ll comfort your child when they flood (and throw a fit) instead of scolding them for uncontrollable outbursts. Maybe you’ll ignore sibling squabbles unless you’re ready to be supportive during a constructive conflict-resolution process.
Fifty years of parenting research has proven what we know already — children do not accept influence from perceived tyrants. They tune out nags. They need consistent routines and limits, not indulgence and permissiveness. They don’t trust parents who say one thing and do another, such as talking about respect while also harshly criticizing what amounts to normal child moods and behaviors.
We stay mostly positive by offering compassion both to ourselves and to our children. We refrain from commenting on little infractions and annoyances. We follow through on policies with actions instead of lectures. We reduce our “should” statements and increasingly recite the mantras of acceptance instead. We remember that a change agenda works more effectively on a bedrock of acceptance and with time for reflection.
The challenge of the Compassion Challenge
We all deserve self-compassion, and so do our children. We don’t give ourselves or our children enough credit for what is going well and how we are all doing the best we can. Bad habits and undesirable behaviors are attention hoarders.
Contemplating a change can motivate us when we are ready and when realistic systems are in place. Habit change may involve rearranging schedules, insuring rewards, removing obstacles and understanding emotional drivers. If you or your child is suffering, it’s natural to dive into problem-solving mode. Ideally, compassion comes first, given the effort required to effect most behavioral changes.
If too many obstacles exist — such as pandemic stressors, domestic strife, economic concerns or mental health problems — there is even more reason to hold on to whatever good family health you already have and consider self-compassion the main goal, rather than more change agendas.
If you are sorely lacking in self-compassion, far be it from me to add another “should” to your list. Maybe you could lovingly contemplate this change in your life — hopefully with compassion.
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