We are all feeling the stress this fall of school decisions, social distancing and overall uncertainty in the world. Parental stress is real, and it has a trickle-down effect on children. We all know how children behave when they are stressed: increased misbehavior, irritability and resistance.
To break the cycle of stress we would all do well to become more mindful in our relationships. At its core, mindfulness is about slowing down, stepping back and observing before responding. Through the challenges of this pandemic, we have had many opportunities to slow down. Mindful parenting capitalizes on this experience and expands it further.
Mindfulness is defined as paying attention, in the moment, non-judgmentally. Applying mindfulness to parenting involves increased awareness of your thinking and emotions to keep your cool under pressure.
While most parenting skills are about what you DO as a parent, mindfulness shifts the focus to how you want to BE as a parent. Mindfulness makes us more aware of the pressure of perfectionism and allows us to accept mistakes in ourselves as well as our children. Mindful parenting is associated with less parental stress and depression, improved parent-child communication and less hyperactive behavior in children. Set your parenting intention to respond differently to stress by practicing mindfulness daily, using a mindful mindset and tools to help.
The Mindful Parent Mindset
You probably already have these skills, but with mindfulness you practice the awareness to use them when they are most needed:
Attention: Mindful parents tune in to what is happening in the moment. This is single-task engagement, as opposed to multi-tasking or operating on autopilot. We have many distractions and always too many “to dos” in the day. When you are with your child, however, mindfulness reminds us to be present. If you are trying to do all the many other things, you might miss a wonderful moment or overreact to a small problem.
Compassion: Mindful parents use empathy and observation to understand the child’s point of view. This skill of non-judgment also extends to a greater acceptance of your own limitations and imperfections as a parent. Try to keep in mind that child misbehavior is not typically a plot to sabotage our parenting efforts.
Emotional Regulation: Mindful parents take time to evaluate their reactions and get calm before responding. They use mindfulness tools to get emotions under control and notice their internal thoughts and the external situation before choosing how and when to act. Pausing to “get your act together” makes you more effective in the long run.
Becoming more connected with your own thoughts and feelings naturally makes you more connected with your child’s thoughts and feelings. Being attuned in this manner can make parenting less stressful and improve your relationship with your child. Your mindful mindset will not only help you keep calm under pressure, it has the added benefit of demonstrating stress resilience to your children.
Five Mindful Parent Tools
The opportunity to practice mindfulness is offered every day as a parent. Transitions are usually tricky in families, especially morning and bedtimes. Journal your observations about these trigger times to find patterns and think about which of these mindfulness tools might be most helpful:
Breathe: Your breath is the quickest way to calm yourself when you are stressed. Focus on your breathing by taking a deep breath in through your nose. Exhale to release the breath slowly and steadily through your mouth. Repeat this simple but powerful step until you notice that you are calmer and ready to respond instead of reacting. The purpose is to deactivate the “fight or flight” response and allow you to use your whole brain in assessing the parenting dilemma.
STOP: This is an acronym for a self-regulation hack. Once well practiced, this tool can become a habit that is almost automatic during times of high emotions.
S: Stop what you are doing
T: Take a few breaths
O: Observe what is going on, both internally and externally
P: Proceed with intention, choosing what would be best to do next
Grounding: Oftentimes our thoughts can become so intense they increase our negative emotions, which makes the situation feel worse. When you notice distracting thoughts about the future (“My child will always behave this way”) or the past (“I have been too hard/easy on my child”), focus on your senses to regain your attention and emotions. Monitor what you can hear, see, taste and touch around you. Clear your mind to drop back into your body and re-orient yourself to what is happening around you.
Intention: Mindful parents reflect on recurrent trouble spots to stay connected with their parenting goals. Create time for stillness during your day to note changes that could benefit your family. Your intention sets the tone for how you accomplish change within your family.
Gratitude: Parenting is also about recognizing the good stuff. Even on your “worst day ever” as a parent, there are wonderful moments that can lift your spirits, if you slow down to notice. Mindful parents are on the look-out for those things that are going well.
Once you become skilled in these mindfulness tools you will find they are easy to teach your children. Mindfulness is contagious — in a good way.
Dr. Lisa Marotta is a private practice psychologist working with women, children and families in Edmond. She facilitates parenting classes and is the author of the award-winning children’s book Suki and Sam. Stay connected with Dr. Marotta through her blog Psyched About Life: Tools for Everyday Living at drlisamarotta.com.
Editor’s note: This column is the fourth in a 12-month series on family mental wellness, written by local experts on topics pertinent to parents and children. Columnists include Dr. Marotta, Thai-An Truong, LPC, LADC, in private practice as a postpartum therapist and mom of two; Stacey Johnson, LPC, (@staceyjohnsonlife) in private practice at The Purple Couch and mom of eight; Dr. Erica Faulconer, pediatrician at Northwest Pediatrics and mom of three, and Jeanae Neal, registered behavior therapist and mom of one.