Compassion: A Strategy for Caring for Yourself and Your Children

Humans are primed to react to a threat with a stress response. In modern society, we may no longer find ourselves facing tigers in the wild; however, our bodies may react with similar biological, fight-flight responses when we feel intense stress. The demands of parenting can be a source of stress, and, often, the stress we feel from parenting may be amplified when we respond to our actions and thoughts with self-judgement. Maybe you were late for your child’s school play due to traffic or your teenager approached you with sexual health questions that you didn’t answer with the level of comfort and openness you wish you had. Experiences such as these may leave you with an inner dialogue that is berating and discouraging.

The good news is that our brains are malleable, and we can limit self-criticism and unkind self-talk! Using compassion-based strategies, like mindfulness and meditation, can help us as they can calm and redirect our minds towards positive qualities such as gratitude, patience, kindness, and connection.

In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson, a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School, identified and named the functional attribute of some compassion-based strategies (e.g., meditation, yoga, deep religious prayer) as “The Relaxation Response.” Benson indicated this response was the opposite of the body’s fight-flight response; it encouraged the body to release chemicals and signals that caused organs to slow (e.g., reduced heart rate), muscles to relax, and blood to flow to the brain (Mitchell, 2013; Powell, 2018). Research now confirms that compassion-based strategies can help individuals relax, reduce stress, and see benefits in mental and physical health. In addition, using these strategies may even promote longevity (Black & Slavich, 2016; Epel et al., 2009; Powell, 2018)!

The meaning of the word compassion comes from Latin, and it translates into “to suffer with.” Most definitions suggest that compassion encompasses both feeling or being moved by another’s suffering and wanting to take action to help (Strauss, 2016). Research reviews indicate that compassion consists of three dimensions. First, noticing a person’s suffering either cognitively or as a physical or affective reaction (e.g., awareness of another person’s mood or attitude). Second, feeling or reacting emotionally with concern in such a way that the other person’s perspective of the suffering is imagined or understood. Third, responding based on a desire to act and alleviate the other person’s suffering (Kanov et al., 2004; Strauss, 2016). Compassion can be felt for ourself, others we know, and individuals we have never met (e.g., refuges in a war-torn country).

Below are two compassion-based strategies that can be used to promote relaxation, better self-care, and loving-kindness towards yourself and others.

  • Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment with openness, curiosity, and acceptance. Mindfulness increases interoception, which is the ability to sense the internal state of one’s body. Attention to the present moment can help break the cycle of negative mental ruminations such as belittling yourself all day because you forgot to put a piece of fruit in your child’s lunch box in the morning!
  • Meditation is a grounding practice with an anchor such as focusing on your breathing. Meditation allows one to be calm and observe their inner experience without judgement.

In recent years, evidence in support of compassion-based strategies has grown. Consider just a few examples below:

  • In 2012, researchers (Desbordes et al.) conducted the first brain scans, known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), of individuals after meditation training. The individuals experienced changes in the activity of their amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional processing—especially fear and anxiety. These findings reinforce the concept that meditation can positively affect mental function outside of a meditative state and that our minds are trainable!
  • Researchers have demonstrated that meditation practices produce positive emotions, which can lead to growth in personal resources (e.g., increased sense of purpose and social support, decreased illness symptoms) that predict increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms (Fredrickson et al., 2008).
  • In 2018, an overview of scientific evidence related to compassion-based interventions and loving-kindness meditation was highlighted in the Harvard Review of Psychology. The researchers indicated, in this overview, that conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder could be positively affected through use of these types of interventions and strategies as part of a treatment plan (Graser & Stangier, 2018).
  • Studies have repeatedly shown the impacts of self-compassion upon parenting. For example, a 2015 study (Robinson et al.) showed that when parents of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism, possessed self-compassion, they had lower levels of stress and depression. In addition, a review in 2017 revealed that parents who used mindfulness strategies experienced reduced distress when parenting children with disabilities (Ryan & Ahmad, 2017). Furthermore, possessing self-compassion has been shown to be a resource for supporting mothers’ general well-being and their ability to breastfeed throughout the first year of their baby’s life (Mitchell et al., 2018).

There are many benefits to being mindful and practicing meditation; they include the following:

  • These practices can create a calm state.
  • These practices allow for detachment from emotions, which may provide a buffer in responding to circumstances or people. As an individual separates themself from their thoughts and feelings, they may recognize that who they are is distinct from what they think and feel, especially in times of stress. For parents, this recognition allows individuals to go from reacting to stress in habitual or automatic ways to responding to stress with awareness. This mindfulness can help a parent to recognize and understand their thoughts, reactions, and behaviors in the moment and to parent with more gentleness and warmth (Kabat-Zinn, J. & Kabat-Zinn, M., 2021).
  • These practices allow individuals to connect with their authentic self and to send loving-kindness to themselves and others. Social connections are imperative to well-being. An 85-year Harvard research study recently demonstrated that close relationships are the key to human happiness—this includes a compassionate relationship with yourself (Liebergall, 2023)!
  • These practices increase an individual’s capacity to focus and remain on task.

Want to begin using compassion-based strategies?

Getting started can be as simple as taking 1 minute a day to sit tall with eyes closed or focused downward while quietly paying attention to your breath. Many of us have a few minutes each day of purposeless social media scrolling that could be replaced with a moment of mindfulness.

Below are a few example practices for you to try.

Sample Mindful Activity:

  1. Stretch a bit or shake your arms or body to release any emotions.
  2. Close your eyes, or glance downward.
  3. Now, listen. What are two things you hear (e.g., clock ticking)?
  4. What are two sensations you feel (e.g., warmth of a sweater, breeze from a fan)?
  5. What are two scents you smell (e.g., perfume, candle)?
  6. Open your eyes, and look around slowly. What are two items you see (e.g., sun outside the window)?

This simple activity can show you how much stimuli you experience during every moment but may not notice or acknowledge.

Sample Mindfulness Meditation – Focus on Breathing:

  1. Sit tall and comfortably with your eyes closed, or glance downward.
  2. Direct your attention to your breathing. Focus on slowly breathing in and out.
  3. As you inhale and exhale, pay attention to the sensation of your breathing in a single part of your body such as your nose, mouth, chest, or abdomen. For example, you might put a hand on your abdomen and focus on the rising and falling of your abdomen with each breath cycle.

It is natural for your mind to wander! Simply notice and bring your attention back to your breath, and be mindful of the present moment.

Here is a website for guidance on meditating for beginners: https://www.tenpercent.com/meditations/how-to-meditate

Loving-kindness Meditation:

Loving-kindness meditation is a technique used to promote feelings of warmth and caring for oneself and others. Unlike mindfulness meditation, which involves training one’s attention toward the present moment in a nonjudgmental way, loving-kindness meditation involves quiet contemplation and directs one’s positive emotions towards oneself and others in an open-hearted way.

  1. Sit quietly with your eyes closed, or glance downward.
  2. Breathe slowly and deeply.
  3. Focus on your heart region. You might place your hand(s) on your chest.
  4. Imagine yourself with inner peace, and know you are enough and whole as you are. Breathe in love; breathe out tension.
  5. As you breathe, repeat one or more positive phrases to yourself, such as the following:
    • I am meant to live in peace.
    • I am safe.
    • I am loved.
    • May I be happy and peaceful.
  1. Shift your attention, and think about a person for whom you feel warm and tender feelings (e.g., your child, a friend). You might visualize the person sitting in front of you.
  2. Mentally extend gratitude and warm feelings to this person.
  3. As you grow this practice, you may wish to also extend feelings of connection and compassion to others, such as an acquaintance, global populations who are suffering, or individuals with whom you are in conflict, as a way to invite forgiveness or peace.
  4. When you are finished, slowly open your eyes, and internalize the feelings of loving kindness, so you can tap into them throughout the day.

Other Self-compassion Techniques:

When you are enduring parenting stress, receiving feelings of support and comfort can offer relief. Consider the following techniques:

  • Think of a family member or friend, and consider ways in which they previously brought you peace. Did your grandmother stroke your hair as you lay in her lap? Did your father use a term of endearment to cheer you when you were downtrodden? Did a friend brighten your day with a smile and laughter last time you were together?
  • Comfort yourself with loving actions, such as putting your hand over your heart or giving yourself a hug, and whisper kind words to yourself such as “I love you” or “You can do this.”
  • Take a momentary break and acknowledge your current parenting challenge or demand. Recognize that other parents have and are currently feeling the way you do! Extend compassion to yourself.
  • Recognize that you are not alone. Your biological makeup consists of many generations before you! Draw on the resiliency of your ancestors by picturing yourself surrounded by family members or others who love and support you.

(Abdullah, 2018)

Additional Resources

There are a variety of resources that you can use to learn about and practice compassion-based strategies.

Access free online meditations like those from the sources below.

Read a book that highlights the research and strategies of mindfulness and meditation like those below.

  • Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Real Happiness: A 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg
  • 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works – A True Story by Dan Harris
  • Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • What Now?: Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond by Yael Shy
  • True Refuge by Tara Brach

A variety of apps are available that have guided meditations and other resources like the following.

Podcasts, such as those listed below, discuss the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.

Additional resources are available like the following.

References

Abdullah, M. (2018, April 17). Self-compassion for parents. Greater Good Magazine: Mind & Body. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/self_compassion_for_parents

Black, D. S., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1373(1), 13-24. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12998

Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W., Wallace, B. A., Raison, C. L., & Schwartz, E. L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience6, 292. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292

Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J. T., Folkman, S., & Blackburn, E. (2009). Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1172(1), 34-53. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–1062. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/a0013262

Graser, J., & Stangier, U. (2018). Compassion and loving-kindness meditation: An overview and prospects for the application in clinical samples. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 26(4), 201–215. https://doi.org/10.1097/hrp.0000000000000192

Hofmann, S. G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. E. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(7), 1126–1132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.07.003

Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720-724. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/a0013237

Kabat-Zinn, J. & Kabat-Zinn, M. (2021). Mindful parenting: Perspectives on the heart of the matter. Mindfulness, 12, 266-268. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01564-7

Kanov, J. M., Maitlis, S., Worline, M. C., Dutton, J. E., Frost, P. J., & Lilius, J. M. (2004). Compassion in organizational life. American Behavioral Scientist47(6), 808-827. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764203260211

Liebergall, M. (Host). (2023, February 16). Author Talks: The world’s longest study of adult development finds the key to happy living [Interview]. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-on-books/author-talks-the-worlds-longest-study-of-adult-development-finds-the-key-to-happy-living

Mitchell, A. E., Whittingham, K., Steindl, S., & Kirby, J. (2018). Feasibility and acceptability of a brief online self-compassion intervention for mothers of infants. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 21, 553–561.https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-018-0829-y

Mitchell, M. (2013, March 29). Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response: Learn to counteract the physiological effects of stress. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-herbert-benson-s-relaxation-response

Powell, A. (2018). When science meets mindfulness. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/

Rayan, A., & Ahmad, M. (2018). Mindfulness and parenting distress among parents of children with disabilities: A literature review. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care54(2), 324–330. https://doi.org/10.1111/ppc.12217

Robinson, S., Hastings, R. P., Weiss, J. A., Pagavathsing, J., & Lunsky, Y. (2018). Self-compassion and psychological distress in parents of young people and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities31(3), 454–458. https://doi.org/10.1111/jar.12423

Scott, E. (2020, February 11). How to practice loving kindness meditation. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-practice-loving-kindness-meditation-3144786

Strauss, C., Taylor, B. L., Gu, J., Kuyken, W., Baer, R., Jones, F., & Cavanagh, K. (2016). What is compassion and how can we measure it? A review of definitions and measures. Clinical Psychology Review47, 15-27.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2016.05.004

Wong, C. C. Y., Mak, W. W. S. & Liao, K. Y. H. (2016). Self-compassion: A potential buffer against affiliate stigma experienced by parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. Mindfulness, 7, 1385–1395. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-016-0580-2I got all 

Zeng, X., Chiu, C. P., Wang, R., Oei, T. P., & Leung, F.Y. (2015). The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: A meta-analytic review. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1693. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01693

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