Dr. Kristin Neff is an associate professor and researcher at University of Texas at Austin. She developed self-compassion as a construct and is the leading researcher on the topic. It’s been found to improve a person’s self-worth, happiness, and well-being. She also has a son who has autism which is what initially drew me to her work. She knows the joys and challenges of raising a child with autism and how self-compassion can help both the child and the parent’s overall well-being.
Self-compassion is the act of being kind to oneself, maintaining presence and curiosity, and having an understanding for common humanity. Basically, it is the practice of treating yourself the way you would treat someone you love. How often do you find yourself saying, “I shouldn’t have done that!” “I’m so dumb.” A large percentage of people tend to talk down to themselves and be self-critical. Practicing self-compassion means not reacting critically to our own struggles and suffering, but instead treating ourselves with the same kindness and gentles we would offer to a close friend or family member who is going through a rough time. The reason this concept is being talked about and researched is because so many of us are incredibly hard on ourselves. Practicing self-compassion counteracts the negative self-talk that most individuals engage in and creates a healthier internal atmosphere. Studies have found that individuals who practice self-compassion report higher levels of psychological well-being, happiness, and healthier relationships while also reporting lower levels of depression.
Many parents I’ve worked with express that parents of neuro-typical children do not understand the developmental and sensory difficulties a child with autism has and in turn don’t understand the difficulties of parenting a child with autism. There is a sense of judgment that is often felt and it is hard to not internalize that judgment. Additionally, research shows that parents of children with autism experience guilt for not doing enough for their child who is struggling or possibly blame themselves for their child’s developmental difficulties.
Self-compassion can help you and your family relate to yourselves and each other in a healthier way. I recently came across an article that studied the impact higher levels of self-compassion have on parents of children with autism. Studies have found that parents of children who have autism experience more depression, lower quality of life, and higher parental stress in comparison to parents of neuro-typical children. Another factor impacting parental well-being is the shame often experienced by parents of children with autism for not being able to “control” their child. This study found that Self-compassion in parents of children who have autism was positively associated with life satisfaction, hope, and goal reengagement and negatively associated with depression and parental distress. Additionally, in this study self-compassion predicted parental well-being more so than symptom severity of the parent’s child. This means that no matter the level of functioning a child has, a parent’s level of stress is improved by having self-compassion. This research study highlights the importance of cultivating self-compassion when we are parenting or working with a child who has autism.
As many of you know, there are various challenges that must be worked through and processed in a healthy way to maintain our psychological well-being and, in the long run, the psychological well-being of our children. The more psychologically healthy the adults around a child are the more modeling that child has for appropriate ways of self-relating which results in a healthier child! When we treat ourselves with compassion it models self-compassion for our children, teaching them how to accept themselves and others.
I’ve found self-compassion to be so helpful in my personal life and in my work with children who have autism. I worked with a 4-year-old girl who had intense tantrums that were often hard to work through. One day, she was upset because it was too dark to go outside so she threw a heavy plastic toy at my face and I lost all my patience. I just said “No!” in a much sterner voice than I normally use. Usually my responses to her tantrums were calm and soothing. However, this response caused her to have an even more intense tantrum and caused me to feel so unhelpful for not being able to contain her. The dynamic of our interaction in that moment was incredibly hard to recover from. I spent the remainder of our time together trying to calm her down. I drove home that night feeling defeated and upset with myself. I said things like, “I shouldn’t have reacted so strongly…I’m better than that” “That was the worst time to lose my patience.” “I’m a terrible therapist”. In the moment, it felt like that is what I deserved; I made this 4-year-old’s night harder than it needed to be by not being attuned to her and in turn I should punish myself.
However, when I take a step back and apply the concept of self-compassion I can see that I was incredibly tired and distressed in that situation. Instead of saying “I shouldn’t have done that!” and scolding myself the whole way home. I could say, “That was a really hard session, normally I wouldn’t have lost my patience.” Engaging in a more compassionate way allows the space for self-soothing and easier recovery. I can then begin to problem solve and say, “how could I have reacted differently?” or “how will I approach her next time so that we can work through this together?” These responses not only feel better to me; they are also more productive to my relationship with this young girl. Self-compassion fosters the space for mistakes but also accelerates my own recovery from my mistakes and allows me to learn.
Developing self-compassion can be difficult in our fast-paced world. Dr. Kristin Neff teaches different techniques to develop self-compassion. The one I practice is called The Self-Compassion Break; it takes about 5 minutes to complete. For this exercise, you think about a situation in your life that is difficult right now, not overwhelmingly difficult, but challenging. Think about it and get into the emotion that comes up for you when you allow the stress of it to set in. And then slowly bring your focus to these three phrases: (1) “This is so rough right now” (2) “A lot of people feel this way” and (3) “May I be kind to myself in this moment?” This is the most important phrase, in my opinion, because it is allowing your inner critic to stop and allow kindness to take over for a few minutes. After I’ve asked my inner critic to take a break, I like to say, “I’m here for you” and breathe deeply. Let those feelings of care set in. And then, after 5 minutes of practicing these phrases and breathing deeply let go of the practice and notice how your body feels in that moment. Mindfulness practices such as these will allow you to develop self-compassion and it will slowly become a natural way of self-relating.
The practice of self-compassion can play a healing role in this life long journey of parenting that can in turn benefit a parent’s self-perception as well as a child’s healthy development of self-perception. Let’s challenge ourselves to be self-compassionate today when we feel overwhelmed, stressed, or worried. The act of loving ourselves and treating ourselves with kindness will enable us to stay present, self-soothe, and model for our children how to love themselves with their strengths and, more importantly, with an acceptance of their weaknesses.
If you would like to learn more about Self-Compassion you can check out Dr. Kristin Neff’s website http://self-compassion.org/ which is full of tools such as mindfulness practices that help in the development of self-compassion.
By: Christine Rivera, MA
Neff, K. D. (2009). The role of self-compassion in development: A healthier way to relate to oneself. Human development, 52(4), 211-214.
Neff, K. D., & Faso, D. J. (2015). Self-compassion and well-being in parents of children with autism. Mindfulness, 6(4), 938-947.
Neff, K. (2013). Self-compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. SoundsTrue.