How to be a Mindful Parent. Or, How to Stick To All Your Parenting Resolutions.
The pasta I was cooking just boiled over onto my stove. Two of my three children are screaming insults at each other, and one of them just locked himself in the bathroom repeatedly yelling, “NOBODY LOVES ME!” When I come back from consoling my hysterical son in the bathroom, I find my four-year old sitting quietly at the table with permanent marker all over his face. Do you recognize this scenario at all? How do you feel when you have these out-of-control parenting moments? I feel just like that pot of pasta on my stove. My anger starts to bubble to the surface, and it’s about to spill over onto everyone.
I used to lose control and start screaming at everyone. Now, I usually just stand back and laugh. Yes, I laugh at the absurdity of the whole situation. And, no, I’m not crazy.
I practice mindful parenting. Mindfulness is defined as an awareness of our inner experiences, such as our thoughts, emotions, and external events, without evaluating, analyzing or reflecting upon these (Hülsheger et. al., 2013). In other words, when things start happening, you don’t react. You don’t react externally or internally. Instead, you respond. For instance, in the previous situation I would take a step back from the entire scenario and observe what is going on around me and inside me. By doing so, I can stop time for a second and simply observe the situation as an outsider. I observe my child’s behavior and my own internal thoughts and feelings.
Important: I don’t judge those thoughts, emotions or external actions; I simply notice they are there. By practicing mindfulness, I have become better able to respond to my children during stressful situations, so I can be the kind of parent I strive to be.
How many of you have read any parenting books or websites? Most parents already know how to parent the right way. You know all about self-esteem, positive parenting, how to reduce sibling rivalry, how to raise strong girls and compassionate boys, how to avoid picky eaters, and how to teach responsibility and self-sufficiency.
I’ve read them all. And chances are if you’re on this blog you have read all kinds of parenting advice too.
So how’s that working out for you?
My guess is, it works sometimes, but mostly when things are running smoothly. Yet, how many times does life run smoothly? Usually unexpected things happen, your kids didn’t get enough sleep the night before and are now inconsolable. Or you didn’t get enough sleep, had a bad day at work, and are running low on patience. How do you uphold your parenting principles then? It’s extremely hard sometimes. When I lose my temper with my kids, I must look absolutely terrifying to them. I don’t want to be terrifying; I want to be their rock. I want them to learn how to deal with stress in a healthy way.
How can I teach them how to handle stress when I’m flipping out?
Practicing mindfulness as a parent can act as a buffer from all the stresses that inevitably come along with parenting. This in turn can seriously make you a more effective parent to your precious little ones.
Recent empirical studies suggest that mindfulness can help you better regulate emotions, reduce emotional exhaustion, and increase overall levels of satisfaction (Hülsheger, et. al. 2013). Wouldn’t it be great to sustain these qualities while your kids are running circles around you? Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindful parenting as being about “moment-to-moment, openhearted and nonjudgmental attention”. It’s about seeing our children as they are, not as we want them to be.
So, where should you start? Several guidelines can put you on track to mindful parenting:
Just be quiet. When things get heated or you’re just low on patience, tell yourself that you don’t necessarily need to say anything at this moment. Just close your eyes for a moment and be quiet. Push “pause” on the situation. Pushing pause can help you stop the cycle of reacting to emotions or external events, and gives you time to reflect on the situation before responding.
Kids are brain-damaged. Sound cruel? It’s not. Kids’ brains are still developing! Keep this in mind when they yell out loud, “Look Mommy, that lady’s bottom is really big!” (Yes, that really happened.) Keep this in mind when they become completely hysterical because they are losing at Monopoly. Keep this in mind when your child has forgotten to follow directions for the third time today. Remember that you are your child’s most important teacher. Remind yourself that, most of the time, your children don’t intend to do wrong; they are simply misguided. Approach their misbehavior with that attitude in mind.
Touch. If your child is having a temper tantrum, or is simply out of control, try giving him a big hug. Sometimes when your half-pints have full-size temper tantrums, they actually just feel alone, misunderstood and overwhelmed by their emotions. Giving that child physical closeness, loving-kindness, and just being there for them can often solve help calm them down. My 8-year old son was totally out of control with rage one day after a fight with his sister. He wouldn’t talk to anyone, locked himself in the bathroom while repeatedly screaming, “Nobody loves me!” I got him to let me in, but he didn’t want to be touched at all. I hugged him anyway. I sat there quietly, put my arms around him and squeezed him tight until he stopped struggling to get away. He eventually melted into my arms and started to cry. Only then were we able to talk calmly and rationally. Only then did he release all of his feelings to me, and in fact, even opened up to me about all kinds of things that had been bothering him that week at school.
Stick to rules. Being mindful doesn’t mean you always give in to your children’s whims. Rules are necessary, and believe me, children want them whether they admit it or not. Stick to your rules. Be consistent. And when they break the rules, explain why there will be consequences. For example, “You know you’re not allowed to throw the ball in the living room, yet you threw the ball anyway. The reasone I don't want you throwing the ball around, is because it could break things or hurt someone. Now I’m taking the ball away for the rest of the day.” They might be angry or upset about it, but they need those rules. And they actually understand why the ball is gone now.
Children have the right to their feelings. When you do offer consequences for breaking the rules, your child will most likely be upset or angry about it. They might cry or spin off into a rage of anger at you. Let them. Your children have a right to their feelings. All that matters is how they deal with those feelings. Don’t jump into the emotions with them. Stand back and remind yourself that they are allowed to be upset. When my four-year old has a throw-down fit because I said no to gummy bears before breakfast, I let him. I tell myself, “He’s allowed to be upset by that. He’s still not getting gummy bears though.” Or when my four-year old gets a time out for something, he'll scream through his tears, “But Mommy, I DON’T WANT A TIME OUT!!!” I respond by telling him he’s not supposed to want time-outs. He is not supposed to be happy in that moment. I tell my son that, but to be honest, I'm also reminding myself of that at the same time.
Your children are your Zen masters. Jon Kabat-Zinn once said, see your children as your “live-in Zen masters” (Kabat-Zinn, 2001). Their tantrums, whining, fighting, or even the times they interrupt you while on the phone, are all opportunities for you to practice mindfulness. When children fight with their siblings, fight with you, tell you your arms are wobbly, or loudly point out your wrinkles (Gee, thanks.), try to see these moments as opportunities to practice staying centered, and aware of everything as it is. Use the many challenges that your children bring to you throughout your day as valuable moments to practice mindfulness. And be grateful to your little Zen masters.
Accept that you will have to do things right in the middle of pure chaos. We often put off things like meditating until we have more time, or more peace and quiet. I often plan on meditating, and then I don’t do it because I feel like the time isn’t right. If my kids are home, for example, I’ll tell myself that I’ll do it when they’re in bed. If they are getting ready to come home from somewhere, I’ll tell myself it’s not worth it to start meditating since they’ll be home soon. I have all kinds of excuses why my kids are impediments to practicing mindfulness, when, in fact, our kids can really help our mindfulness practice. Start seeing them as little Zen masters who are there to help you become a more mindful person. Go ahead: Practice sitting down and meditating while your kids are home, playing, laughing, fighting. Again, see this as major practice in mindfulness. After all, life is not quiet, is it? An added benefit to doing this: Your kids will actually learn to respect your time.
Meditate. If you haven’t already, start practicing meditation. Find yourself a good mindfulness meditation teacher, and start meditating! Numerous studies have shown that meditation literally changes the structure of the brain. It can increase cognitive ability, judgment, patience, subjective well-being, optimism, attentional focus, and much more (e.g., Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Luders et. al., 2009; Overholser et. al., 2009; Pagnoni et. al., 2007). Mindfulness meditation, or any other kind of meditation, can be extremely helpful in keeping you even-keeled throughout your day, and better able to stay calm when things get hectic at home. See it as brushing your teeth. You wouldn’t skip your daily dental hygiene, would you? Why neglect your brain?
Mindful parenting is becoming more popular and risks coming off as just another trend. But, it can be the key to getting through the parenting rough spots that inevitably occur. Mindfulness can help you stick to your own parenting resolutions, and provide children with a parent who is present, calm, and able to respond with true awareness.
Kabat-Zinn, J (1994) Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hyperion, NY
Kabat-Zinn, J., (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future, Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.
Luders, E., Toga, A.W., Lepore, N., & Gaser, C. (2009). The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter, NeuroImage, 45, 672-678.
Overholser, J.C., & Fisher, L.B. (2009). Contemporary perspectives on stress management: Medication, meditation or mitigation, Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 39, 147–155. Doi: 10.1007/s10879-009-9114-8
Pagnoni, G., & Cekic, M. (2007). Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation, Neurobiology of Aging, 28(10), 1623-1627.