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.
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.
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.
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.