Mindful Parenting

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a program on Mindful Parenting. I thought it might help to share some of the highlights, for those of you looking for a calmer, less reactive approach to raising your children.

The need for Mindful Parenting

How many of you have experienced any of the following:

  • You’re trying to make dinner, surf Facebook and answer your kid’s questions about homework all at the same time?

 

  • You’re reading your child a bedtime story while in your mind you are making a list of things to do after she goes to bed?

 

  • After arguing with your teen to come out of his room, get off his phone and engage with the family, five minutes later he calls you out for responding to a work email on your phone?

As author Kristen Race shares in her book “Mindful Parenting,” modern life is different than a generation ago. Many parents are struggling to juggle multiple roles. There are multiple electronic devices to distract us 24/7. Parents and their kids have demanding schedules, with little “down time.” For many of us, there are lingering financial worries as we continue to recover from the most recent recession. It’s no wonder she coins us “Generation Stress.”  And unfortunately, that stress is contagious – studies have shown that our children pick up on our stress even if we think we’re doing a good job concealing it.

Disengaging auto-pilot

Due to the many demands that we face in our day-to-day lives, many of us move through life on “auto-pilot.” Think about your daily commute to work – have there been times when you left home and arrived at work only to think “How did I get here?”  You know the route so well that you don’t have to consciously think through every turn along the way. You can tune out and run through that never-ending “to do” list in your mind. This automatic, mindless mode is not always a bad thing – it can be very helpful in establishing healthy habits like brushing your teeth or completing simple tasks like tying your shoes. It would be burdensome if we had to think through the steps every time we performed those tasks. But when autopilot takes over in more important areas of our lives, like how we engage with our children, it can lead to frustration and disappointment – for us and our children.

So how do we learn to disengage the auto-pilot and live more consciously? In one word: mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” It’s about awareness and intention. The folk singer Jewel (who has practiced mindfulness from a young age) describes it as “the gap between perceiving a thought and acting upon a thought, so that you can choose your action rather than have a reaction.” It is a way to create space so that we are less reactive to whatever life throws our way.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but they are typically broken down into two categories: formal and informal practice. Formal practice consists of dedicated time that you set aside to focus on awareness. Examples may include sitting meditation, breath awareness exercises, yoga, mindful walking and mindful eating. Informal practice refers to times when you are completely engaged in moment-to-moment awareness in a less structured way. Examples may include watching a sunrise, drinking a cup of tea, brushing your teeth, or washing dishes. Using an exercise analogy, think of formal practice as going to the gym or working out for a designated amount of time, whereas informal practice is like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away at work. It helps to include both in your mindfulness practice and you may find that the more you engage in formal practices, the more you find yourself being mindful in your daily activities.

Mindful Parenting

It’s probably no surprise that mindful parenting begins with you, the parent, committing to a mindfulness practice. In doing so, you will model positive behaviors for your children and you will approach your interactions with them in a different way. To modify a popular quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the person you want your children to become.”  If you’re feeling skeptical, there are studies that have demonstrated positive outcomes from this approach. Most notably, in a study conducted at UCLA, parents who practiced mindfulness for one year reported being dramatically more satisfied with their parenting skills and interactions with their children even though they had learned no new parenting practices. In addition, over the course of the year, their kids’ behavior also changed for the better. They got along better with siblings, were less aggressive and their social skills improved.

In preparing for my presentation, I relied on two main sources of information – the book by Kristen Race I referenced above as well as a book by Carla Naumburg, PhD, called “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.” Both books have helpful tips about how to build your own mindfulness practice as well as numerous examples of ways to engage your children in a mindful fashion. Below are two of my favorites – one for younger children and one for older children.

For younger children, consider trying “Stop, Drop, and Breathe.” This is an easy, quick and fun way to disrupt a difficult situation and breathe your way back into the present. Whenever you find yourself or your child spinning out of control, lost in thoughts or overwhelmed by emotions, remember to stop, drop and breathe: stop, drop whatever you are doing, and breathe deeply and intentionally. You can literally drop to the floor, which may get your children laughing, regardless of how grumpy anyone feels.

If you have older children (tweens and teens), does it drive you crazy how much they use the words “like” or “ya know” when speaking? It can be a challenge for all of us to eliminate filler words from our speech. Try an exercise to help focus on mindful speaking. You can even turn it into a game, in which family members gently remind each other when they mindlessly pepper their speech with filler words.

Getting Started

The key to mindful parenting is establishing a mindfulness practice that works for you. Many people ask how much time they should devote to formal practice. It is based on what works best for you, what you will do consistently. This is a skill to be learned – it will take practice. You can start small, maybe 5 or 10 minutes a day, and build up from there. Feel free to include a combination of formal and informal practices and most of all, remember there is no right or wrong way to do it. Give it a try and see what happens.

Relationships and Communication

Relationships

As the holidays approach, it means many of us will be spending time with family, friends and other loved ones. Depending on your relationship with these individuals, this togetherness may bring feelings of joy and happiness, but it can also bring sadness, disappointment and even pain. Our social relationships have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, for better or for worse.

Research has shown that individuals who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. It is beneficial to periodically assess the quality of your social relationships and how they are impacting your health and wellbeing.

A few questions to consider as you assess the stability and satisfaction with your current relationships include:

  • Does the relationship contribute to a sense of belonging, security, purpose and/or self-worth?
  • Do you have a variety of social outlets, from casual acquaintances to one or two close friends who can provide support when needed?
  • Do you foster those relationships in which you feel supported and energized? And conversely, do you minimize contact in those relationships that are conflicted and/or drain your energy?

You may also want to think about the impact of your relationships based on the other areas of the Wheel of Health. For example, do you have relationships that can support you in meeting your nutrition and exercise goals? Are your spiritual beliefs and experiences supported, or perhaps challenged, by your relationships? What impact do your close relationships have on your personal growth and development?

Communication

One of the most important factors in maintaining healthy relationships is effective communication. Whether you want to sustain your supportive relationships or improve your difficult ones, improving the way you communicate can be key. Below are three components of effective communication skills you may want to assess personally:

Listening. Think about the last time you thought someone really listened to you. How did it feel to have their complete attention? Most likely, that person demonstrated the following behaviors or characteristics:

  • The listener was not in a rush, paid attention to what you were saying and held space for you to share what was on your mind. S/he was present with you, mentally and physically.
  • The listener did not rush to judge or criticize what you were saying, and refrained from injecting his or her own opinions about what you had to say.
  • The listener let you know you were heard by reflecting or paraphrasing what you said and/or by asking clarifying questions.
  • The listener used non-verbal behaviors, such as consistent eye contact and nodding, to indicate that s/he was present and focused on you.

The next time you want to engage in active listening, select one of the above characteristics and consciously practice it. See if it makes a difference in the relationship to the person to whom you are listening.

Inquiry. True inquiry comes from a place of genuine curiosity about another person. It is not just asking questions for the sake of carrying on a conversation. It can be accomplished using open-ended questions, that are not easily answered with just a “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions typically begin with “what” or “how.” For example, rather than asking “Did you have a good day at school?,” you might ask “What was the best part about school today?”

If you want to practice the skill of inquiry, consider the use of “I” statements. This approach allows each person to have his or her own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs. Some examples include:

“You” statement: “You don’t understand me.”

vs.

“I” statement: “I’m not sure I am making myself clear.”

 

“You” statement: “You are no help at all!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel overworked and would appreciate some extra help.”

 

“You” statement: “You are always late!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel anxious when you don’t arrive on time.”

If you are not already using “I” statements, you may want to try this approach and see if doing so has a positive impact on communication with your colleagues, friends and family.

Communication styles. Being aware of your communication style can help you choose the one that best fits the specific circumstance and promotes open and effective communication. There are four basic styles of communicating:

  • Aggressive: Getting what you want at another person’s expense. This style typically involves a loud voice, insults, dominating posture and a lack of listening.

 

  • Passive: Allowing another person to have what they want at your expense, often to avoid conflict. This style usually involves a quiet voice and demeanor, a meek posture and little room to express your own feelings or desires.

 

  • Assertive: Balancing what you want with what another person wants. This style generally involves a firm, moderate tone of voice, and communication that includes both listening and the use of “I” statements.

 

  • Passive Aggressive: Attempting to get what you want in an indirect or calculating way. Communication is often not direct but leading and manipulative. Tone of voice and posture vary depending on what you think will get you what you want with the other person or in that particular moment.

Different situations call for different communication styles. There is benefit in being competent in more than one style, and being able to use the style that the situation calls for. Being aware of what style of communication you are using and choosing intentionally can be beneficial in promoting the kinds of relationships you want to have.

The Wheel of Health and Your Optimal Health Journey

wheel2-878x1024Today I’d like to share an overview of the Duke Integrative Medicine Wheel of Health (WOH). This wheel provides a framework for creating your personalized health plan – and a map of your optimal health journey. We will explore the various parts of the wheel in-depth in subsequent posts, but for now, let’s look at the big picture.

The WOH represents the whole picture of your health and wellbeing. It is a multidimensional, whole person approach that considers body, mind and spirit. As you can see, it does not focus on just physical health. It goes beyond managing disease and instead emphasizes optimizing health.

Dimensions of the Wheel

You

At the center of the wheel is YOU, because health coaching is a person-centered process. Your health journey is driven by your values, goals and desires. As a coach, I won’t tell you what to do or not to do – you get to decide based on your priorities and what works for you.

Mindful Awareness

Surrounding the center of the wheel is Mindful Awareness. The concept of mindfulness – paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally – is a powerful tool and resource for behavior change.  Being more present and aware of what is happening to you and in you can help you respond to changes in your life in a more proactive, engaged way.

Self-Care

The green ring in the wheel represents the seven areas of self-care. People often focus their efforts here when making changes to their health behaviors. Evaluating your current and desired states in each of these areas can help you create a healthier life. These include:

Movement, Exercise and Rest – This area addresses physical activity, whether it be formal exercise (for example, running 30 minutes a day) or general activities of daily living (such as cleaning the house or grocery shopping). Just as important, it also incorporates the need for adequate rest (good sleep is vital!) and relaxation or “down time”.

Nutrition – In a nutshell, eating a balanced, healthy diet that fuels and nourishes your body and mind. There is no specific diet that is recommended. There are some key healthy eating strategies that we’ll discuss in a future post, but it is also based on what works for your body.

Personal and Professional Development –  It is helpful to assess where you are with personal, career or life goals, particularly at times of transition or milestones. These may include work-life balance, financial goals, and personal growth that will support optimal wellbeing. Regular assessment of your goals can reinforce healthy behavior choices.

Physical Environment – Studies have suggested that your surroundings at work and home can impact your health, either positively or negatively. Exposure to light, noise or toxins in your home or work space can have a major impact on how you feel physically and emotionally. On the other hand, a supportive, nurturing physical environment can enhance your sense of peace and wellness.

Relationships and Communication – Research demonstrates that positive relationships built on open, respectful communication with family, friends and colleagues can have a beneficial impact on your health. Identify those relationships in your life that fuel you and those that drain you. In doing so, you can invest in your positive connections and minimize or re-evaluate those relationships that don’t serve you.

Spirituality – This area is about finding purpose and meaning in something larger than oneself. For some people, it may include a religious affiliation. For others, it may be a connection to nature or the arts. Although the definition of spirituality is very personal in nature, the role that it plays in your life can transform your health.

Mind-Body Connection – This area relates back to the inner ring of Mindful Awareness. It focuses on mind-body practices that can help you be more present. Techniques include things that activate the body’s relaxation and healing response, like breathing practices, meditation, yoga, or guided imagery.

Professional Care

It is important to seek routine preventive medical care such as an annual physical exam, recommended cancer screenings (e.g., mammogram, colonoscopy) and vaccinations. In addition, you can supplement your usual medical care with complementary approaches such as acupuncture, massage, hypnosis or energy work. A primary goal of Integrative Medicine is to remove the distinction between conventional and complementary approaches and create one integrated approach to health care. In this model, patients and their providers work together to determine the most effective, evidence-based personalized health plan to achieve life-long wellbeing.