Did you know that compassion links parents’ and children’s well-being?
When parents have compassion for themselves, they are able to cope with stress in more healthy ways, buffering their children from stress contagion. Self-compassion also dampens the impact of insecure attachments in parent's own childhoods, which can sometimes get in the way of parenting our best. We also know intuitively that when we are kind to ourselves, it is easier to be kind towards others. And when we are fuelled by self-compassion, we are more likely to experience emotional warmth with our kids - which helps them grow up to be compassionate - and can teach our children self-compassion by leading by example.
Clearly, as parents and caregivers, a little bit of self-love can go a long way towards helping our children become compassionate adults.
According to Kristin Neff, Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, modelling self compassion for your children by truly living it not only sets the tone for how they will treat themselves during difficulties or disappointments throughout their lives, but is also integral in order for you to sustain compassion for your children without burning out.
Self-Compassion Practice #1: One exercise Neff recommends for adults and children to connect to self-compassion is to practice a safe and supportive physical posture, such as placing your hands over your heart, cupping your face in your hands, placing your hands on your tummy, or a self-hug.
Self-Compassion Practice #2: Involving your child in healthy stress management practices not only benefits your stress level (and your child's), it also sends the powerful message that taking care of our feelings is essential. Take a 5 minute time-out when you are feeling stressed and use an app, such as The Breathing App, MindShift, Headspace, or one of many others to help you find your calm. If you are with your children, explain what you are doing and invite them to join you. Involving your child in self-care builds a family culture of self-compassion, and equips your child with the tools he needs to be able to take care of himself emotionally at a developmentally appropriate level.
Self-Compassion Practice #3: A joyful heart is a full heart, and a full heart is one that can give readily to others. So, gather your children close and spark some joy! Take a deep breath and find yourself in a moment of joy with your child. Savor the feeling - where do you feel it in your body? What senses are being sparked - does the air smell like rain, or freshly baked cookies, or your baby's sweet shampoo? Can you hear birdsong, or your child's voice, or the clambering of tiny feet running up the stairs? Savoring this moment of joy with your child can help you feel more fulfilled, and for longer. Emotional fulfillment is another key dimension of feeling emotional warmth for your child, which is linked to children's ability to feel compassion as adults.
Research has found that mothers who have an insecure attachment to their own mothers experience greater parenting stress and have less compassion towards themselves, negatively affecting quality of life for their children.
Further research shows that higher levels of attachment-related anxiety in mothers is linked to poorer child social-emotional adjustment as a result of lower levels of maternal self-compassion and greater levels of parenting stress.
A Finnish study that followed families for over 3 decades found that the level of parental warmth children experienced predicted how compassionate they became in adulthood. In the study, parental warmth was measured through responses to the following statements (the more affirmative statements, the higher the parental warmth):
- My child is emotionally important to me
- I enjoy spending time with my child
- I am emotionally important to my child
- My child enables me to fulfill myself
In a video interview with Happily Family, Neff shares that when we feel empathy for others - that is, when our mirror neurons fire and we feel distress for others who are in distress - cultivating compassion can protect us from burn out, or "empathy fatigue". Compassion is a positive emotion that allows us to hold difficult emotions with love, kindness, and caring, activating the reward system of the brain.
According to Neff, touch is one of the prime activators of the parasympathetic nervous system, which supports us to "rest and digest" and recover from stress. In this activity, the physical posture that includes self-touch should feel safe, supported, and cared for. If it feels uncomfortable, or if you or your child have a history of trauma, deriving the benefits of touch from a non-human source, such as running your hands through the sand, holding a smooth stone, or stroking a cat, might be preferred.
Knowing your attachment style can help you make a plan to combat parenting stress and boost your self-compassion, using resources such as this article (and others on Heart-Mind Online), support from friends, mind-body practices such as meditation and yoga, or therapy.
- (15 min)Kristin Neff interview with Happily Family (summarize key points) and use “this script” to talk about self-compassion with your children (being self compassionate gives you the resources to be compassionate towards others without burning out. empathy without compassion leads to burnout, empathy fatigue. mirror neurons firing and you feel their distress. compassion holds their emotions with love, kindness caring. activates reward system in the brain. a positive emotion. children can feel what we are feeling - just like when they are tantruming and stressed out we can feel their distress too! THey dont need language to pick up on these things . finding a physical posture to support feeling self-compassion (hands over heart, fists over heart, cupping face in hands, hands on tummy, self hug) - this activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), one of the prime activators of which is touch. find a touch that makes you feel safe, supported, and cared for. with trauma histories sometiems self touch is not good. petting cat or sand better.
For example, you could say something like: "Mommy is feeling worried right now. Its not because of you. I feel worry and stress in my body: my tummy hurts and my heart feels like it is beating fast. I am going to take 5 minutes and take care of my feelings right now. Let's take a deep breath or two and then go for a walk. Would you like to join me?".