It took months for Margo to help her son Michael to show some self-regulation and talk about his feelings rather than having a tantrum and hitting. She spent a lot of time coaching him. “Can you say ‘I’m angry that I can’t keep playing?’” She gave Michael positive recognition when he used words rather than exploding.
Talking with Margo, I suggested she pat herself on the back for these concentrated efforts to work with a behavior in a patient, supportive way. Margo shrugged her shoulders, as if I were joking. Why is it that applauding ourselves as parents or as teachers feels silly? Perhaps it’s because we see making incredible efforts as part of our roles, and we do so out of love.
We probably wouldn’t shrug off compliments about our accomplishments in another area of life, like finishing a long project or achieving a sales goal. We also get predictable recognitions in a weight-loss program, and those are designed to help us keep going.
In the day-to-day energy expenditures of parenting or teaching, we don’t usually stop to mark moments of success or to even be conscious that we need a pat on the back or a time out. There can even be a kind of shame connected with parents and teachers admitting that they need positive feedback in the midst of constant self-giving.
We also aren’t taught the symptoms of burnout from exhaustion and stress. One of the signs is losing our sense of accomplishment and feeling that we are going on autopilot. In actuality, stopping regularly to recognize our efforts, knowing when we need a break, and tuning in to our own self-criticism and over-expectation is crucial.
This is a time of year when we naturally think about and celebrate children’s accomplishments. It’s also an important time to reflect on our own and to make adjustments that bring us more nourishment in life. Learning to do this for ourselves, and for those around us, is the way we protect our most precious inner resources, which allow us to give children what they need.