Understanding Mindful Parenting
Why it's important to slow down and be in the moment
Parenting can be a difficult job, especially when you're trying to juggle all the demands of a busy family life. However, sometimes it's important to slow down, be aware of the present moment and try and do one thing at a time. Mindful parenting is about taking that philosophy and applying it to the relationship you have with your child. If you can do this, you'll be better able to face the challenges that come with being a parent.
What is mindfulness?
Whether it's managing the demands of multiple children, the challenges of working outside the home, or placing unrealistic expectations on yourself, there's no doubt that parenting can be stressful.
We've heard a lot about mindfulness over the past decade – especially its role in reducing stress and managing depression, anxiety and chronic pain. But alongside this, researchers have started to consider how mindfulness can be applied to the stresses of parenting, and in doing so, improve the relationship you can have with your child.
Mindfulness has been defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003) as: "The awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment."
So in other words – being in the moment.
What is mindful parenting?
It's about applying the principals of mindfulness to parenting. This means giving your children your full attention, and being non-judgemental and compassionate towards them and yourself. By doing this, you're helping them to recognise and regulate their emotions and behaviours.
The great thing is, mindful parenting can improve some of the more challenging situations you might face, as well as enrich the positive ones. Here's a model that researchers have proposed, highlighting five key areas:
- Full and attentive listening: This is about reading your child's verbal and non-verbal cues. By doing this, you might find it easier to understand their underlying intentions or needs. Research shows us that mindful parents are sensitive to both what a child is saying, as well as their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. This means they'll better understand their child's needs or intended meaning.
- Non-judgemental acceptance of yourself and your child: This can help you identify those automatic judgements that can negatively skew your parent-child relationship. It helps you balance both your goals, to value your child's traits, and to not put any unrealistic expectations on your child. Importantly, researchers say that accepting in the moment doesn't mean approving of inappropriate behaviour; but it does allow for greater awareness, and this means you'll have a better understanding of your child's needs and your own experience.
- Emotional awareness of yourself and your child: This helps you avoid using your emotions – such as anger, shame and disappointment – to dictate disciplining your child. Instead, being aware allows you to be more accepting of your child's emotions, and to react in a more sensitive way.
- Self-regulation in the parenting relationship: the more you do this, the easier you'll find it to pinpoint the emotions and impulses you experience in response to your child's behaviour. Ultimately, this means less automatic discipline, and parenting that's more in-line with your goals and values.
- Compassion for yourself and your child: the more positive affection there is in your parent-child relationship, the less negative emotions, self-blame and guilt you'll experience. For a mindful parent, being compassionate towards your child will help you meet their true needs, and to comfort any distress they might be feeling. On the other hand, self-compassion helps you avoid the pitfalls of self-blaming when things go wrong, and makes it easier to simply have another go.
Some promising areas of discovery
While mindfulness and mindful parenting is a relatively new area of research, there have already been some promising findings. There's also building support that the more mindful you are as a parent, the better, and less stressful, your relationship with your child will be.
One study proposes that the use of mindfulness training during pregnancy helps women shift their perceptions and judgements of pain during childbirth. In addition, a pilot study for the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) programme showed increased levels of positive emotion and reduced levels of depression and stress.
Another important area being explored is the role that mindful parenting can have in caring for children with special needs, particularly as these parents often experience greater levels of stress. Studies have shown that parents who received training experienced much less stress, and instead reported higher levels of self-compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Although more research is needed, these are all promising results!
And it's not just parents that can benefit from mindfulness. Research suggests that it can really help children and young people too, with initial evaluations in schools suggesting potential improvements in classroom attention, focus and improved behaviour.
Summing it up
- What: Mindful parenting is about applying the ideas of mindfulness to being a parent. This means listening with full attention to your child; developing your emotional awareness and self-regulation; and bringing compassion and non-judgmental acceptance to your parenting situations.
- When: The earlier the better. You can even practice mindfulness during pregnancy to help shift your perceptions and judgements of pain during childbirth.
- How: Being a mindful parent takes practice, but the benefits are definitely worth it. Most importantly, it's about focusing on the present moment, not being judgemental, showing emotional awareness and compassion, as well as self-regulation.
- Why: A mindful approach to parenting may help you feel less stressed, and potentially help your relationship with your child too.
Ways you can be a mindful parent
- Listen, read and respond – most importantly, mindful parenting is about being in the moment with your child. This means focusing on their verbal and non-verbal cues, and really trying to hear what they're saying. But to fully ‘hear', you have to focus on their facial expressions and body language, and tune into the tone of their voice. Easier said than done, but if you give them your one-on-one, undivided attention, you can make even a 5-minute play together incredibly special.
- Do one thing at a time – it might feel more efficient to help your child tidy up, while talking on the phone, while making breakfast, while feeding the cat. But in reality, if you stop and do each of these things separately, you'll probably do a better job and feel less like you're being pulled in different directions.
- Go easy on yourself – the truth is, parenting is no easy task. You won't always get it right. But the aim of the game is to be ‘good enough' as a parent, and to accept that this is ok. By striving for perfection, you're actually doing your child a disservice – they need you to fail every now and then, to see what being human is all about.
- Set some big-picture goals – and if you're co-parenting, set the goals together. What's important to you? What's important for your child? What do you want your relationship to be like? What's the end result you want for your relationship? Taking baby steps can help achieve these goals. For example, schedule in some special one-on-one time with your child when you can. A great way to do this is by reading them bedtime stories in bed, or using every day routines such as bath time, bedtime, and nappy changing time as one-on-one time – just smiling, talking and playing with your child.
- Know your child – imperfections, temperament, warts and all. This way you can provide clear standards and expectations of behaviour, based on an acceptance of who they are, as opposed to what others/society expects. Just think of it as ‘tailor-made' parenting.
- Be aware of their emotions – this means validating and responding to them. If your child is older, help them identify the names of emotions. You can do this by openly talking about how they're feeling, as well as your own experiences. For example, "I'm annoyed that it started raining just after I put the washing out!" Encouraging them to name their feelings will help them develop their own emotional awareness.
- Accept that it's not easy – it's only natural for some behaviour to trigger an emotional reaction or wind you up. And this can make keeping your cool challenging at times. But the first step is to recognise and accept that you're feeling stressed. The second step? Pause, breathe and count to 10, 20, 100 … whatever it takes. Try to consciously decide on your response rather than unconsciously reacting to your emotions. By self-regulating, you're setting a great example for your child.
- Plan and prepare – a little bit of organisation goes a long way. For example, if bed time feels like it always ends in shouting, make a plan earlier in the day for how you'll manage it. Focus on what you'll do instead of what you think will happen, for example "when the clock says 7pm I'll give everyone the 15-minute warning for bed time and I'll stop cleaning the kitchen and play with the kids." Try and explain the plan clearly to your children. It also pays to record the positive parenting moments – the potential for laughter in even the smallest interactions. Ultimately, it's about knowing what works well and storing this knowledge away for future scenarios.
- Enjoy the moment –Wherever you are, take a deep breath, observe the lightness of the situation, the emotions you're feeling, the look of delight on your child's face, and just enjoy it in. These are moments you'll remember because they are very special (and make all the sleepless nights worthwhile!).
- Practice mindfulness – we know it can be hard to squeeze in the time, but even just 5-30 minutes a day will help you'll feel better - and you'll be a better parent for it. So find a quiet place to sit and focus on your breath as it comes in and leaves your body. When your mind wanders, simply acknowledge that train of thought, and let go. You'll have to do this over and over again, and that's ok. You can find out more information here: http://www.mindful.org/mindfulness-how-to-do-it/
- Find out what works for you – everyone's different and there are many exercises available for free on the Internet. It's just about trying different exercises and finding your favourites. It could be as simple as noticing the feel of your feet on the footpath and the way your body feels while you're walking, or savouring the smell, taste and flavour of food that you eat. Being fully present with yourself is a great first step to being fully present with your children.
- Use the STOP acronym – it's a great way to manage stress. Stop (S) when you notice you're starting to feel stressed. Pause in awareness. Take a breath (T) to bring your awareness to your body and settle your mind. This will help you think more clearly. Observe (O) your breath and what's going on around you. Proceed (P) mindfully. And decide on what's the best way to deal with the situation in front of you.
Some further information
Everyday Blessings by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn. You can read an excerpt from the book here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-kabatzinn-phd/what-is-mindful-parenting_b_5945356.html
Neurobiologist Dr Daniel Siegel has written many books on mindfulness and mindful parenting: http://drdansiegel.com/books_and_more/
If you're looking for a more scientific paper, check out A Model of Mindful Parenting, by Larissa G. Duncan, J. Douglas Coatsworth and Mark T. Greenberg.
An article: The 5 Main Tenets of Mindful Parenting by Lisa Kring, mindfulness teacher: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-kring/the-5-main-tenets-of-mindful-parenting_b_4086080.html
Respecting Babies, by Ruth Anne Hammond
Mindful Parent Happy Child, by Pilar Placone.
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect, by Magda Gerber
Your self-confident baby: How to encourage your child's natural abilities from the very start, by Magda Gerber
This is an interesting website if you want to connect with others, learn more about mindfulness, and get regular inspiration: www.themindfulparent.org
This website introduces you to the philosophy and principles of the Mindful Parent Happy Child program, provides snippets from the Mindful Parent Happy Child book, and the newest blogs. There's also a newsletter you can subscribe to: www.mindfulparenthappychild.com
The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand has some great information on mindfulness. http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/home/our-work/category/21/mindfulness The Foundation runs an eight-week Mindful Aotearoa Pause, Breathe, Smile programme in New Zealand schools. http://mindfulaotearoa.nz/programmes/pause-breathe-smile/
There are lots of mindfulness apps available, many of them free. Check out http://www.mindful.org/free-mindfulness-apps-worthy-of-your-attention/ for some suggestions.