By Marta Dormal
I am often told by my colleagues and friends that I am too harsh on myself and that I should have more self-compassion. I used to be quite unfamiliar with this concept. Self-compassion? Isn’t this a term people use to find excuses for themselves and be self-indulgent?
More recently, I have learned that self-compassion has important benefits beyond improving our own emotional well-being. It can tremendously improve our caregiving practices and most importantly, the socio-emotional development of children who look up to us as their role model.
Self-compassion in the early years
Parental criticism plays a crucial role in shaping children’s socio-emotional development. Many of us think about it as criticism that is being directed from the parent towards the child, for example with hard-hitting discipline to keep the child out of trouble:
“Don’t be so silly, if you keep running down the stairs you will fall!”
or for behavior guidance:
“Why are you so messy?! Put your toys away!”
What we don’t realize is that more often than not, criticism comes from the parent towards herself as a way of relating to her own shortcomings as a caregiver:
“I can’t believe I forgot to buy diapers again. I am such an idiot!”
Children exposed to these situations may internalize a caregiver’s critical voice and assume that criticism is a useful and necessary motivational tool. While some of these children grow up to become very nurturing parents, many nonetheless remain highly critical towards themselves, and are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression in adulthood.
A very practical and effective way to prevent children from becoming excessively self-critical is to model self-compassion in front of them.
This entails acknowledging our own limitations in front of the child in a very clear but compassionate manner, in order to avoid communicating that self-criticism is an appropriate response when taking a misstep. Related to the example above, one could pause and say, for instance:
“How annoying! I forgot to buy diapers and we have very few left. I’ve had a lot on my plate today so it is not surprising that I forgot.”
Not only does this teach children that making mistakes is only human and acceptable, it also helps the caregiver to better handle the frustrations and difficulties of parenting, with care and concern.
Building caregivers’ capacity to respond rather than react
This is easier said than done. Caregiving is stressful, and there are countless moments when reacting seems inevitable and our impulse control goes out the window.
Experts recognize the need for caregivers to build strong self-regulation and executive function skills, which then gives them the ability to provide responsive care for children and, in turn, allows children to develop those skills for themselves. While the foundation for developing these skills is built in the early years, they can also be strengthened throughout adulthood with the right training and practice.
The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard, for instance, is working on several initiatives to provide specific training to caregivers from low-income backgrounds in these core capabilities, aligned to the situation in which they will be used.
Among these, Ready4Routines, currently being piloted in the United States and Canada, focuses on developing these executive function skills for both the parent and the child in the context of building family routines.
Parents attend 8 to 12 sessions where they receive training on concepts such as mindfulness, planning ahead and reflection, and are given activity cards to practice them at home with the child during routine moments such as bed or bath time.
Parents and children working together to plan and execute routines, on the one hand, helps parents develop the skills for ‘mindful parenting’. This relates to the ability of the parent to make the most of short opportunities for meaningful interactions with children during the day, pausing and being fully present as these interactions unfold. Stable routines, on the other hand, provide children with the sense of security and consistency required for their healthy development.
Just be kind to yourself
While these interventions focus on a wide array of core capabilities than can help us be better caregivers, when it comes to self-compassion the key take-away is: if you are an adult with a significant presence in the life of a child, remember to pause, breathe, and be kind to yourself the next time you are falling short of your expectations. Research not only shows that you are giving a gift to yourself, but also to the child by improving her lifelong socio-emotional skills.
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Marta Dormal is a consultant on Early Childhood Development for the Social Protection and Health Division at the InterAmerican Development Bank.