Dear Parents: Being a “Good” Parent is Not About Being Perfect!
I need to start here by acknowledging that I am not a parent and thus do not understand first hand the pressure parents face to raise their children into well-adjusted, successful, happy, moralistic, responsible members of society in today’s world. It’s a tall order to say the least.
What I do know, however, as a Marriage & Family Therapist with over 15 years of experience working with adolescents and families is that parents are often burdened with much guilt and self-criticism. Their child’s successes and failures are often felt as their own. I’ve seen highly successful parents humbled to tears as they feel inadequate in understanding how to parent their teen. And, where I have seen the most profound changes and growth in such like families is with those parents who are able to learn to embrace their “failings” and imperfections and develop increased compassion and forgiveness towards themselves as parents.
My aim with parents is often to help them reduce their self-blame and adopt a more balanced perspective about their parenting, which is about taking responsibility while also practicing self-compassion and forgiveness. This can be a powerful change agent in the family. When parents allow themselves to be imperfect, to make mistakes, to say “sorry,” and admit wrong or lack of understanding, their children in turn learn to have self-compassion and are less stressed, depressed, and anxious about having to measuring up to unrealistic expectations. They learn to love and accept themselves unconditionally.
In my work as ACS Site Supervisor at Palo Alto High School, I see and hear the enormous stress that students experience as a result of feeling they need to be perfect in all that they do in order to “fit in,” to be accepted, to be successful. Their identities are often formed around this notion of perfection such that in the face of failure or mediocrity their self-image crumbles and they feel lost and a lack of meaning and purpose. We at ACS often feel as though we are working upstream trying to be a voice of reason, inspiration, and acceptance for students against this tide of perfectionist thinking.
In light of this pattern, one of the keys to “getting it right” as a parent is going against the grain of perfectionism and practicing self-compassion, which is a proven means to preventing and reducing social-emotional problems and supporting a positive self-image and increased sense of well-being (Neff & McGhee, 2015). I call it the compassion revolution. It’s the radical notion of learning to be kind and loving to ourselves, to forgive, to be patient, and to allow room for making mistakes. This practice strengthens our tolerance for handling conflict, failure, stress, etc. and reinforces kindness, love, and compassion. It’s a paradigm shift from that of perfectionism to that of self-acceptance and well-being.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is related to the more universal meaning of compassion, which is the ability to:
- experience another’s pain and suffering
- feel kindness and caring for another’s welfare
- maintain a non-judgmental attitude towards another
- have awareness of the shared humanity or connectedness with another
Similarly, self-compassion involves first being aware of our suffering, giving kindness and caring to ourselves, holding a non-judgmental attitude towards ourselves, and seeing our suffering in light of common human experience (Neff & McGhee, 2010).
But, self-compassion is not about self-pity, which involves seeing ourselves as a victim and isolated in our troubles. Self-compassion emphasizes deeper understanding of the universal aspects of suffering which helps to normalize our experiences and to develop objectivity in place of identifying with our suffering. Self-compassion is not about being unaccountable for our actions. In contrast, by reducing guilt and shame and practicing self-compassion there is more ability for us to look honestly at our behaviors and take responsibility, as opposed to feeling like we need to hide our faults which is what guilt and shame often creates. It’s about balancing responsibility, honesty, and awareness, with kindness and forgiveness (Neff, 2011).
In a study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies in April 2015, 901 Dutch adolescents ages 11-18 and their parents were surveyed, assessing for symptoms of depression and anxiety in the adolescents and six domains of mindful parenting, including listening with full attention, compassion for the child, emotional non-reactivity in parenting, emotional awareness of the child, emotional awareness of the self, and non-judgmental acceptance of parental functioning. The researchers found that, out of the six domains, only the domain of non-judgmental acceptance of parenting was significantly associated with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety in the adolescent. The results showed that the children of parents who reported increased acceptance of their own parental functioning were significantly less likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression (Geurtzen et al., 2015).
Why would self-compassion on the part of the parents be such a positive indicator of adolescent well-being? The researchers in this study speculate that when parents model self-compassion, their children in turn adopt a similar attitude of non-judgment towards themselves, which reduces their development of anxiety and depression (Nauman, 2014). There have been many studies over the last decade which show that increased self-compassion in adolescents is associated with less stress, anxiety, and depression and increased sense of well-being (Neff & McGhee 2010).
Furthermore, parents who practice self-compassion are likely to experience less stress, anxiety, and depression themselves and are then more likely to be patient, compassionate, accepting and forgiving towards their children as a result. Hence, “good” parenting starts with how parents feel about and treat themselves, as children learn more through what parents do (modeling) rather than what they say.
Three Steps to Practicing Self-Compassion
The first step is awareness – digging beneath the surface and uncovering your self-doubts as a parent and how you may be heaping undue blame on yourself. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself and how you treat yourself, especially in challenging moments. Where is it that you need to accept responsibility for mistakes made as a parent and also practice forgiveness and self-compassion? It is in this middle ground attitude where positive growth and change can occur.
The next step is recognizing your common humanity. This involves normalizing your parenting experience as common to many if not most parents. Often times, we negatively compare ourselves to others – believing ourselves to be worse or more of a failure than others. I see parents do this by negatively comparing themselves to other parents, which then leads to feeling isolated in their suffering. However, the truth is that all parents both succeed and fail in raising their children and that this is a normal human condition. Humans are imperfect and it is in our imperfection that we find our connectedness. When we practice self-compassion we ask ourselves, “How am I the same?”
The last step is treating yourself with kindness. When we fall short of our own expectations we are often very harsh on ourselves. During difficult moments or mistakes as a parent, practicing self-compassion involves treating yourself with encouragement, patience, gentleness, and understanding, as you often would with a close friend. Such kindness and support towards yourself will help you focus on learning from your mistake or how to deal effectively with the difficulty, rather than staying stuck in focusing on how you “failed” as a parent.
Exercises to Develop Self-Compassion
“Treating Yourself Like a Close Friend”
Think to yourself about a close friend and a time when they felt really bad about themselves or were struggling in some way. Notice how you responded to this friend and write down what you would typically do in such a situation. Notice what you would say and the tone of voice you would use towards your friend.
Now, think about times when you feel bad about yourself and are struggling as a parent. Notice how you typically respond to yourself in such situations. Write down what you typically say to yourself and in what tone. Do you notice a difference in how you would respond to your friend and how to respond towards yourself?
Finally, think about and write down how you think things might change for you if you responded to yourself as you would respond to your friend during a difficult time as a parent.
Think of a difficult parenting situation in the past that caused you much stress and self-blame and go through the following three steps.
- Identify the negative thoughts and feelings associated with this situation, which led to an experience of suffering and acknowledge this suffering.
- Remind yourself that such stress, suffering, and struggle are common to the human experience and to other parents. Remind yourself that you are not alone and that making mistakes is a part of being human.
- Think to yourself, “what do I need to hear right now to feel comforted, reassured, understood, supported as a parent?” Then practice saying these things to yourself.
- Notice how you feel and what may have changed in your thoughts and perspective of yourself and the situation following this exercise. See if you can continue to practice this so that during difficult moments you can learn to respond with more self-compassion in place of self-blame.
“Taking a Break”
This is a simple reminder that during challenging moments as a parent it is often a good idea to take a break from the situation. We can become stuck in difficult situations with others that require stepping away for some time to gain perspective and more balanced thinking and feeling before a resolution can be found. Use this break to practice the previous two self-compassion exercises. Once you are able to feel more balanced and calm, try revisiting the issue with your child/teen from this perspective and notice if there is a shift or change for the better.
Geurtzen, N., Scholte, R., Engals, R., Tak, Y., & Zundert, R. (2015). Association Between Mindful Parenting and Adolescents’ Internalizing Problems: Non-judgmental Acceptance of Parenting as Core Element. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24, 1117-1128.
Nauman, E. (2014). Teens Are Better Off When Parents Practice Self-Compassion. www.mindful.org.
Neff, K. (2015). The Newest Parenting Skill: Self-Compassion. www.seleni.org.
Neff, K., Hsieh, Y., Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-Compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure. Self and Identity, 4: 263-287.
Neff, K., & McGhee, P. (2010). Self-Compassion and Psychological Resilience Among Adolescents and Young Adults. Self and Identity, 9: 225-240.