In the past few years, the concept of mindfulness has found its way to yoga studios, corporations, schools, and medical offices. Lately, it has also gained popularity with a new audience: parents.
An internet search of the term “mindful parenting” turns up millions of articles, books, and activities. Research shows that engaging in mindful parenting is linked to more positive behavior in kids and less anxiety, depression, and acting out.
This is good news. Except, what exactly is mindful parenting and how do we do it?
According to Yael Shy, meditation teacher, author, and mother of two toddlers, mindful parenting is the act of being present to whatever is arising in a particular moment of parenting, whether that’s anger, love, or anything in between.
While we like to think of “being in the moment” as code for soaking in the joy our little ones bring us, Shy says that being present with our children also means bearing witness to some extremely unpleasant emotions, in both them and us.
The powerful love our kids inspire in us comes with equally intense feelings of anger, fear, and grief for the loss of our pre-motherhood selves. These emotions are normal and don’t mean we are bad parents. And though we often seek to avoid them, they are inevitable.
I regularly wish I could freeze time during an especially sweet moment with my child, yet when negative feelings arise in either of us, my instinct is to get rid of them as fast as possible. My son is crying, so I give him a cookie to distract from his frustration. I’m stressed, so I reach for my phone to block out the world’s demands. But these actions only teach our kids that bad feelings are to be avoided rather than explored and understood.
How do we train ourselves to comfortably inhabit the full, messy spectrum of emotions that is parenting? Shy has some ideas for us.
“Kids are just beginning their emotional development, so they become dysregulated often and quickly,” Shy said. “When this happens, what keeps me sane is to breathe deeply and touch a chair or the counter — something to keep me rooted in the world and in the present rather than flying off into the past or the future and matching my kids’ emotional swings.”
Compassion and forgiveness are also important. “We’re trying so hard to hold it all together,” Shy said. “It’s important to be gentle with yourself when things fall apart — the kids are fighting or you have a bad day. Just as you would try to calm your kids, sometimes your own inner baby needs calming.”
Finally, letting go of expectations plays a huge role in your ability to practice mindful parenting. Expectations tug us into the future and hinder our ability to achieve what Shy calls “a radical showing up” in the present moment for our children.
Sometimes these are expectations we have for ourselves, like the email inbox we keep meaning to clean out or the workout we told ourselves we’d squeeze in. Sometimes they are expectations of others, like our child or our partner behaving a certain way. Either way, setting aside expectations helps us stay rooted in the present, the place where we can best help and support our kids.
Along with parents, children can also benefit from practicing mindfulness. At each developmental stage, mindfulness has been shown to be a useful tool for decreasing anxiety and promoting self-control and social skills. In some cases, it’s also being used as part of treatment programs for ADHD.
The good news is that kids are naturally present. As Shy puts it, “Their wonder is at an eleven.”
Beyond their natural ability to be in the present moment, the best way for kids to learn mindfulness is to see it modeled.
“For better or for worse, you’re so connected to your kids that they will pick up on everything you’re doing and feeling,” Shy said.
While we often try to hide our strong feelings from our kid, telling them when we’re angry or sad can help them learn how to identify these emotions in themselves. Additionally, using simple, visible tactics for coping with emotions when we’re with our kids makes them more likely to do the same when the need arises, for example, taking a few deep breaths and focusing on how they feel in our body when we’re mad or asking for a hug and enjoying the sensation of physical connection when we’re sad.
“When all else fails I like to quote Daniel Tiger: ‘When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.’ This works for both parents and kids!” Shy said.
We all have days as parents when we feel like we barely catch our breath before the next wave of crises. It’s easy to feel battered about by our own emotions and those of our kids. Beginning to practice mindful parenting, though, can help us breathe more easily in between the waves and grab a life preserver while we wait for the calm that will inevitably return.