Erin Leyba LCSW, Ph.D.

Joyful Parenting

8 Ways Parents Can Stop Beating Themselves Up

When parents muster self-compassion, it benefits their kids too.

Posted Jan 07, 2017

Imagine:

  • the loneliness of a parent whose once-close friendships had been whittled down to annual get-togethers due to their friends' widespread preoccupation with children’s nap times, martial arts, and gymnastics lessons
  • the anxiety of a parent whose child is struggling with writing, then sees glowing reviews of the neighbor kid’s perfectly cute essay plastered on her Facebook feed
  • the stress of a parent trying to help an anxious child who is screaming, struggling, and refusing to walk into kindergarten
  • the sadness of a parent at the park who is watching a group of kids play together happily while his child runs solo in circles around the swings
  • the fatigue of a single parent who has not had a few hours to herself —has not been able to pursue a hobby/interest, take a nap, watch TV, or read a book in two years
  • a mom beating herself up because she can’t get her old body back after giving birth
  • the muffled grief of a parent who had to let go of his once-loved job to better accommodate his family’s needs.

We summon compassion so easily when it’s not us. However, when it comes to ourselves, it’s way more difficult to muster. When you experience a strong feeling – frustration, anger, sadness, or fear – there’s a bright window of opportunity to treat yourself with kindness instead of harshness.

Here are 8 ways parents tend to beat themselves up, and what it would look like if they stopped pummeling themselves with baseball bats (and brought in some kindness, gentleness, or understanding instead):

When You Feel Out of Sorts with Relationships – Many parents are frustrated with challenges in their relationships and often blame themselves. Relationships change dramatically and are often stretched and stressed upon having kids. About 67 percent of couples experience a decline in relationship satisfaction in the first three years of a baby’s life (Gottman, 2015) and this deterioration often persists into subsequent years (Doss et al., 2009). Friendships also endure challenges. Friendship researcher William Rawlins found that many middle-aged people “rarely had time to spend with their most valued friends” (cited in Beck, 2015), and about 25 percent of moms report feeling lonely, isolated, or cut off from friends (Action for Children Media, 2015). Don't take every relationship difficulty personally - remind yourself that challenges are a normal, developmental, and practically universal component of this complex life phase.

With Comparisons – Humans, parents included, are hard wired to compare themselves to others (Kruglanski and Mayseless, 1990). Whether neighbor Jane is reading at 3 years old, cousin Ann always a perfectly clean house, or John and Susie are wine tasting in Napa again, remind yourself that you don’t ever see the whole picture. What you believe is true about others (that they are better or better off than you) is often an illusion. Alexander Jordan and colleagues report findings from four studies that show that people underestimate the prevalence of other people’s negative emotions, in part because people hide or keep them private (Jordan et al., 2011, 120). When comparing yourself to others, follow the advice of Anne Lamott and “try not to compare your insides to their outsides” (Lamott, 2015).

When Feeling Judged – A huge majority of parents (90 percent of moms and 85 percent of dads) report feeling judged by others (Zero to Three, 2016), including by partners, friends, strangers, doctors, teachers, and their parents. Parenting is a public job with as many voyeurs as a reality TV show. It’s normal to get ruffled when people observe, comment, and judge the way you do everything. People comment about Nicky crying in the supermarket, the snacks you feed Karen, the childcare you chose for Joanie, how you react when Timmy runs toward the street, and whether Joey needs to wear a jacket. Next time you feel on stage or judged, be especially gentle with yourself.

When Kids Don’t Act Right – Research suggests that only 44-46% of parents feel they are doing a "very good job" raising their children (Pew Research Center, 2015). When kids don’t act right, parents often blame themselves. When your child exhibits difficult behaviors or needs, remind yourself that you haven’t failed – kids' jobs are to test (a lot) and parents' jobs are to provide safe boundaries for them. Choose to believe that, despite any mistakes you might make responding to the shenanigans in the day, you are still the very best person to guide and teach your child.

With Identity and Lifestyle Changes – Many parents feel out of sorts, down, or unsettled after having kids. Tremendous identity and lifestyle changes accompany parenthood, including loss of hobbies, travel, and free time. Give yourself time and space to "grieve your old life" and plan for your new one by seeing a counselor, journaling, walking in nature, or talking to a friend. Taking time to honor your feelings of loss — without judgment — frees you up to be more present for the life in front of you.

When Exhausted – Parents are often exhausted from lack of sleep and rest and little time to themselves, yet they often feel like they should have more energy and be calmer. One study showed that the average mom gets only 17 minutes of “me” time each day (Daily Mail, 2014). Your ability to manage your emotions is also greatly diminished when you are short of sleep (Goldstein and Walker, 2014). Many parents also suffer from the frenetic subtype of burnout that is characterized by being overinvolved, overambitious, and overloaded (Montero-Marin et al., 2011). Don’t beat yourself up for feeling tired. See what you can clear from your life to simplify your days. Rest and pursue your passions – “fill your cup” to refuel.

Screw Ups – After screwing up, you get a split second to choose which internal army to mobilize – the one that gently forgives or the one that pummels with baseball bats. Next time you mess up, bring your hand over your heart and whisper the word “kindness.” See the humor in your mistakes too — laughing at yourself is almost synonymous with self-compassion.

Feelings – Ever feel bad for feeling bad? “I should snap out of this.” “What’s wrong with me?” When you feel down, scared, sad, or angry, bring in curiosity about the roots of your feelings instead of harsh scolding. Try these ideas to honor feelings instead of distracting away from them.

The intense feelings that parents deal with nearly all the time make parenthood a perfect time to master the art of self-compassion. Don’t just stop beating yourself up – commit to being exceptionally kind to yourself this year. Your kids will model off your every move, and will learn to treat themselves with more kindness, too.

Copyright Erin Leyba, PhD 2017

Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD is a counselor in Chicago’s western suburbs. www.erinleyba.com She is the author of the book Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Ideas for Overcoming Fatigue, Stress, and Guilt - and Building a Life You Love (New World Library), now available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indie Bound. Join her on Facebook or sign up to get free articles on parenting with mindfulness and joy.

References

Action for Children Media. 2015. “Quarter of Parents Feel ‘Cut Off’ and Lonely.” www.actionforchildren.org.uk/news-and-opinion/latest-news/2015/august/quarter-of-parents-feel-cut-off-and-lonely/.

Beck, Julie. 2015. “How Friendships Change in Adulthood.” The Atlantic. October 22. www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/how-friendships-change-over-time-in-adulthood/411466/.

Doss, Brian, Galena Rhoades, Scott Stanley, and Howard Markman. 2009. “The Effect of the Transition to Parenthood on Relationship Quality: An 8-Year Prospective Study.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96, no. 3 (March): 601–619. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19254107.

Goldstein, Andrea, and Matthew Walker. 2014. “The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Function.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. Published online January 31. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4286245/.

Gottman, John. 2015. “The Empirical Basis for Gottman Method Couples Therapy.” Blog post. Gottman Institute. June 24. www.gottman.com/blog/the-empirical-basis-for-gottman-method-couples-therapy/.

Jordan, Alexander, Benoit Monin, Carol Dweck, Benjamin Lovett, Oliver John, and James Gross. 2011. “Misery Has More Company than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, no. 1: 120–135. http://psp.sagepub.com/content/37/1/120.abstract.

Kirkova, Demi. (2014). “Mothers Get Just 17 Minutes of “Me Time” to Themselves Each Day . . . And STILL Take on The Lion’s Share of the Chores.” Daily Mail. (February 5). http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2552188/The-        average-mother-gets-just-17-minutes-time-day.html#ixzz4V0JGQEMB

Lamott, Anne. 2015. “I Am Going to Be 61 Years Old in 48 Hours.” Facebook post. @AnneLamott. April 8. www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/662177577245222.

Kruglanski, Arie and Ofra Mayseless (1990). “Classic and Current Social Comparison Research: Expanding the Perspective.” Psychological Bulletin 108(2) (September): 195-208. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.108.2.195

Manczak, Erika, Anita DeLongis, and Edith Chen. 2016. “Does Empathy Have a Cost? Diverging Psychological and Physiological Effects within Families.” Health Psychology 35, no. 3 (March): 211–218. psycnet.apa.org/journals/hea/35/3/211/.

Montero-Marin, Jesus, Petros Skapinakis, Ricardo Araya, Margarita Gili, and Javier Garcia-Campayo. 2011. “Towards a Brief Definition of Burnout Syndrome by Subtypes: Development of the ‘Burnout Clinical Subtypes Questionnaire’ (BCSQ-12),” Health and Quality of Life Outcomes 9, no. 74. www.medscape.com/viewarticle/752519_2.

Pew Research Center. 2015. "Parenting in America." http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/17/parenting-in-america/

Zero to Three. 2016. Tuning In: National Parent Survey Overview. Report. 1–6. www.zerotothree.org/resources/1424-national-parent-survey-overview-and-key-insights#downloads.

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