The Complete Guide to Mindful Parenting
To begin to understand the meaning of mindful parenting, a good place to start is with understanding mindfulness, or, the practice of self-awareness. Self-awareness is conceptualized as being able to see, know, and understand yourself clearly, without judgement, through introspection and reflection.
In today’s fast paced society, we exist on a type of autopilot. The days disappear in a flash, and often we are pulled from pillar to post, jumping from one external stress to another, until eventually looking after ourselves falls further and further down our priority list. This neglect of ourselves feeds our anxieties, stresses, worries and triggers, detrimentally impacting our time with our families and our children.
Mindfulness aims to counteract this fast pace by encouraging us to slow down, pause and reflect. Mindfulness allows us to bump ourselves to the top of our priority list, to look internally instead of externally and to regulate our emotions, thoughts, needs and desires. By acknowledging and accepting ourselves fully, we are better equipped to respond to challenging, or difficult situations from a place of deeper, calmer understanding.
Eventually, by understanding ourselves at a wholler, more complete level, we are able to give the greatest gift of all – our full, non-distracted presence, to our families and children. This is perhaps the key lesson that mindfulness practice offers for parents to takeaway. Until we have given ourselves the gift of our full attention and presence, how can we expect to give that to others?
Mindful parenting & meditation
Both the practice of mindfulness and self-awareness, alongside mindful parenting, encompass the tools of meditation, but it is not solely what mindfulness is about.
Being able at any one moment to choose to pause and let go of difficult, negative, or spiralling thoughts is part of what makes the practice of mindfulness so accessible and versatile: It’s available to anybody, anywhere.
Whilst it is beneficial to incorporate self-awareness into a daily routine, all it really requires is some time to yourself – whether that’s five, or forty five minutes – and a quiet place. In those peaceful moments, sit in a quiet area with your eyes closed and focus solely on the rhythm of your breathing.
Your mind will wander, but when it does, simply be aware of these thoughts and feelings, pause, and assess them. What are they trying, if anything, to tell you? What are you working through? Once you have had this brief moment to understand, gradually bring your focus back to your breathing. Overall, this practice helps you “let go” of that which is not serving you and maintains a positive connection between mind and body.
Over time, those momentary assessments will offer you understanding as to your stresses, triggers, worries, dreams and desires, and these can all form the basis of being able to respond from a place of compassionate awareness, as opposed to reaction, going forward.
Where did mindful parenting come from?
Now we have understood a little more about the fundamentals of mindfulness practice, here’s a quick look at how the ability to be self-aware transitioned into parenting.
Mindfulness and self-awareness practice both date back around 2,500 years and have early origins in the religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Whilst its roots may lie in Eastern cultures, mindfulness is not specific to any one religion or region – it is a practice, and therefore is universal.
Mindfulness first met Parenting in 1997, and was proposed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat Zinn defined Mindful Parenting as “the practice of being present and aware in everyday interactions with children through paying attention without judgment as each moment unfolds.”
In 2009, scholars Duncan Coatsworth and J. D Greenberg further extended the model of mindful parenting by identifying core principles of classic mindfulness theory that could, and were, being applied to parent and child relationships. Their model listed the five dimensions as:
- Listening with full attention
- Non-judgmental acceptance of one’s self and their child
- Emotional awareness of one’s self and child
- Self-regulation in the parenting relationship
- Compassion for one’s self and child
These five dimensions make up the same core principles that are used throughout the philosophy of mindful parenting today.
What is mindful parenting?
The definition of mindful parenting is parenting by responding thoughtfully to whichever moment or situation you are facing, as opposed to reacting. In order to respond instead of react, you must choose to bring your conscious attention into the moment, or situation, instead of allowing yourself to react from a place of heightened emotion.
By allowing your conscious attention to take centre focus, you commit your full presence to the moment which in turn allows for your response to be calmer, compassionate, empathetic, and ultimately more constructive to rectify and resolve the situation.
Utilizing our conscious attention gifts us the ability to stay grounded, and to not be swept away in our overruling emotions when frustrated, stressed, or angered. This is where mindful parenting incorporates the same features from mindfulness practice, allowing us to take that necessary moment to pause, to reflect, and then to be in control of an understood response.
This understanding can also help to identify and address the deeper needs of our children. Often our children struggle to self-regulate their emotions and accurately communicate their stresses or worries, which presents as challenging behavior.
Activating our awareness means that we can prevent a damaging reaction potentially borne from unaddressed internal triggers, and slow down enough to consider, and empathize with our child’s viewpoint. Taking everybody’s perspectives into account is only beneficial for nurturing strong, healthy connections which leads to more positive communication and ultimately, harmonious teamwork.
Therefore, through regular intentional and circumstantial practices, mindful parenting cultivates healthy self-acceptance and self-awareness that together enable for better management of strong emotions, detrimental reactivity, stress and maladaptive mental patterns.
1. Find space to just be
Our lives exist solely in moments, and each one of those moments is a memory we’ve captured. However, most importantly, to capture that memory it means we were fully present in experiencing the feelings it contained, ignoring external distractions, stresses or worries.
Mindful parenting in a chaotic world emphasizes this need to be present, and encourages us to slow down to evaluate our feelings and actions. Between often stressful jobs and the fast paced way of life it can be difficult to find time to stop and make those memories, and it can be even easier to bring frustrations into the family home.
One of the most priceless gifts we can give our children is our full presence and attention. Mindful parenting therefore empowers us to leave our days at the door, and to put on hold anything that we feel must be done immediately. It encourages us to breathe, to take time to pause and appreciate all that we have around us. It fuels us to step over the threshold with the electronics turned off, and to enjoy being back in the family home, being fully present with our children.
This peaceful serenity ensures you stay connected to your children, and puts you in a better position to be able to respond more instinctively and effectively to your child’s needs and emotions.
2. Be mindful of your reactions under stress
When facing a highly stressful or challenging situation, whether with our children or without, it is easy to become overwhelmed by negative emotions which can quickly spiral out of control, forcing us to lose sight of ourselves.
Often, this state of heightened emotion can lead to us lashing out, or making regretful, harmful decisions that inflict damage on our relationships. Mindful parenting, and mindfulness practice, helps us to equip a toolkit when facing these situations.
Referred to as the STOP method, the four step process is as follows:
S: Stop. If you are facing conflict, or there is potential to create stress, have the awareness to pause.
T: Take a breath. Allow yourself to bring your core awareness to your breathing. Try to maintain this focus for at least four breath cycles. Observe how your mind and body react under this control.
O: Observe. Step back. What is happening around you? Why are you reacting so intensely? Is there an achievable solution, plan or compromise to the situation?
P: Proceed. Having altered your focus to the end result, respond from that same place of calm, actionable clarity.
This serene approach of giving ourselves a moment of pause and chance to assess our emotions and triggers, then in the same breath allowing us to settle to react differently, from a place of calmer, deeper understanding encourages communication and collaboration in addressing and resolving issues.
Regulating our emotions and triggers and understanding what is causing our reactions, helps us also to listen, respect and understand our children’s points of view. Even in the midst of challenging behavior, our children have a viewpoint that could be derived from a place of emotion that they are struggling to regulate or understand, or even from a perspective you had failed to consider.
Being open in our approach to these conversations invites respect, which builds relationships as well as teaches emotional regulation. This makes it less likely that we will face similar conflict in a future issue as our children will know there is an opportunity to have an open conversation, rather than feel the need to present their behavior in a challenging manner, and will be more likely to keep their mind open to other perspectives.
3. Have the awareness to appreciate
In today’s highly digitized and documented world, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that there are such things as perfect people and perfect parents.
This is untrue. No single person is perfect, and when thoughts of perfectionism and comparison start to eat into our daily lives, and worse, into our parenting, we create unachievable, unfair expectations. These unrealistic expectations hang over the family, draining our health and happiness and rob us of our ability to appreciate all that we have in front of us, as well as the things that make us unique as individuals.
Instead, in mindful parenting we use the tool of letting go. We appreciate, absorb and assess any expectations we may have first held for our children, and we have the awareness to let those go if they no longer align with the individual we have in front of us. We embrace our children’s talents, idiosyncrasies, likes, dislikes, choices and decisions and we become more open and accepting of experiences, perspectives and each other. This makes us more whole as people, and as parents, deepening our compassion and empathy.
4. Build boundaries in awareness
Within mindful parenting, discipline extends to both our children and ourselves as parents. Whilst respectful, clearly communicated boundaries serve as forms of behavioral markers and regulations, we as parents must be disciplined too in the boundaries that we stay behind.
These boundaries are different, and they are the guidelines that prevent our unfulfilled dreams or desires from burdening our children, preventing them from embracing themselves and their goals.
A significant part of embracing self-awareness is our ability to search inwardly within ourselves and to embrace any desires or dreams that we did not meet or fulfil. In a real life setting, these unticked boxes often replicate in the form of a child who is coerced into following a career path that their parents have chosen, because their parents have not had the mindfulness to comprehend, understand and then let go of their outstanding dreams or goals.
Ultimately, this is unfair on our children and impacts their health, happiness and ability to connect with their true dreams and desires.
Mindful parents instead see, love, understand and value their children for the people they are and support the paths that they wish to take. Self-awareness is a crucial part of allowing this connection to be at its best by abandoning unfair and detrimental paradigms, expectations or wishes that could be projected onto our children.
5. Cultivate compassion
When mindful parenting in a messy world, compassion becomes a key component that can be extended to all scenarios and situations to alleviate situations, resolve conflict, and strengthen bonds.
With so much weight and pressure on our shoulders, often we fall into the trap of becoming selfishly absorbed in our priorities, and valuing our complaints and troubles over those of others. This is an outlook that is closed down and bereft of all empathy.
Even if our children have what we perceive as a whimsical issue when compared to the larger scope of things, their viewpoint is still valid, their issue is still existent, and respect must be given to the situation. A compassionate, present response, instead of a dismissive reaction, can alleviate the situation and cultivate a loving, understanding discourse.
In turn this heightens our connection and communication, and our children learn from this act of kindness.
One act of compassionate kindness can therefore embed itself into their actions and how they interact with the world around them, making them better, wholler people.
These exercises can be most effectively used when faced with a challenging or conflicting situation where it looks as though yours, or your childs, emotional regulation may be getting out of control. To bring presence back into the moment, try the Stop, Pause and Play breathing exercise recommended by the Australian Childhood Foundation.
The Stop, Pause and Play technique has three parts:
- Stop: Whatever you are doing.
- Pause: Change your main focus to your breathing.
Take a long, slow and deep breath right down into your belly, and then exhale completely.
Repeat this sequence five times. Be aware of every breath, from the bouncing feeling of the exhale, to the releasing feeling of the exhale.
After a few moments, bring your attention to your body. Your heart rate will have notably slowed, your breathing will be deeper and overall your mental state will appear calmer. This mindfulness of the breath is what provides the clarity to the mind and the grounding needed to remain in control.
- Play: Respond thoughtfully and considerately.
Being able to respond in a manner that is controlled and from a place of calm understanding will bolster your relationship with your child and ultimately help to provide a constructive, positive resolution.
Other interactive breathing exercises you can try with your child in the midst of potentially stressful situations include: Bee breathing, where you both breathe in normally and breathe out by pursing your lips to make a buzzing sound, feather breathing which involves balancing a feather in one hand and raising as you breathe in, then letting go of the feather as you breathe out and trying to make your exhale last as long as it takes the feather to reach the floor, and snake breathing, where you make a long hissing sound as you exhale from deep inhales.
Meditation creates a calmer, peaceful and more concentrated state of mind through focusing attention onto either a particular object, the breath, a mantra or sensations within the body.
Simple meditation practices can be undertaken whenever, and serve as moments to reset, and refocus in order to face the next moment with more clarity.
In your day to day parenting they serve as perfect moments to hit the refresh button after a difficult or challenging day at work, when you want to keep external problems external and enter the family home with your full presence, or when there has been conflict with your child and you wish to reconnect from a place of calm.
Try one of these techniques:
- Focused Attention: Use your breath as your main focus of attention in order to maintain awareness and anchor the mind. If your thoughts or focus begins to wander, simply return to the rhythmic inhale and exhalation of your breath.
- Body Scan: The body scan technique syncs mind and body through performing a mental scan top to toe. To enact this, simply picture the bright light of a photocopier travelling throughout your body, beginning at the top of your head and ending at your toes. Observe whatever discomfort, tensions or aches that appear and become aware of these, and how you can let them go through exhalation.
- Noting: This technique involves inviting the mind to allow distractive thoughts and then being aware of why we are allowing this distraction and what it is about the thought that we can’t let go of. By noting it, awareness is restored and we can release what it is that that particular distraction is trying to tell us so that we can focus and work on it later.
- Reflection: In this technique, we use second person – you – to ask ourselves questions such as, “What were you most grateful for today?” Using second person perspective prevents the intellectual mind from presenting a rationalised answer and allows us to be aware of our deeper feelings that will arise when we assess the question.
- Rest: The most peaceful technique of all, resting awareness does not focus on the breath or any visual cues but instead puts the mind into a state of peacefulness. Whilst thoughts may enter our minds, we are encouraged to simply disengage from becoming distracted by them, and instead to simply let them pass through.
Visualizations inspire the basic principles of mindful practice and nurture resilience and peace of mind. Alternatively known as mental rehearsals, visualization allows you to visualise an upcoming scenario or situation in your mind and then guide yourself to your desired outcome whilst experiencing and accepting the feelings that may arise throughout it.
To enact visualizations:
- Allow yourself to vividly imagine the scenario or situation.
- Then, imagine yourself staying calm and grounded, rooted in a place of mindfulness and awareness. If the situation is bound to initiate stress, for example in a toddler tantrum, imagine yourself staying calm instead of being overcome by triggers or irritation.
- Finally, envision the successful resolution or outcome you desire. That could be opening a collaborative discourse, or simply deescalating the situation.
By engaging in this practice, we teach ourselves to fall into relaxed states when facing the event or scenario in real life.
Mindful parenting & research
Scientific studies have also produced a plethora of results that have found multiple beneficial links between mindful parenting strategies and the reduction of things like stress and mood disorders, children’s social decision making and even boosts to the overall wellbeing of the family during adolescence.
For example, one study in 2008 found that pregnant women in their third trimester that adopted mindfulness techniques when approaching their thinking around their pregnancy and subsequent birth suffered less anxiety and recorded fewer instances of negative moods.
A 2010 study that investigated parent mindfulness within their relationships with their early adolescent children discovered that adding mindfulness training strengthened the parent child relationship when things were most turbulent in the teenage years. Researchers believe these improvements may be down to parents being able to respond “compassionately and constructively”, helping to keep a channel of communication open instead of potentially alienating their child in conflicting situations.
Most recently, a 2019 study found a link between mindful parenting and children’s social decision making, stating that mindful parenting appeared to support a child’s decision making, which could aid them in successfully adapting to things like starting school. This was put down to the understanding and accepting of emotions, which would help children face anxious or unsettling situations.
Mindful parenting for ADHD
Mindful parenting has long had beneficial ties as a technique that can be used to positively impact children suffering with ADHD.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a mental health disorder which causes above average levels of hyperactivity as well as impulsive behaviors, a short attention span, lack of concentration and often acting without due thought or attention.
ADHD has long stretching impacts on all aspects of childcare, including morning and evening routine, homework completion, social skills and even eating habits. All of this piles an enormous amount of stress on the family, which makes the condition even more difficult to manage.
However, researchers and psychologists have found that incorporating mindfulness into parenting a child with ADHD can break the cycle of stress. Whilst the child is likely to be impulsive or defiant, rather than worsen this situation by inciting conflict, mindfulness provides tools that can bring the focus back to the situation at hand. By pausing, and responding to the situation instead of reacting, parents can keep their emotions at bay in order to better grasp and take control of the situation, for example through creative problem solving.
Whilst ADHD will always require perseverance and versatility, both of these factors can be harder to access when we are overcome with negative emotions such as frustration, stress or exhaustion. Mindful parenting can create frameworks for building resilience and overcoming specific challenges, as well as removing the stress within a situation for both yourself and your child, cultivating communication, and working to restore a harmonic balance in the family home.
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