Parenting can challenge even the most patient of us. Psychologist Dr. Nanika Coor gives parents and caregivers valuable tips on how to improve our daily experience of raising children (and give ourselves a break).
Welcome to the Project Parenthood podcast! I’m Dr. Nanika Coor, a clinical psychologist and respectful parenting therapist. This podcast is for parents who want to experience more peace, connection, ease, flexibility, and fun with their kids, and have less conflict and struggle in their relationships with their children - no matter how old they are.
While my expertise is in child psychology, one of the main aspects of helping parents nurture their children is providing care and encouragement to the parents themselves as they grow into the kind of parent they really want to be. A parent who feels emotionally starved is going to have a very hard time nurturing a child. A nurtured parent is better equipped to nurture a child. So today, we are going to discuss several strategies you can implement to help you become a better parent.
Strategy #1: Radical Acceptance
Radical acceptance is a Buddhist concept I learned from the work of Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT. It’s about letting go of what you want to happen, and accepting what actually is happening. In order to actively let something go, you have to acknowledge having it in the first place. Sometimes the truth is that you want something that isn’t actually occurring in the moment. When things don’t go our way, it can cause us pain. But experiencing suffering in that pain is optional. The first time I read about radical acceptance I came up with two equations to help myself remember:
- Pain + Resistance = Suffering
- Pain + Radical Acceptance = Ordinary Pain
Early in my parenting journey I remember a day when I was trying to get myself and my toddler to an appointment. My rushing her pushed her to the brink and she ended up on the floor crying. I am not proud of it, but my own internal narrator sounded like this:
“Now we are going to be late! Why does this have to be so hard? Is it going to be like this forever? What’s the deal with toddlers? Ugh - this is the absolute worst!”
But then suddenly I remembered the idea of radical acceptance and I took a deep breath and said to myself: “Well, this is actually happening. I wish it weren’t, but it is. So let’s figure this out.” After I accepted reality, I was able to deal with the ordinary pain that can sometimes come with raising kids. I managed to get us out of the door with a lot less reactivity than I might have if I hadn’t remembered radical acceptance. It allowed me to stay calm, which helped me take actions that were in line with my parenting values rather than have my own temper tantrum which would have made things worse.
Another thing to remember: right now, in this moment while I’m writing this and you’re reading it, we have all survived 100% of the things that didn’t go the way we wanted them to go. So whatever your child does (or doesn’t do), remember, you can survive it too.
Right now, in this moment, we have all survived 100% of the things that didn’t go the way we wanted them to go. So whatever your child does (or doesn’t do), remember, you can survive it too.
Strategy #2: Self-Empathy
Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, offers a 4-part strategy for connecting to ourselves in the present moment:
- Step 1 - Observation
What do you see and hear right now that a video camera could record? Remember, this isn’t about the meaning you’re making of what you’re hearing and seeing. In the example about my toddler, a video would show my toddler lying on her back crying loudly. That’s an observation. It would not record “a spoiled child who should respect her elders,” that’s a judgement.
- Step 2 - Feelings
Notice what body sensations and emotions are coming up in response to what’s happening - without acting on them. Do you feel a tightening in your chest from frustration? Do you feel anger? Disappointment?
- Step 3 - Needs
Ask yourself, “What need of mine is going unmet right now?” During my toddler’s tantrum, I needed punctuality, cooperation, and for getting out the door to be easy.
- Step 4 - Requests
What can I ask of myself or someone else that would help me meet my current needs? I decided that slowing down and waiting out her upset would help us both get calm, and then I would probably have a better shot at cooperation. And I committed to giving myself way more time to get us out of the door in the future, so that I would feel less time pressure, and lessen my chances of struggling with a toddler who hates being rushed (much like her mother!).
Strategy #3: Self-Compassion
The last self-care strategy, and perhaps the most important for parents to practice, is self-compassion. Dr. Kristen Neff talks about three components of self-compassion:
Mindfulness is a part of every strategy I’ve offered on today’s episode. It’s noticing your present experience with acceptance. No judgement, no amplifying it, no reducing or eliminating it. Just acknowledging the existence of whatever body sensations, emotions, thoughts, or images are in your awareness.
Common humanity, or being aware of the fact that you are a fallible human who sometimes suffers just like all of the other humans on Earth. In difficult parenting moments, it helps to imagine that right now, somewhere in the world, some parent is experiencing the same frustration about the same thing. Give an imaginary fist-bump to that fellow parent as if you’re saying, “This moment totally sucks doesn’t it? Solidarity!”
Self-kindness is the last component and, for parents with a harsh inner critic, this might be the most challenging. However, the more you practice self-compassion, the more you lower the volume of your inner critic. Try to speak to yourself with tenderness instead of ways that are demoralizing and destroy your sense of self worth. Focus on talking to yourself with patience and comfort rather than shame or blame.
The more you practice self-compassion, the more you lower the volume of your inner critic.
Want to put these self-care skills into action? Start by practicing while listening to this podcast series. Notice your emotions and the sensations in your body while you listen. Do you feel defensive? Self-criticizing? A desire to avoid uncomfortable truths? Anything letting you know you’re becoming activated in some way? Radically accept what you’re experiencing, empathize with those feelings, and show yourself some compassion.
And here’s a bonus mindful coping skill: unconditional positive regard, or assuming positive intent from yourself, your children, and other parents. You - and everyone else - are doing the best you can given your own upbringing and your parents’ upbringing. When you become aware of childhood needs of yours that didn’t get met, extend some grace to your parents if you can. But if you aren’t ready to do that yet, that’s okay - honor where you are with that pain. When you become aware of needs your children have that you didn’t realize and didn’t meet, extend yourself some grace, and forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you knew it!
Parenting is really hard and every parent needs support to be able to do it well. I hope the strategies in this episode can be a part of your internal support system.