“I don’t have any time for self-care. I know I need it, but I feel like I’m a bad mother if I take time for myself,” said Michelle, a participant in my Self-Compassion for Parents workshop. “I simply don’t have time to practice!”
This is a common complaint of the parents I see in my role as a psychologist and self-compassion teacher. The demands of raising kids can keep parents running around, making it hard for them to imagine spending even a few minutes focusing on their own needs.
But self-compassion—learning to treat yourself with the same kindness and consideration that you would offer a good friend—is important for parents. So many things can and do go wrong as we raise children, and we need to find ways to nurture ourselves so that we are well-equipped to handle all the demands.
While taking time out for self-care might feel like a burden—who has time for one more thing you should do?—the research is clear: Self-compassion is good for us, and for our children. It can help reduce our stress levels and bring more joy to parenting, and we can get it in small doses that fit into our insane schedules.
Why parents need self-compassion
Some parents misunderstand self-compassion and dismiss it as being self-centered, indulgent, or lazy. They fear it might lead to self-pity or that, if they aren’t tough enough, their kids will slack off and won’t be motivated or disciplined.
But a growing body of research by Kristin Neff and her colleagues suggests that self-compassion is an antidote to self-pity. It helps us cope with tough situations like divorce and trauma, keeps us motivated, and helps us be more supportive and caring in our relationships.
It can also help alleviate the stresses of parenting. A recent study in Australia provided new mothers with a variety of self-compassion exercises to do, such as imagining how you would support a friend having a hard time, giving yourself some kindness, and realizing that you aren’t alone in the difficulty of parenting. After a month, mothers reported having more self-compassion and feeling less stressed than when they began.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that our state of mind impacts our children, and our kids do better if we practice self-compassion—and don’t blame ourselves when they struggle. In a recent study of over 900 Dutch families, researchers found that parents who reported less self-blame had teens with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Non-judgmental self-compassion may have been a core factor in this dynamic. Since children imitate our example, treating ourselves with compassion and without judgment can help them do the same.
How to make time for mindfulness and self-compassion on the run
Still, compelling research isn’t enough when you’re sleep-deprived and burdened by chores. Michelle was speaking for a multitude of parents, many of whom stop meditating once they have children. As Sebene Selassie, meditation teacher and former executive director of the New York Insight Meditation Center, noted in an interview, many centers work with people until they have kids and then again after the kids head to college.
Luckily, even though the benefits of meditation may be dose-dependent—the more you meditate, the better the effects—newer research suggests that even brief interventions can be helpful.
Researcher Judson Brewer argues that informal practices—such as noticing sensations in the soles of your feet or noticing the strength of your back—can work as well or better than longer mindfulness practices, as they are easier to do and people are more likely to stick with them. In fact, research has already found that less formal, short-term practices can help people with a variety of issues, including smoking cessation, cravings, and depression.
In my book, Self-Compassion for Parents, I offer a number of mindfulness and self-compassion practices that are user-friendly for parents or teachers, take virtually no time, and can be done with eyes open. Here are a few that any parent can do during their normal day.
1. Just two breaths of kindness. Start wherever you are—standing, cooking, washing dishes. Keep your eyes open.
- Feel your feet firmly planted on the ground. Let yourself feel the sensations of one inhalation.
- Feel the breath enter and fill your body, sustaining you, refreshing you.
- Then feel the sensations of an exhalation. Without forcing it, let the breath leave the body.
- Sometimes we are so busy we don’t realize that we are breathing. Pause. Notice that you are breathing.
- Bring your attention to another inhalation. No need to force it; feel your natural breath. Take in the fresh oxygen.
- Feel the breath as it leaves the body. Let go of any stress or tension you might be holding.
- If you like, put a hand, or two hands, on your heart. Bring some kindness to yourself.
- See if you can extend the kindness to the people around you.
Since research suggests even a few breaths affect our state of mind, I asked Michelle to try this out. Although she was initially skeptical, she reported that this practice helped her be a more responsive and less volatile parent.
2. Finding magic in the mundane. Parents in my workshops often complain about the constant drudgery of dishes, laundry, diapers, and housework. When we resent these tasks, though, we can become angry and irritable, feeling burdened by the details of running a home and caring for a family. Of course, it’s perfectly okay to grumble if we need to, but we can also try to find something pleasurable in a task.
One thing that can help is learning to find moments of newness while engaged in our daily tasks of living. In a recent study, conducted at Florida State, researchers found that participants who read a brief passage about mindfulness before washing dishes—about being present and aware of their breath, thoughts, and movements—felt more inspired and less nervous afterward than people who read basic dishwashing instructions.
Since our children are naturally curious, especially when they are young and expressive, you can challenge yourself to see things through their eyes. Try narrating your experience or ask them to join you, if they are old enough. For example, during bath time, you might talk to them about the details of what you notice: “The water is warm, the soap is tickly, the bubbles have rainbows.”
Try to find the magic in the mundane. If children can, so can you.
3. Appreciating our hands. Sometimes it can be helpful to bring awareness and gratitude to everyday things that we take for granted. I often encourage parents to consider how miraculous their hands are. Before washing the sink full of dishes or folding the mountain of laundry you’ve been avoiding all day, allow yourself to stop for a moment and to deeply appreciate your hands. Here’s how:
- Look at your hands. Rotate your wrists. Become aware of the sensation.
- Clench and unclench your hands. Try to feel them from the inside out.
- Notice sensations, pulsations, and vibrations within them.
- Our hands do so much for us during the day, yet we rarely appreciate them.
- Become aware of each finger, the palms, the backs of your hands. See if you can bring some gratitude.
- See what it is like to inhabit and appreciate your hands. As you do, you may find that other parts of your body begin to relax.
- Let your attention rest in your body before you move on to your next activity.
Parenting is hard for everyone. Many of us never feel that we are good enough or that we can keep up with all there is to do. And it isn’t that there is something wrong with us.
While most parents (and parenting books) focus on how to fix and change kids, the seeds for greater happiness and less combative parenting are within us. Mindfulness and self-compassion are skills that you can develop and share with those around you. And, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sit still or close your eyes to practice them.