The power of mindful parenting
I was feeling pretty good as I set down my homemade risotto for my 3-year-old. At eight months pregnant, producing a healthy, homemade meal is a cause for an internal high five.
Except my mini-celebration was premature.
Upon arrival at the table she crumpled into tears and began to wail.
"I don't like this mummy!"
Suddenly I was feeling a lot more exhasuted, crabby and frustrated.
I noticed the pans to wash and cursed the fact that I didn't just make beans on toast.
I knew from experience that reminding her that she does like it and has eaten it many times before wouldn't work. Nor would getting cross or trying to bribe her. In fact, any of these approaches would only take longer as we both got hungrier and crosser by the minute.
I asked her to try some and let me know if she still didn't want any. To be fair to the kid, she did. A whole big mouthful but for whatever reason it just wasn't what she was going to eat right now.
It's the moments like this that make parenting hard.
When you're tired, have a bunch of stuff to do and their behaviour just seems so unreasonable.
When they refuse to put on shoes, or demand the one cup that's already dirty.
When you have to ask ten times before they listen or referee yet another sibling battle.
These are the moments that wear you down and suck the joy from parenting.
I took a deep breath and thought about my options.
Fortunately, I'd been doing some research for a session on mindful parenting. I knew that this meltdown wasn't personal but in fact was probably more to do with her busy day and my increasing lack of patience - closely related to my heavily pregnant status.
What the heck is mindful parenting anyway?
You'd have to have been living under a rock these days to have missed the phenomenon that is mindfulness.
TV shows, magazines and podcasts extol its virtues and it’s even beginning to make its way into the curriculum.
There is however a distinct difference between a mindfulness practice, which may look more like traditional structured meditation and becoming more mindful in your everyday life and your parenting.
A study from the University of Vermont found that while parents who had a strong mindfulness practice reported positive outcomes such as reduced stress for themselves, it wasn’t necessarily the key to significantly better outcomes for their children.
The researchers suggested that this was to do with the challenge of transferring the skills of mindfulness, especially in heated circumstances. The implication is that, while in essence having a mindfulness practice is a fantastic way to increase positive aspects of your own life, mindful parenting is a skill all of its own.
So, what does mindful parenting really mean?
Another paper led by researcher Larissa Duncan found that mindful parenting could be broken into distinct skill sets.
Mindful Parenting Skills
- Listening with full attention.
- Non-judgemental acceptance of the self and the child.
- Emotional awareness of the self and the child.
- Self-regulation in the parenting relationship.
- Compassion for the self and the child.
Parents who exhibited these skills were, amongst other things, more responsive to their children’s needs, showed more positive affection, engaged less in ‘automatic discipline’ and were less dismissive of their children’s emotions.
What does this really tell us about mindful parenting?
The paper hypothesised that parents who received teaching and training in the core mindfulness skills would experience an improvement in the quality of the parent-child relationship.
In normal parenting speak?
That when parents practise and master using mindful parenting skills in their daily lives, they'll feel happier, calmer, more connected and better equipped to manage the challenges of parenting in a positive manner.
Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?
To experience more joy and less stress in the daily interactions we have with the people that we love the most.
I can guess what you're thinking right now
"I barely have time to manage the day, let alone master a bunch of new skills to use."
The great thing about mindful parenting is that it isn't an all or nothing approach. It's more of a shift in your thinking; a purposeful movement towards the way you want things to be for your family.
It means only consciously choosing to try a different path and being gentle with yourself when it doesn't all go to plan.
3 simple mindful parenting practices
Become present in the moment
Practise for just a few minutes at a time giving your child your full and complete attention. Put away your phone and any other distractions and bring yourself fully into the moment. Engage with all of your senses, listen to their laughter, notice the freckles on their nose. Smell freshly washed hair and kiss soft bath-warm skin.
Pay attention to how you feel after this interaction.
Do you feel somehow a little more ‘filled up’ by your time with them?
How do they respond to your loving attention?
To yourself and your child. Next time something doesn’t go to plan instead of mentally berating yourself, take a few moments to breathe and then let it go.
Apply the rule of five.
Will this issue matter in five weeks, five months or five years?
Most often, the answer is probably not. Consciously cultivating the ability to step back and see the bigger picture can be key in developing compassion for yourself and your family.
Ruminating makes us unhappy; perspective enables us to hold things lightly.
Understand the power of the pause
When we get caught up in stressful situations like our child having a tantrum or answering back, our body responds how it does to any stress-inducing moment; by kicking off our flight or fight response. As stress hormones flood our body it is all too easy to engage in knee-jerk responses and actions that we later regret.
When you notice this sensation of stress in a situation, stop. Mindfully choose to take three deep breaths.
Remind yourself that however this moment feels your child’s behaviour is rarely an emergency.
If this sounds hard it’s because it is. But just like a muscle in the body, the brain can be trained to respond in a more mindful manner.
The key is in repetition.
The more you notice, pause and breathe, the easier this practice will become.
Mindful parenting is by its very nature requiring of our attention and commitment. But the evidence is starting to suggest that it could be one of the greatest investments we can make for ourselves and our children.
Books that help develop a mindful parenting attitude
So, I took a deep breath and reminded myself it was only food. We agreed that she would eat three bites and then eat another more filling course of fruit and yoghurt.
I sat while she was upset and didn't tell her to stop crying.
I put my phone away and played in the bath.
I let my feelings of frustration disappear as I watched her giggle in the bubbles and make funny faces.
I reminded myself that relationships aren't built on the big moments but the little everyday ones.
I felt gratitude that I had a healthy, happy child and another on the way.
Mindful parenting for me...
I guess in short mindful parenting helped me to not let the day be 'spoiled'.
It helped me to be more like the mother I want to be, not the crabby, short-tempered mum I sometimes am.
It helps me to still find the joy in parenting, even on the long days.
And in my opinion, that's something worth practising.
Looking for more mindful parenting tips?
Written by a qualified child psychologist this short guide will help you to:
Understand your child's behaviour.
Discover the power of your relationship.
Introduce 'less' into your child's life.
Manage your child's big feelings.