Parents must first be kind to themselves if they are to be able to show compassion and love for their children, says Padraig O’Morain.
A parent has to be boss, playmate, teacher, and confidante all at once.
Parents learn on the job and what you’ve learned today won’t necessarily work next year, or maybe even next month, as your child develops. And, if you have another child, he or she may have a personality so different from the first one that you are learning all over again.
The way you were parented as a child will influence your own parenting, but it’s not training for parenthood.
That’s why parents need self-compassion. How you express your compassion for your children can be strongly influenced by the compassion you have for yourself or by the lack of it. Looking after yourself, being kind to yourself, and practising kindfulness will make you better able to deal with the ups and down of looking after children. Your lack of confidence makes it more difficult to get in touch with your more soothing side.
Ruminating on your faults and shortcomings, or worrying about what may happen next or about getting other people’s approval, can so easily block that soothing side.
Self-compassion and Mindful Parenting
What does being a mindful parent mean? We are not trying to achieve perfection in parenting. Psychoanalyst and paediatrician, Donald Woods Winnicott, believed that a “perfect” parent could leave a child ill-equipped to deal with the real world. Instead, we are exploring how self-compassion can, in itself, contribute to what is called “good enough parenting”, a phrase coined by Winnicott.
There are several components to being a mindful parent:
-- Give your full attention to your child when listening to him or her.
When playing with, or listening to, a child it’s so easy to start running through your to-do list in your mind, or to wish you were doing something else.
But childhood, as older parents could tell you, is over in a flash and it’s worth paying attention to the here and now. When talking to your child, look at them instead of looking at your phone.
Listen to what your child is saying and to how he or she is saying it and give answers that don’t just consist
of yes or no (though I acknowledge that the word “no”, repeated firmly, is sometimes the only antidote to pestering).
With a teenager, it’s even more important to listen with full awareness. Teenagers respond much better to being heard than to being questioned. I don’t mean that you never should question a teenager — sometimes it’s unavoidable and in their own best interest — but listening is hugely important.
-- Have an accepting attitude towards your child in these interactions;
-- Be aware of your child’s, and of your own, feelings;
-- Contain your own emotions, if necessary (for instance, contain your anger within fair limits);
-- Choose to be compassionate towards yourself, as well as towards your child.
Parental lack of confidence isn’t just about not knowing what to do with this creature who has just come into the world, or who has just arrived at adolescence. Lacking the confidence in your ability to meet other people’s needs, including your children’s, can unintentionally trigger anxiety and distress, and ruminating on this can make things worse, because it hijacks your attention and stops you from being mindful.
When you’re lost in these negative thoughts, you may snap at your child, when he or she pulls you out of it with even a simple question or by knocking something over. But the practice of mindfulness can reduce rumination and can make it much easier for you to step into awareness of the present moment.
Remember, you need to find ways to make mindfulness a habit. That’s especially important for busy parents, who may not have big empty spaces in their day. Here are some ideas that could work for you.
Three breaths in, three breaths out
Can you find a minute or so to sit and breathe, before the children descend on you or before you drag them out
of bed? Sit still and breathe in and out, three times, through your nostrils.
Make the out-breath longer than the in-breath. This will not only have a calming effect, but it will bring your mind, as well as your body, into the present moment.
Look out of the window
Regardless of whether what’s outside is a beautiful garden or another apartment block, actually notice what’s out there. What colour is the sky? Do you see people walking along the street or the road? If a car is passing by, what colour is it? This takes a couple of seconds, but it unscatters the mind and brings you back into the moment with a little sense of space.
Put a reminder beside the door
Once upon a time, most houses in Ireland had a tiny water font or religious image beside the door, as a spiritual reminder when people left or came in. That doesn’t happen anymore, but you can use the idea to get you into a mindful state. ‘A reminder’ could be a plant or a picture of a pleasant view for instance.
Finally, remember this line and repeat it when you find yourself criticising yourself: ‘Today, I am a good enough parent.’
This affirmation reminds you that perfection is not necessary, maybe not even desirable, and isn’t an option, anyway. But although we know this, we human beings so easily fall into the trap of judging ourselves as inadequate, because we are not perfect.
The affirmation helps you realise that you, as an imperfect parent, are good enough. Self-compassionate parents are far better able to deal with the ups and downs of guiding their children through life than are parents who expect perfection of themselves.
As well as soothing your child, soothe yourself.
It makes a difference.
Kindfullness: Be a true friend to yourself, with mindful self-compassion, by Padraig O’Morain, is published in trade paperback by Yellow Kite, €14.99