Imagine this scenario: It’s 8am and a frazzled parent is trying to get out of the door to drop the kids off at school and make it to work on time. Two children are in the car buckled and ready to go, but a third child is still in the house, not willing to leave until he puts his shirt on “right.” He has been laboring for a solid 20 minutes, making multiple attempts with various shirts. He’s frustrated, but nothing feels how he wants it to, and he just can’t pull himself away until he dresses himself in the right shirt the “right way.”
He knows people are waiting on him, and the frazzled parent knows he’s trying his best. As frustration yields to outright exasperation, there’s a distinct possibility both parent and child are wrestling with intense feelings of guilt, fear, and shame. Internal self-defeating questions such as “Why am I like this?” or “Why don’t I know how to help him?” start flooding over, like a shallow riverbank after too much rain.
Moments like these can feel incredibly overwhelming. For parents of children with OCD, self-compassion is a practical, tangible tool that can help children living with OCD navigate life’s daily challenges. In the next few minutes, we are going to dive into what self-compassion is, why it matters, how it works, the research behind it, and how to teach it to our children.
Compassion is a natural human response to suffering. Consider the boy in the story straining to put on his shirt the right way. How do you feel toward him? Think about the weary parent trying their best to help their child to no avail. How do you feel toward them? The suffering of others often triggers a natural response of care and concern. But what about our own suffering? Does self-compassion come naturally as well?
Kristen Neff is an Associate Professor in The University of Texas at Austin’s department of educational psychology. She is an expert on self-compassion and describes it as having three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.1 Research shows that self-compassion can increase motivation, boost happiness, improve body-image, enhance self-worth, foster resilience to adversity, and reduce psychological distress.2
“Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism,” writes Neff. “Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.”3
Children living with OCD tend to be incredibly hard on themselves. Empowering them to respond to life’s daily challenges with warmth and understanding toward themselves can significantly reduce the emotional strain associated with their compulsions. In short, self-compassion can be life changing.
Self-compassion, however, doesn’t always come naturally. Sometimes it is confused with having a victim mindset that leads to the avoidance of accountability. Children living with OCD may believe that being kind to themselves means they aren’t trying to get better. In fact, self-compassion is a proactive tool that fosters healing. It is simply the act of offering oneself the same compassion we often naturally give to others. In doing so, we free ourselves from the self-defeating thoughts that hinder progress. Where a victim mindset leads to avoidance, self-compassion cultivates action.
How, then, do we teach it to our children?
Step 1: Start with yourself. Children learn through modeling the behaviors they observe. How do you respond to your own feelings of failure or inadequacy? Is your internal dialogue empowering or self-defeating? Practice being kind to yourself in hard moments. As you build your own self-compassion muscle, let your children see moments of struggle and how you respond with warmth and understanding toward yourself.
Step 2: Maximize compassionate moments. We can teach our kids how to practice self-compassion by leveraging their own moments of compassion toward others. When they express care and concern for a friend or family member who is struggling, it’s a good opportunity to remind them they are equally deserving of that same measure of compassion.
Step 3: Practice mindfulness with your children. It’s hard to practice self-compassion when we feel out of control. That’s why mindfulness is a key component of self-compassion. It creates space between the stimulus and our response to it, allowing us to tackle the challenge with increased awareness and calm. As a parent, one of the best things we can do when our children are anxious is to remain calm and steady (I know – easier said than done). We can help them regulate by staying regulated ourselves. Start to notice your own triggers. When do you start to get irritated, anxious, scared, frustrated? What do you usually do?
One way we can increase our mindful awareness is to pause a few times a day to notice our surroundings by engaging our senses. What do we feel, smell, hear, see, and taste in that moment? Breathing is a tool that we have at our disposal every day and it’s free! You can take a few deep breaths (in for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts and hold for four counts) and then return to what you are doing with a more grounded perspective. These are tools we can pass down to our children. There are amazing apps that can guide children through mindful meditations, breathing exercises, etc. One of my favorites is the Moshi app that has creative stories put to music that encourage a restful mindful state.
For more information on self-compassion, check out Dr. Kristen Neff’s work as well as Kimberley Quinlan’s workbook titled “The Self-Compassion Workbook for OCD”.
A tangible step towards self-compassion is acknowledging the need for therapy. If your child is struggling with OCD, Exposure and Response Prevention (the gold standard for OCD treatment) coupled with self-compassion could make a major life shift for them and the whole family. Please reach out to www.treatmyocd.com for more information on therapy in your state . . .