The benefits of mindful parenting
Mindfulness has its roots in early Buddhist teachings from 2,500 years ago, but our modern obsession with it began when Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. And the internet has only exacerbated its trendiness.
According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness is "a moment-to-moment awareness of one's experience without judgment." That might sound simple. It's not. And taking a mindful approach to parenting is especially difficult, because in our fast-paced, ever-evolving, increasingly challenging world, our to-do lists are mammoth and it's nearly impossible to get through the day without stellar multitasking skills. The problem is that multitasking is the antithesis of mindfulness. Trying to do several things at once, on time, and to a satisfactory standard, just doesn't lend itself to being aware of what's happening in the moment.
"Many of my clients report trying to rush through bath or bedtime to try and get through the day, so they, too, can relax," says Texas-based licensed psychotherapist Amy Rollo. "When they do that, everyone becomes more stressed. Parents don't really enjoy the time, children often misbehave, and really no one is happy."
In practice, mindful parenting can take many forms: paying more attention to your child; being aware of your own feelings during times of conflict; and considering things from your child's perspective, even if it's different than yours. The bigger mindful parenting picture, though, is about savoring moments with your children — often the mundane daily tasks that you might typically rush through.
"When you focus only on the moment and attend to only that moment, you can learn to enjoy it, and not to rush to the next task on the to-do list," Rollo says. "Listen to your child's laughter, notice different smells, sounds, and textures, and try to fully capture it in your mind."
Unsurprisingly, the biggest detractors from mindful parenting are electronic devices. But you don't have to ditch the screens altogether. NYC-based psychotherapist Deborah M. Courtney, Ph.D., LCSW, suggests creating no-tech zones and times in your home, where all family members put their devices on silent and in a designated basket out of sight during a regular time of the day. "Maybe it's during dinner or family movie night," Courtney suggests. "lt allows everyone to be more present in the room rather than distracted by their devices."
Of course, having a designated no-tech zone/time in your home doesn't mean you can't ditch the device at other times, too. If you're spending time with your child, put the phone away — and take it a step further. "Try to imagine taking all your to-dos and stresses and putting them in a box," Rollo suggests. "Tell yourself you can come back to that when you are ready. This technique allows you to quiet the anxiety and fully become present in the moment."
One way to adopt a more mindful approach to parenting is to spotlight the positives, says licensed clinical psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D. "It's natural to notice the many negative things kids do each day, and part of a parent's role is certainly to teach and correct," she says. "However, a constant focus on the negative can create tension and leave everyone feeling worse. By noticing — and pointing out — positive things your child does each day, they know the good things they do are seen and important, and [that] strengthens the parent-child bond."
Another simple mindfulness technique is to develop a ritual that allows you to connect as a family. Courtney suggests coming together before bedtime and sharing what you're each grateful for from the day. "This allows everyone to feel seen and heard," she says. No matter how busy the rest of your day is, committing to this family ritual helps strengthen bonds and might even inspire you to make changes to your schedule to carve out more time together.
Perhaps the greatest test of mindful parenting is when you're in conflict with your child — all kids test our patience now and again. But a small change can make a real difference. "Take a few breaths before responding," Beurkens says. "When we encounter challenges with our children it's easy for our negative emotions to take over and cause us to react in harsh or unhelpful ways. Pausing to breathe deeply for a few seconds before dealing with a tantrum or disrespectful comment allows parents to stay in a more calm and mindful state, and respond appropriately instead of reacting out of anger or upset."
Being a mindful parent can benefit the whole family, says California-based writer and illustrator Jennifer Trebisovsky, author of Make it a Good Day. "Parents are our first examples, our first role models," she says. "Children observe, mimic, and learn from their parents' actions and reactions. Mindful parenting can help children learn positive behaviors for how to deal with their own emotions and experiences."
When you parent with mindfulness, you encourage compassion and understanding, Trebisovsky adds. This creates loving and comforting spaces for children to just "be." And when kids feel safe and understood, and know they have the freedom to be themselves, they're less likely to harbor ill feelings or act in anger. "Mindfulness makes way for trust, empathy, and transparency," Trebisovsky says. "This can help reduce stress in the household."
This isn't just about being more compassionate towards your child. You should treat yourself with the same kindness. "Mindfulness is a beautiful process, but it requires practice," Courtney says. "Don't use your exploration of mindful parenting as an excuse to be hard on yourself with self-critical thoughts, like 'I'm not mindful enough' or 'I'm not a good enough parent.' Be patient with yourself and enjoy the journey." In true mindful fashion, notice those self-critical thoughts, then let them float on by, and remind yourself that you deserve this to be a joyful practice. If you can do that, you're well on your way.
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