One important, and very hard, self care skill for foster parents and stepparents is giving ourselves the same compassion that we give to our kids. Parenting any child is difficult, but stepping into a child’s ongoing story has its own unique set of stressors. Raising other people’s children is difficult, and we will not do it perfectly. Getting through the difficult times will require us to learn the art of self-compassion. We need to give ourselves the same safe environment that we want to give our children.
Why We Should Exercise Self-Compassion
If you research self-compassion on the Internet, you’ll find all sorts of benefits to being kind to yourself. They all coalesce around one idea — self-compassion lowers stress for you and your family. It also decreases anxiety, increases life satisfaction, and fosters resilience, all of which stem naturally from lowered stress. We know that stress negatively affects both our physical health and our mental health, leaving us with less patience and energy to deal with a child’s trauma, special needs, or other challenges. The more we can lower the stress of daily life in parenting our children, the more resources we’ll have for the hard work of helping them overcome their trauma.
Not only are our situations inherently stressful, but we tend to set very high standards for ourselves. We expect that we will be always patient, calm, and thick-skinned, while simultaneously helping our children make positive changes in their lives. It’s an impossible set of expectations, and it’s no wonder that we often find ourselves exhausted from trying to keep up.
A few years I found an interesting study that illustrates this dynamic. Researchers surveyed 17,400 parents from 42 countries, using a standard scale of parental burnout. The items they measured will sound familiar to many of us — statements such as “I feel completely run down by my role as a parent,” and “I do not enjoy being with my children.” The researchers then calculated the average scores for each country, and cross-referenced the country scores with a cultural values index that measured collective or individualistic orientations. The only significant correlation the researcher found was that burnout was highest in western individualistic societies. The United States ranked behind only Poland, Belgium and Canada (barely) in average parental burnout. Other western European countries were not far behind.
Not surprisingly, when the researchers drilled down into the demographic data, they found higher burnout among parents in disadvantaged neighborhoods, single parents, and stepparents. Multi-generational families did better than two-parent families. The greatest predictor, however, was an individualistic culture, defined in the researchers’ index as one that places more responsibility on individuals than on collective groups.
The researchers noted that parenting norms in the most individualistic countries have “become increasingly demanding over the last 50 years,” requiring more involvement from parents and placing more pressure on them. Standards have evolved to such an extent that “parents who would have been considered as good and attentive parents 50 years ago would now be viewed as neglectful at best.” The researchers quote one expert that we are now in the era of “a child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive view of parenting.”
All of that should sound very familiar. More important, it’s a standard that is impossible to meet. We are burning ourselves out trying to do all that we, and our peers, demand of ourselves as parents. The inevitable result is that we run out of resources to help our stepchildren or foster children, and everyone in the family suffers.
By ignoring those expectations as much as we can, we reduce a lot of stress on ourselves and, by extension, on our families. When we admit that we are just as imperfect as our kids, and accept ourselves anyway, we can start with a much stronger foundation of peace and acceptance for our families.
How to Exercise Self-Compassion
Once we know that we should learn to extend grace to ourselves as well as our children, the question becomes how we do it. There are a lot of different ways to be kind to ourselves, but here are some popular techniques that have proven to be effective ways to forgive ourselves for not being perfect:
1. Adjust Our Attitudes. We can’t change our culture overnight or the expectations of our fellow parents. But we can change our own attitudes. We can start by recognizing that we will not be perfect, and that’s perfectly OK. There is no magic formula of parental attention and involvement that will make our kids’ lives problem-free. We all have to struggle through being imperfect together.
So, the best first step toward self-compassion may be simply admitting that we can’t do everything and that we won’t be perfect. We should keep trying to improve, but we can still be good parents even when we make mistakes. Just as with our kids, it’s the not-giving-up part that matters. Mistakes are inevitable. We have to learn, and show our children, how to accept our failures, learn from them, and keep moving forward. The best version of ourselves is not a super-hero, but an imperfect parent who keeps trying.
2. Shift Some of Our Responsibilities. A good second step is to give up some of the responsibility we load onto ourselves. We should stop demanding that we be miracle workers who can magically be the best mom or dad that any child ever had and thereby ensure that they have a wonderful life. We also have to accept that, even when we aren’t perfect, we are not responsible for our kids’ happiness. All young people, including our children, have agency and sometimes make bad decisions. We shouldn’t feel guilty that we weren’t able to convince them otherwise. We all make mistakes, and part of building individual relationships is for both us and our kids to learn to accept each other’s faults and love each other anyway.
We also should give our kids freedom to take responsibility for themselves when we can. Preteens can be responsible for making lunch for themselves, for example, and older children can learn to do their own laundry. Letting them live with the consequences of their decisions will teach them important life skills better than anything we can say. Shifting responsibility not only helps them, but helps take some chores off your to-do list.
Limiting your responsibility where you can has the great benefit of conserving important resources for quality time or when your family is facing a crisis. Limiting what you feel responsible for also will make a huge difference in your ability to stay engaged for the long haul. Don’t let anyone (including yourself) convince you that you have to do it all or that you have to be a perfect parent for your kids to become functional adults.
3. Learn to Forgive and Forget. One common mantra from sports coaches for a players who make mistakes is to “shake it off” and get back into the game. They know that if players dwell on their errors, they will keep making even worse mistakes. The same principle is true in parenting. Self-compassion doesn’t mean that we ignore or downplay our mistakes. It means that we put them in perspective, learn from them, and then let go of them. It’s not enough to just forgive ourselves. We have to give ourselves permission to start over with a clean slate. Learning to not only forgive ourselves but forget the past is a powerful practice that will help model resilience for our children as well as reduce stress for our families.
4. Practice self-kindness. Self-compassion, like all skills, requires regular exercise. The more we practice self-care activities, the more we increase our emotional resources. A study from Australia asked new mothers to participate in some self-compassion exercises, such as imagining giving support to a friend or realizing that they weren’t alone in parenting difficulties. After a month, most of the mothers reported feeling less stressed than when they began.
You can find some excellent practical and self-compassion exercises at Dr. Kristin Neff’s website, this article at Psychology Today, and the Stress & Development Lab at this link. Those techniques include:
1. Giving yourself an encouraging talk that you would give a friend.
2. Journal writing
3. Changing your negative self-talk and silencing your inner critic.
4. Breathing exercises.
5. Prayer, meditation, or mindfulness exercises.
6. Learning to identify negative emotions in a given moment and counter them with positive emotional responses.
7. Giving yourself a self-compassion break.
Experiment with which of these, or other, techniques will work for you. Build your skills in self-compassion and continue to develop the resources to build a good relationship with your children.
Self-care includes giving ourselves the encouragement that we know our children need, and giving ourselves the grace to be less than perfect parents. Our kids will be fine. In fact, they can learn from watching us learn from mistakes. Make being kind to yourself, as well as to your family, a key part of your parenting skills this year.