Children, Teens, and Families

June 14, 2019

Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself

By Susan Pollak

On a tough day, raising children can feel like one of the most difficult, seemingly thankless roles a person can have. The stakes are high, and the hours are rough. There is no formal training, and it isn’t easy learning on the job — not to mention the fact that everyone else seems to be better at it than we are!

I remember leaving the hospital with my first son, and as the car pulled into traffic and sunlight streamed into the window, I was hit with the thought that “Everything has changed. Everything is much more full-on now. Even the sun feels different.” There was a sense of fear and wonder at what the world held for me now that I had this little being dependent on me.

I recently had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Susan Pollak’s forthcoming book, Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself; and in hindsight, would have been just the thing to support and guide me through those daunting days. This wonderful book offers practical strategies and practices for the parenting journey, all based on a foundation of self-compassion and acceptance that we are enough, just as we are. Whether we’re new to parenting or seasoned veterans, Pollak’s guidance is a welcome relief.

Please enjoy this interview with Susan!

Mara: Most parents all over the world will agree that being a parent is not an easy task, but I wanted to ask you what brought you to writing this much needed book? Was there a specific event, or inspiration?

Susan: A client asked me to write about parenting. She was a single mom trying to manage two challenging teens who were fighting constantly, and feeling like a terrible, incompetent parent. Her focus was on trying to fix and control them and it wasn’t working. Nearly every interaction became a battle. We did some work on her own adolescence, tried a number of the self-compassion exercises, and the dynamic began to shift. Compassion was totally new for her and it changed her way of parenting. “None of the parenting books talk about this, Susan. Please write a book.”

The timing was also right for me. After over 30 years of parenting, mindfulness practice, clinical work, and the recent engagement and then marriage of my son, I had an appreciation of the arc of parenting and its developmental tasks. With this accumulated lived experience, I felt that I could understand things both as a parent and as a child.

Mara: How was being a parent yourself? Is there anything you wish you had known then that you have since discovered?

Susan: It was difficult. This book comes from my experience and struggles. I had a mindfulness practice, but mindfulness teachers generally don’t address parenting. Many of my meditation teachers didn’t have children and trained in a monastic tradition. I felt torn as I no longer had time for long, silent meditation, let alone retreats. I wish I’d known how to be kind to myself when I made mistakes, which I did constantly. I feared I was the only one who was doing it wrong.

The Zen masters joke that life is just one mistake after another. I now feel that parenting is one mistake after another. I didn’t realize that my kids were resilient and that we could repair the many lapses we all made. I took it all so seriously. I didn’t realize I could relax, enjoy them and have fun. Life seemed so stressful and competitive. It felt like we were all running an extreme marathon, with no time to stop and take a few breaths and just BE.

Mara: Would you mind sharing a couple of memories from your own parenting? What would be your most favourite memory from parenting? What about the worst?

Susan: My first thought was to share memories of when they were adorable babies on vacation, or the times when they were very ill in the emergency room, but then I remembered a meditation question that I have been working with—Can another moment be better than the moment I am in now? And I thought about the Dalai Lama’s response to the question, “What was your favorite moment in life?” He thought and then responded, “This moment.” So while I could go into a long dramatic story, I try to challenge myself to be in the moment that I’m in, because this is the only moment there is, and to appreciate where I am now as a parent, and where my kids are in their lives. For me, as for so many others, it is so easy to dwell in the past, or get caught up in worries about the future.

Mara: One of the main obstacles that parents face for self-care is time. What would you say to a parent that feels they don’t have time to learn self-compassion?

Susan: Yes, I understand that we are all so pressed for time. Most of the practices in the book are short, three to five minutes, and many can be done washing the wishes, changing diapers, even driving. There is also new research that informal practices, rather than formal sitting, is more effective than we originally thought. So it doesn’t need to be an obstacle—we don’t need to sit in silence for 45 minutes, and we don’t need to feel guilt about not practicing “properly.”

Mara: Parenting is a lot of learning on the job, especially if we are trying to be “better” parents than perhaps our own parents were. Sometimes we can feel like we just suck at what we do. We are not cut out for parenting overall. I know that is quite the loaded statement, but do you have a word of advice for parents that feel like they should just claim failure as the norm because of their own inadequacies?

Susan: I love this question. Rarely do we ever feel that we are good enough parents. I think most of us feel that we suck at times, especially if we had challenging parents who weren’t good models. There is a saying that I like which is, “I’m not perfect, but parts of me are excellent.”

I encourage parents to look at what they are doing that is effective, or loving, or kind. Just as parents are told to look at what their children are doing “right,” rather than always finding fault or criticizing, it helps to begin to appreciate ourselves.

So no, I don’t think we need to claim failure as the norm. We need to have compassion for the mistakes we all make, and to understand that we are all human and imperfect, and to try to learn from our mistakes. One of the great teachings of mindfulness is that we can always start again, no matter what we have said or done. I think the same is true for parenting. We can always begin again. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron puts it well, “Fail, fail again, fail better.”

Mara: On the other hand, sometimes, when I tell people about my MSC courses and how MSC can help us be with the inevitable suffering and struggle we encounter as human beings, they say, “I don’t suffer or struggle that much. I doubt this would make any difference to me.” What would you say to a parent that believes their “small struggles” are not worth thinking about?

Susan: I think the use of language is so important. Some people find that the word “suffering” is too dramatic. You might inquire about moments of frustration or irritation. Try dialing it down a little. Sometimes you speak to folks who claim that parenting has been easy and they haven’t experienced difficulties. The interviewer in me always wants to talk to their kids and get their perspective! Also, some people feel that it is indulgent or weak or soft to talk about “small struggles.” I often switch direction here and talk about the research, about the importance of resilience, and how important it is to be kind to yourself.

Everybody struggles. Often folks wrestle with self-criticism, performance anxiety, stress, etc. but find it difficult to talk about. However, once trust is established and they feel they can be open about their challenges, the story often changes. We are told not to complain, or not to whine about our struggles. For some of the people I’ve worked with, it is taboo to talk about these things. It is often a process to begin to feel that our “small struggles” are worth thinking about.

Mara: This book is a great collection of examples of the difficulties that can be faced when parenting, and there are so many wonderful practices on offer. I love how you pull everything together in the “Toolbox for parents” at the end of the book. I could go in and find the topic I am struggling with and see what parts of the book and practices are most relevant. In all of them do you have an overall favourite practice?

Susan: I’m very practical, so I tend to like the practices that work for people when they are suffering. On a personal level, I like to practice with the metta/lovingkindness phrases. The Tree of Compassionate Beings, taught to me by Lama Willa Miller, is a go-to practice when life gets challenging. It helps me tap into the sense of not feeling alone, and feeling an abundance of loving, connected presence.

To be released August, 2019.
Pre-ordering is now available.
  • CHAPTER TITLES
  • “Make It Stop—I Can’t Keep Up!”: Parenting Is Overwhelming
  • “Why Is This So Hard?”: Using Self-Compassion as a Life Raft
  • “Where Did That Come From?”: Dealing with the Baggage We Bring to Parenting
  • “I’ll Never Be Good Enough”: Avoiding the Comparison Trap
  • “What Should I Do?”: Working with the Inevitable Uncertainty of Parenting
  • “Why Can’t Everyone Just Calm Down?”: Handling the Inevitable Hot Emotions
  • “It’s All Too Much”: Tapping the Power of Compassion When Times Are Particularly Tough
  • Roots and Wings: The Gifts We Give Our Children
  • Self-Compassion for Parents Toolbox
  • Resources

Susan M. Pollak, MTS, EdD, is cofounder and senior teacher at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, where she has supervised and taught since the mid-1990s. She is the president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A longtime student of meditation and yoga, Dr. Pollak teaches about mindfulness, compassion, and self-compassion in psychotherapy and has been integrating the practices of meditation into psychotherapy since the 1980s. She is author of Self-Compassion for Parents (for general readers) and coauthor of Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy (for mental health professionals).

November 1, 2018

Self-Compassionate Parenting Through Addiction Recovery

By Catherine Polan Orzech

The room is full of women and their babies. Babies are cooing and crying, moms are chatting, sharing diapers and parenting tips. It looks like any mom and baby class, but these moms have something else in common: they live in a residential addiction treatment facility. They’re fighting addictions to heroin, to meth, a few to other drugs.

Most have multiple children, many of whom have been surrendered to the foster care system or to adoptive families. Most of the babies herehave been exposed to drugs in utero. Some were born in hospitals, some in parks, some in parking lots. Many of them, at the tender age of one to five months, have themselves already spent time in foster care. But today, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. They are just a bunch of new moms and cute babies.

These moms — who range in age from 19 to 38 — have something else in common too: they are participating in a new and innovative program we call MP3: Mindful Present Perceptive Parenting.

The goal is to create an environment where these mothers can experience themselves with compassion, while they are with their children.

While they nurse, feed, change, rock and soothe, they are learning to cultivate the wholesome states of lovingkindness, self-compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity in order to give balance to a mind that is often preoccupied with everything that is wrong and not working – their past, the challenges of recovery, the uncertainties of a new, unmedicated future – while trying to parent an infant.

Sharon Salzberg says practicing lovingkindness is like planting seeds. You usually don’t see the benefit from the practice right away. But like a seed that is planted, cultivated and nurtured, over time it grows into the plant it was meant to be. The full potential for a tomato plant exists inside the seed even before it is planted. And once tended and encouraged in the soil and through the rain and sun, it grows into itself. This is true with loving kindness, and self-compassion, or any of the Brahma Viharas.

In MP3 we are creating the conditions for experiencing loving, connected presence. This is facilitated by the teacher and encouraged through the training of self-awareness in each mom while she interacts with her baby.

In each class we meditate together, do grounding practices, and direct compassion towards ourselves through the “Self-Compassion Break,” a meditation based on the “one for me, one for you” practice from MSC.

We also learn Tonglen, breathing in joy, experiencing it deeply, and then offering it up our children and others. The moms learn and practice infant massage with their babies as a way of engaging in an activity of parenting while making it a meditation. They also get lots of learning on infant development as well as issues they are dealing with in this phase of their lives.

Each class begins with the invitation to gather the attention in to just their own individual mom/baby space bubble. This is not always easy in a room full of moms and babies. Little by little, they absorb the instructions to feel the ground beneath them, then to feel the sensations of breath in their body. The room starts to settle. Today is Class One and one baby is crying loudly. He’s recently had a bronchial infection and it seems to have settled in his ears. He’s in a lot of pain and cannot be soothed. The wails of the baby are pervasive, and so I take it as an opportunity to give the instruction for everyone to be present and notice what’s happening. We notice the impact his cries have on each of us, and the natural impulse arising to want for him to feel better. This is compassion. We are in it. I invite the other moms to send both mom and baby some compassion.

In the inquiry afterwards the mother describes how she felt the love coming from the other moms, but she also felt self-conscious being the center of attention. This makes her uncomfortable. We all decide it’s best for her to go and take care of her baby outside of class and get him to the pediatrician.

We explore this real-time experience of suffering and the sending out of compassion to unpack what happens inside us when we are in the presence of suffering. The women identify elements of compassion, including empathy, acknowledgment, love and goodwill.

Now, we look at how and why they might want to cultivate those same things for themselves. We explore the MSC exercise called “How Do I Treat A Friend?” Most are shocked to discover how different they are with themselves. This gives us an opportunity to look at how bringing compassion to ourselves can allow us to parent more effectively. One mom chimes in, “it’s so true, when I’m crazy in my mind and feeling out of control, my baby totally picks up on it and then we’re both stressed out. Those are not my finest parenting moments.” Nods of agreement come from the other moms.

We’ve seen over the last three years of running this program that this is a typical experience in the MP3 program. Our intention is to give these mothers resources that will last a lifetime and will support strong bonds of attachment between them and their infants. To that end, we are working with the psychology department at the University of Oregon to look at the effect of the program on the physiological markers associated with attachment, namely oxytocin production in both mothers and infants.

Week two, and the sick baby is doing much better. The mother tells us how hard it was over the last week for her to calm herself down when her baby was so upset. But even with only being there for part of the first class, in the days since we last saw her she found herself becoming more aware of her inner critical dialogue, and able to call on some of her new skills to bring compassion to herself. “I was able to take a few deep breaths and remember that I could be a good friend to myself. That helped a lot,” she says.

This is a class they have to take as part of their treatment program. There are, not surprisingly, some problems with that. Meditation and self-compassion can never be mandated. But I believe in the power of those seeds, and the enduring power of compassion. Even if all a mother in the class gets is small taste of what it’s like to be in a friendly relationship with herself while navigating the joys and stresses of parenting, she will have learned something invaluable for her and her children.

I’ll never forget one mom from our first class, when we loaned the women small music players so they could listen to meditations on their own. Her baby got very sick at one point, and the two of them were quarantined in their room so as not to spread the infection to the rest of the residents. She ended up alone in a locked room with her sick baby for 36 hours. As any parent can attest, that kind of extreme parenting is very stressful. This mom, of course, was also in recovery. She was new to feeling her feelings. Heroin had always buffered them for her. Locked in that room, she said, she spent the day listening to those compassion meditations. “Without that,” she said, “I would have lost my mind completely.”

She told us that experience really shifted things for her and her understanding of how essential it is to “reign in my mind and feed it compassion instead of the criticism and junk I usually feed it.”

Mindfulness and compassion are not just self-oriented endeavors. Another benefit we’re seeing from this program is the ability of the women to express appreciation and love for the other women they are living with, and in so doing expand their web of community. One mother turned to one of the other women in the class and told her that she “was the model for her for compassion.”

“The way you lovingly treated me,” she told the other mother through grateful tears, “has helped me understand what a real friend was like. Now I can use the way you were with me to know how to be a real friend to myself.”

These mothers in recovery face the challenges as parents that most of us will never have to face. But they also face many of the same internal hurdles that bedevil all parents. We can learn from them, and with them, how learning to parent ourselves with mindfulness and compassion can help us engage with and recover from our own daily challenges in the amazing journey of being a parent.


Catherine Polan Orzech, MA, LMFT, has worked in the field of mind body wellness for almost two decades and has taught Mindfulness since 2000. She is currently involved in research on Mindful and Compassionate Parenting in connection with the University of Oregon, as well as involved in research on mindfulness in woman’s health and sexuality at Oregon Health Sciences University. Catherine currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where she is a marriage and family therapist in private practice specializing in mindfulness-based psychotherapy focusing on individuals, couples and families. Learn more about Catherine or her classes at www.CorvallisMindfulnessTherapy.org

 

March 30, 2018

Self-Compassion and Teen Suicide: A Mother’s Quest to Break Barriers

By Center For Mindful Self-Compassion

By Cynthia Osterman

My son Benji reminds me of Lovejoy, the glowing green comet that visited earth a few years ago for the first time in 11,500 years. Both are beautiful and rare, other-worldly phenomena transiting my life.

Benji died by suicide on May 7, 2015, at age 15. I still struggle sometimes to believe this isn’t just a bad dream.

Benji

Benji was curious, bright, funny and creative. He identified as bisexual. In some ways he was mature beyond his years with an adult-like view of the world and ability to converse. But he was also more tender than he would ever let on, which sometimes got him into situations beyond his ability to manage.

He accomplished a lot in his short lifetime — as a writer and as someone who aspired to bring creativity into the world in the form of books, theater and music. I remember seeing him moving props on stage at our local theater company during an intermission, and he wouldn’t say hello to me because he didn’t want to break the fourth wall. I marveled at how he started a book blog when he was 11 and gained thousands of readers.

Benji could run a complex publicity campaign but struggled to get the garbage from the kitchen to the garage. He had trouble with being truthful. He could be insensitive to the feelings of others. He loved to challenge the status quo and rock the boat.

But like all mothers and their children, I loved him without reservation.

Benji died at home by hanging on a cool spring morning.

I had no inkling that this was coming. Shock, trauma and grief were overwhelming. The day Benji died and the weeks thereafter are a horrific blur for me. There’s really nothing that can be done to diminish that grief. It will be with me always. My 20-plus years as a meditator in a Buddhist tradition helped me continue breathing and probably saved my life.

Once I was out of the initial fog of Benji’s death, I was tortured by questions. How could I have missed that my child was in such distress? How did I not keep him safe and protect him?

I experienced the harshest of self judgment. I assumed the world blamed me for Benji’s death because I blamed myself. I thought back to my fixations on giving him organic baby food and toddler Spanish lessons and realized I, who clung deeply to the desire to be a good mother, had been exposed as a fraud.

I embarked on a quest for understanding. I became a detective in my own life. I gathered gossip and information about Benji. I talked to people who knew him — though teenagers are not the most forthcoming lot. I learned Benji had tried pot and probably had sex. Before he died, I would have flipped out about this, but in retrospect I was glad he experienced as much as he could.

I had a forensic analysis done on his computer. I tried to break into his phone unsuccessfully. I read through his email which was virtually empty because Snapchat rules. I pored over his toxicology report which showed not a trace of anything in his system.

What I learned did not give me any resolution. There was no neat explanation. There were many causes for Benji’s death and no single one. Except perhaps that ever since he was a toddler, he lacked emotional resilience and was a little too sensitive for this world.

I had missed things, and viewed from hindsight, I saw them as part of his slide. But at the time I saw them as adolescent turmoil — difficulties with a project he was involved in, with friends, and at school. I subsequently learned that more than half of people who die by suicide suffer from depression, so that likely was a cause that I missed.

I have many questions for Benji if and when I ever see him again, and some of the most persistent are: Did you know how loved you are? And did you know that I would have done anything to help you?

Benji worked hard to prevent me from seeing that he was struggling and needed my help. Why?

The conclusion I drew was that Benji did not ask for help because he could not. A somewhat fragile soul, he had built up self-protective walls. He was deeply invested in projecting to the world a facade that everything was great.

Our culture frowns on anything that smacks of weakness or failure. It’s not OK to be average or ordinary. This obsession with success and perfection is magnified many times over by social media. Since I didn’t come of age in the social media era, I don’t think I truly appreciated how influential it is. One big straw on Benji’s back was being unfriended on Facebook by some people.

So what would it have taken for Benji to be able to admit his struggles?

The answer is self-acceptance, and this is where self-compassion comes into play. To seek help, we must first acknowledge and accept the reality of what is happening: I’m struggling, I need help. To give voice to our suffering, we have to recognize it and admit it to ourselves. If I can’t accept that I am failing at something, I won’t be willing to share it with you.

After Benji’s death, it became clear to me that the path to less suffering and greater well-being for adolescents (and all of us) was through greater self-acceptance. I learned of the work of Kristin Neff, the world’s leading researcher on self-compassion, and Chris Germer, a clinician and noted authority on integrating compassion into psychotherapy, and was particularly intrigued by the program they developed called Mindful Self-Compassion. Their program was adapted into a teen-specific curriculum by Karen Bluth of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Lorraine Hobbs of University of California San Diego.

The teen program is called Making Friends with Yourself. I founded a nonprofit called The Benji Project with a mission of offering this program to adolescents in my area, where we have a much higher than average number of teens who report that they have seriously considered suicide. Since starting work in late 2016, The Benji Project has offered courses and workshops to teens and adults, including our first two sessions of Making Friends with Yourself this year. We are about to award scholarships to train local teachers in MFY.

Self-compassion has helped me heal. It is a powerful tool to relieve suffering and improve coping for teens. This work is my way of loving Benji and the world. I invite you to join me in helping teens treat themselves with greater kindness with the gift of self-compassion.


Visit Making Friends with Yourself: A Mindful Self-Compassion Program for Teens online, or visit the Teacher Training page to learn more about how to become trained to teach self-compassion to teens.

Cynthia is a lover of words, people, and places. Her happiest moments are spent with son Holden, dog Ivy, and too many wonderful friends to name individually. She’s the mother of Benji and the founder of Benji Project.Her spiritual path is Buddhism and her professional path is journalism. She has had assignments in Chicago, Washington, D.C., London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Vancouver as well as a stint as a humanitarian relief volunteer in East Africa. She has worked from home as an editor since moving to Port Townsend in 2000.