Ann Douglas, author of Parenting Through the Storm, explores the mental health benefits (to you and your child) of making conscious and deliberate parenting choices.
Your four year old is having a meltdown in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. You’re feeling frustrated and embarrassed. If only there were an escape key you could hit to remove yourself from this situation just long enough to regain your cool….
Guess what? There is a way to hit the parenting pause button before you say or do something you might regret later on. It’s called mindful parenting and it is one of the most powerful and effective techniques I know for dealing with the day-to-day frustrations of parenting.
Mindful parenting is all about making conscious and deliberate parenting choices—as opposed to reacting without thinking (something that can happen pretty easily when your mind is being flooded with emotion).
According to a group of psychologists from the University of California, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania State University who have researched mindful parenting extensively, mindful parenting involves listening with full attention; practicing non-judgmental acceptance of yourself and your child; being aware of your emotions and your child’s emotions in the moment; and having compassion for yourself and your child.
Let’s consider how each of these four pieces fits into the mindful parenting puzzle and what this means to you, in practical terms, as you’re trying to make peace with your child in the cereal aisle.
- Listening with full attention. Listening with full attention means really tuning into what your child is saying: listening to what she is saying and how she is saying it. Tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language are key. What you want to do is figure out what your child is trying to tell you and what she needs from you so that you can figure out what to do to help her to manage her out-of-control emotions. It’s important to look beyond the obvious. Your child may be asking for a particular brand of cereal, but she may actually be telling you something else entirely: perhaps that she’s had it up to here with running errands this morning. (That long line at the bank may have maxed out her patience an hour ago. Likely, yours, too.)
- Practicing non-judgmental acceptance. What you’re trying to do here is resist the urge to judge yourself and your child harshly—something that only serves to ramp up the amount of negative emotion you’re experiencing (making it even more difficult for you to respond rationally to an already tough situation). So, instead of telling yourself that you’re the worst parent in the world or that your kid is a spoiled brat, simply observe (non-judgmentally!) what’s going on: “We’ve had a busy morning. My child needs a break and so do I.”
- Acknowledging what you and your child are feeling. It’s important to acknowledge and accept your child’s emotions as well as your own. You may find it works well to work through this process with your child, if only to verify that you’ve read her emotions correctly. For example, you might say to your child, “It looks like you need a break. Know what? Me, too! We’ve been running around all morning and we’ve both tired and hungry.” Your child is likely to respond well to what you’re saying. Having your emotions validated by another human being always feels great—and, if it turns out that you’ve misread what she’s feeling, no worries: you’ve given her the chance to set the record straight.
- Treating yourself and your child with compassion. Treating yourself with self-compassion basically means treating yourself with the same kindness that you would extend to a friend who was struggling. You wouldn’t tell a friend that she was a bad parent because her child was having a meltdown in the cereal aisle. You would acknowledge that she’s doing the best that she can in a difficult situation—and then you would encourage her to take action to make the situation better. So be your own best friend and cut yourself some slack. Not only will you feel less stressed and less judged (that critical voice in our own heads can be pretty nasty): you’ll feel greater compassion toward your child, something that makes parenting immeasurably easier.
So what are the benefits of taking a mindful approach to parenting?
There are plenty, for both you and your child.
You’ll feel like a more competent and in-control parent. Because you’re making conscious and deliberate parenting decisions (decisions that support your big-picture parenting goals), you will tend to make better parenting decisions and to feel better about those decisions after the fact.
Your child will feel cared for and heard. She will feel reassured that her feelings make sense, she will be encouraged her to turn to you for support the next time she’s feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and she will learn to treat herself and others with self-compassion (a powerful lesson with far-reaching consequences).
It’s important to know upfront that mindful parenting can take a bit of practice. When you first start to implement these principles, you may find yourself becoming acutely aware of those times when your parenting efforts miss the mark. You’ll hear yourself saying something harsh and judgmental about yourself or your child in your own head—and then you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re trying to remember to suspend judgment and to treat yourself and your child with self-compassion. This is a good thing (although it can feel kind of rotten in the moment). Recognizing where there’s room for improvement means that you’re well on your way to understanding and implementing this new approach to parenting—and that it won’t be long at all before mindfulness becomes second nature.
This article originally appeared in Local Parent magazine.