To bring mindfulness into parenting, it can be helpful to know something about mindfulness in general. Simply put, mindfulness means paying attention, but it’s more than that really. One definition that I like is from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally to things as they are.”
It’s a practice of increasing awareness without analyzing. It can be cultivated by refining the capacity to pay attention and sustaining that attention over time.
Just as important as increasing awareness and attention is HOW we pay attention. If mindfulness is a bird, then its two wings are awareness or attention and kindness or compassion. We need both of the wings, awareness and attention and kindness or compassion, for our mindfulness bird to fly.
No matter how we define mindfulness, it will be a little bit difficult to grasp with words alone because it is something to be experienced in order to be understood. It is a felt and known experience that can be hard to put precisely into words. Any definition will be reductionist, a little bit like defining love. We can read about it all we want, but to really know it, we must experience it ourselves
Many of us spend a lot of time on what I call auto pilot. On autopilot we are going through the motions of our lives but not really paying attention to the moments as they pass. We might drive home from work, cook dinner, pack lunches, and tuck our kids into bed, all the while spending our mental energy rehashing events from our day or planning and worrying about events in the future. When we are on auto pilot, many things in the moment go unnoticed or taken for granted. We have selective and haphazard attention, and we tend to make quick judgements. We might form rapid opinions without even realizing it.
Mindfulness brings to parenting a framework for paying attention to our moment to moment lived experience with our children. It helps us get out of our heads and into our bodies and see past the veil of our automatic thoughts and feelings to a deeper level of awareness and connection. It is a way to directly experience our lives and our connections to our children. By direct experience, I mean using our senses in the present moment to experience something that is happening rather than thinking about what is happening.
Mindful parenting involves keeping in mind what is truly important as we go about our daily lives with our children. It does not mean that parenting is going to always be peaceful or pretty, but it is an intention and a willingness to step back even in the hardest moments and ask ourselves “What is really happening right now?” and “What is truly important right now?”
Studies consistently show that people who regularly practice mindfulness have changes in their brain activity related to increased attention, empathy, self awareness and positive emotions.
Through mindful activities, children learn how their thoughts and actions affect their brain and how their brain affects their thoughts and actions, giving them a foundation of resiliency to face every day challenges. It can help kids regulate emotions, develop better friendships, increase empathy and impulse control. A good way to talk to kids about mindfulness is to tell them that we all have many seeds within our brains. Seeds of joy, anger, jealousy, disappointment, peace. Just like a garden, the seeds that grow and flourish are the ones that we pay attention to.
So how do we actually do this?
Start with your own practice. And here practice simply means intentionally being present with whatever comes up so that you are not on auto pilot. It does not mean clearing your head of thoughts or achieving some sort of zen moment. It means getting out of our heads and into our bodies because our bodies are always linked to the present moment. It is our time traveling mind that tends to get in the way. A UCLA study showed that parents that practice mindfulness were more satisfied and felt more successful as parents than those who did not even thought they learned no parenting-specific skills.
When practicing mindfulness there is formal practice and informal practice. Formal practice involves meditation, where you spend time focusing your attention on something that can link you to your body and to the present moment, like your breath or your hands or sounds. Informal practice refers to bringing mindful awareness into daily activities and interactions. This could look like mindful walking or mindfully washing the dishes. When practicing mindfulness of every day activities, you are trying to keep your attention on the sensory experience of the present moment and refocusing over and over again on what you are actually feeling rather than allowing the time traveling mind to take over or spacing out on auto pilot. For example when washing dishes, you might notice the temperature of the water, the smell and slipperiness of the bubbles, and simply refocus your attention on this sensory experience each time you notice that your mind has strayed.
Attunement means “to bring into harmony.” This is method of co-regulation. It is a method in which children use their parents mental state as a way to organize their own state. Attuning to our children involves being aware of the messages our children are giving us, not just with their words but with every aspect of their being, and adjusting ourselves to resonate in harmony with them. Let the child know that their emotions are met with compassion and acceptance.
Being in harmony with our children does not mean that things will always be harmonious. In fact, the times when our children need our acceptance and love the most are invariably the times when it is hardest to give. And importantly, attuning with our children is not the same as an approval of whatever concerning behavior has transpired, nor is it weak in discipline. It is simply joining them in the moment and helping them feel accepted and connected. By doing this, we are fostering the foundation of love and trust that is the core of the caregiving relationship. And it comes along with a heavy dose of oxytocin, the hormone of love and connection, for both you and your child.
Ways to practice attunement include practicing mirroring what you see in your child’s emotional state. Put your agenda aside temporarily and join your child in their emotional state. Reflect back to them the words, facial expressions and body postures you see. Connect before you redirect. Help them feel connected and accepted.
Loving kindness is love, friendliness, and kindness that is accepting and non-judgemental. It is an expansiveness of the heart and mind that is large enough to include the fully experience of life, both the pleasures and the pains. It is through this open heart, that we can connect with joy that is beyond likes and dislikes. It is with this quality that we choose HOW we pay attention. And the really powerful point here is that by directing our attention towards loving kindness over and over again, we can strengthen these pathways in our brains and increase the possibility that they will become the default disposition. We can water the seeds of friendliness and happiness. By repeatedly watering these seeds, we help our brains use these pathways as the most likely default pathways. This is brain science magic called positive neuroplasticity.
A lovely way to cultivate loving kindness is to practice sending friendly wishes. These are simply kind wishes that can be directed towards family members, friends or even the self (not to mention pets, trees, the earth, stars….) For example, each family member might write down a positive wish for each other family member and put them in hat. You could read the wishes aloud while passing the hat around during dinner. Or you could send friendly wishes to strangers while waiting in line at the super market. Or send yourself friendly wishes before bed.
When people sense you are not present during a conversation they may assume you do not agree with them, don’t like them, or don’t value them and their time. This can lead to misunderstanding, strained relationships, and a further breakdown in communication. In practicing mindful communication you can demonstrate your presence in a discussion and help to break down these barriers. Mindful communication involves applying principles of mindfulness to the way we interact with others. These principles include being fully present, remaining open and non-judgmental, and relating to others with compassion.
In mindful listening, we want to watch out for 4 common problems that take us out of the moment:
Comparing your thoughts and experiences to others
Mind Reading and trying to predict what the speaker will say next
Rehearsing what you plan to say
Judging what the speaker is saying
In mindful speaking, the goal is to bringing awareness to what we are saying, how we are saying it, and what effect it is having on others. A couple of useful acronyms for mindful speaking are WAIT (Why Am I Talking?) and THINK (Is what I am saying True, Helpful, Informative, Necessary, and Kind?)
Walking the Middle Path
Walking the middle path is about finding a balance between two opposite extremes or two different perspectives. These extremes are often referred to as "dialectics." Dialectics refers to two seemingly opposite concepts that can both be true simultaneously. Such as, “My child is argumentative AND my child is loving.”
Walking the middle path involves accepting both sides of the dialectic and finding a way to balance them. This means avoiding the temptation to view the world in black-and-white terms and instead embracing shades of grey. Walking the middle path is about finding a way to integrate opposing perspectives and ideas. Walking the middle path is important because it can help us find balance and reduce extremes in our lives. For example, we can acknowledge our feelings of anger, disappointment, fear AND our ability to be empathetic, accepting and understanding.
Walking the middle path can also help us improve our relationships. When we accept different perspectives and find common ground, we can communicate more effectively and build stronger connections. Walking the middle path can also help us manage intense emotions as we learn to tolerate discomfort and avoid the extremes of emotional reactivity.
To experiment with walking the middle path and dialectics, try substituting the word AND for BUT and see what shifts in your thinking and communication.
Equanimity is a spaciousness that allows us to be present with all the different changing experiences that constitute our world and our lives. “Seeing the world with quiet eyes” as my teacher Kamala Masters described it.
It is based on understanding that the conflict and frustration we feel when we can’t control the world doesn’t come from our inability to do so but rather from the fact that we are trying to control the uncontrollable, like trying to hold back the tide or make the sun rise. It is a balance and a recognition that however much we may wish for some thing, many results are beyond our control. It’s not detached or indifferent, but rather it is a wise and compassionate balance that allows us to develop courage and stay open to difficult relationships and situations. Using equanimity we can face our fears and open to difficulty without being overcome by it. In its essence, it is a state of peace to be able to accept things as they are.
This comes up in parenting frequently, especially parenting teens or children with special needs. Practicing equanimity is a wise shift that allows us to accept our children how they are, not how we expect or want them to be. It helps us recognize our own expectations and desires and let go of attachments of how we want things to be. It allows our children to show frustration and anger without judgement from us and without criticism. It is a letting go of the expectations and opening to the reality, truth, and beauty of what actually is. Sometimes it is from these unexpected and undesired detours that emerge new possibilities and connections that were not previously apparent.
A couple of phrases or mantras that I have found helpful in practicing equanimity are: “May I accept things as they are” and “May I find peace regardless of the circumstances”
I’m going to end with self-compassion, but really it probably should be the first practice because it is so important and often neglected. There are three components of mindful self-compassion. The first is to bring awareness to the difficulty. Through our experience as parents, we can acknowledge and name the challenges we face. We can recognize our frustrations, insecurities, shortcomings, judgements and limitations. The second component is to bring a kindness or compassion to ourselves in the difficult moments. It is a recognition that this is hard. For most of us, it is far easier to offer kindness and compassion to others than it is to offer ourselves. We might feel like we don’t deserve it or that it is selfish. If you meet resistance when bringing kindness to yourself, simply notice it, name it and try to let it pass. Bringing compassion to ourselves, especially in our role as parents, is essential. Without this self-acceptance and kindness, it is much more difficult to be present with ourselves and have access to compassion for others.
The third component of mindful self-compassion is a sense of common humanity. This is a recognition that we are not alone in our difficulty. Often, when we meet moments of difficulty in parenting, we feel isolated. We may feel shameful or guilty and want to hide our perceived shortcomings. This leaves us feeling that we are along in our suffering. Mindful self-compassion reminds us that we are not alone and that everyone has difficulty. Each parent may have a different flavor and circumstance to their difficulty, but we are all in the same boat really. It helps us face our vulnerability as parents and turn moments of difficulty from isolating and potentially shameful events into opportunities to receive support and increase connection.
Here are some exercises and tips to get you started with mindful parenting: