Episode 1: What is Mindful Parenting?

 

Why is a child psychologist talking about mindfulness?

I began using mindfulness with my adolescent clients dealing with severe anxiety and depression, because this is what the evidence in our field currently shows is the most effective form of treatment.  Then, I started using mindfulness with all my clients, and began to see the benefits of using this with younger children and parents. It fit so well with everything I had learned about child psychology, especially attachment theory, which I conceptualize in my work, as the way a child and parent connect.   This connection is then internalized by the child and becomes the model through which the child relates to himself and others.  I found that mindfulness themes such as being aware of your thoughts and feelings, and being present with your child were easy ways for myself and parents to discuss this process without getting lost, as sometimes these ideas are hard to wrap one's heads around.

The research on the benefits of mindfulness continues to blossom.  About 30 years ago our field really started to shift from looking at only the pathology and what is "wrong," to studying, the positive, resilient qualities of individuals.  This is referred to as positive psychology.  This shift has been so helpful for us as clinicians, we can take this information from our colleagues doing this research and apply it to the treatment of our clients.  We are able to focus treatment on what builds resiliency.  

Checking in with our external supports 

 I have found it can be easy to get caught up in the details, and forget that their are personal and family ecosystems alive and actively affecting your child's behavior. So as I mentioned in our introduction episode, we are going to discuss the importance of self-care through out this podcast, by checking in with our nourishment, our connections, what inspires us and the things that we are using to transform ourselves.  These are our external support systems.  Things outside of our mental or internal resources that support our physical and mental wellness.  It feels good as parents to give ourselves permission to check in about these things.  It helps to have these reserves stocked so that we can make calm and intentional parenting decisions.  And finally, our children see us model this and it gives them permission to value their health and well-being and create a life long habit of this.

what role does mindfulness play in all this?

 We can look to Mindfulness to increase our internal support system as this practice is shown to increase emotional regulation while decreasing stress and anxiety.  Mindfulness helps us with our emotional regulation by encouraging us to observe our feelings, accept them and then make intentional choices with how to respond.  So again, there is a balance here, between the external and internal, we can try to keep our environment as smooth as possible but we cannot control it completely.  So then, we lean on our internal reserves to help us manage difficult experiences in ways that will benefit ourselves and our relationships.  

using mindfulness in our parenting

Observing the Present Moment

This is being aware of your thoughts and feelings. Parents that practice this tend to be less blind sided by their child's changing developmental, temperamental, and emotional needs because they can observe what is happening with their emotions in check.  We want to be aware, but not consumed by these things. Which is quite the balancing act. But Mindfulness helps us with this. Observing the moment relieves us from the constant worry and self-criticism that can cloud our minds when interacting with our children.  So practice giving yourself permission to let go of your worries about past or future parenting mistakes and just enjoy the moment. If the moment is not that enjoyable or perhaps it's disappointing, acknowledge this feeling but try to stay awake to what is happening. Observing the present moment helps us to be in tune with ourselves and our children, notice all the small pieces of what is going on and then make more thoughtful decisions about how to handle them.  

Engaging in the present moment

Interacting with your child mindfully is less about the what and all about the how. First, let them take the lead, it's easier and you get to observe what this little creature wants to do most if you allow them the freedom.  Don't talk so much, that's easier too, we get stuck wanting to say the right thing, so relieve yourself of that pressure.  Listen.  Make lots of eye contact and if you need to say something, verbally observe what your child does.  You can do this anywhere, with anything they are doing. I know those moments, where our children are engaged with something they enjoy, are so easy for us to use to go and empty the dishwasher or send an email.  I know you are busy.  But I encourage to go join them while they are lost in their play, even just for a couple of minutes. By doing this, you are showing them how important you think they are, that you care to learn who they are, that what they think and do matters and you are modeling the ability to just be, so they don't have to start from scratch with all this in adulthood.  Start with 5 minutes a day.  If that is hard for you, notice it.  It may be really different for you.  Notice your child's response, it's usually motivation enough to keep practicing.  

Compassion and Non-Judgement

I put these together because I find that they build on one another especially well.  When we view ourselves and others with compassion and non-judgment we are less stressed, less depressed and have higher self-esteem.  Judgement and criticism cause pain and a sense of isolation.  Think about the person that is unnecessarily rude to you while you are at work.  They may bring up all sorts of feelings for us.  If we are in a good space ourselves we might be able to acknowledge, wow they must be having a really hard time. . . this compassion for someone else is not only kind but actually protects US.  We recognize that the pain they are consciously or unconsciously causing others is not about us and this frees us to set a respectful boundary.  It allows us to untangle ourselves, and our self-esteem from their behavior.  If we choose to judge others, it often gets us stuck in a rut of comparison, when we do this our self-esteem is in constant flux and we get in a habit of being critical of ourselves as well as others.  Mindfulness encourages us not to shut our eyes to these things but instead approach them with curiosity, openness and compassion.   

With our children, we can help them practice non-judgement by staying away from "good" and "bad" labels.  When we focus on good and bad, the child's brain will start to interpret the world in this way, so we will see less flexibility and curiosity.  A lot of information is missed when we judge first.  A child overly concerned with being seen as "good" can develop a false sense of self.   They are only aware of what others want and they are not in touch with their own thoughts and feelings- the foundation of emotional regulation, which I mentioned is the foundation of a well-adjusted and confident kiddo.  You can still label behaviors as kind, respectful, helpful etc. and in fact this is more useful, you are giving them more information here for what you liked about their behavior than you would've with good or bad.    Parents get worried that if they don't say what is good or bad, how will they show their child what the household values are?  Kids are smart and they want to please their parents.  So model your household values, that is the most effective way for those values to stick and give lots of positive attention to what you want to see more of.  

If we see behavior in our children that we don't like, before we feel the need to blame ourselves or become critical of them, start by being curious.  Wondering is such a powerful tool. I wonder why they said that? I wonder how they are feeling right now? I wonder if this is the best way they have to cope with something right now? Being curious about our world keeps our mind active and engaged, open to a more clear picture of what is actually happening than our judgmental mind would allow.  Practicing a nonjudgmental approach leads to a kinder voice in our head, and the voice in our head is often the voice that pops out at our children.  

Acceptance

This is being able to accept ourself and others and the realities we are faced with. Let's be real here, this is a super lofty goal but something we can attain in small interactions.  

 We tend to have a hard time with acceptance when something falls short of our expectations.  Our expectations can cause us a lot of trouble, for ourselves and our children. From the beginning, parenting forces us to accept.  Perhaps we had to shift from our well thought out birth plan at the last moment, perhaps we couldn't balance child care and work in the way we hoped and were forced to make a hard decision, maybe you looked forward to coaching soccer only to find your child is really miserable on the field. When we can accept that say, our child is not an athlete, we bypass what could be multi-year struggle between us and them and we create an opportunity to learn that, the passion we have for sports, they have for music.

We may have had a lot of expectations for ourselves as parents.  What if you had thought you were going to make all your own baby food fresh from the farmers market but  your baby wakes up every three hours and  you're just happy you are functioning and they are fed, is that something you allow yourself to accept?  When we can accept things we are modeling flexibility and resiliency for our children and saving us and them a lot of heart ache.  There is nothing wrong with having expectations, as long as  we are aware of them, we gain a lot of insight into our personal values, and what role these values play in our parenting choices.  But by not accepting things we miss really important information about what is right in front of us. 

the benefits of mindfulness for us and our children

A research study in the Journal of Child Studies found that parents were less stressed, anxious and depressed when they practiced mindfulness.  In these participants, the practice of non-judgemental labeling of an emotional experience was found to correlate with a better parent-child relationship and parental mental health.  We can hear multiple skills here, being able to observe and acknowledge a feeling state and then be non-judgmental about that to the self and the child.  This might look like "I am so frustrated that my baby won't stop crying, but they don't have words to tell me what they need, and I am doing the best job I can right now."  

What about when we are dealing with children with special needs?  I hear parents worry that mindfulness won't be potent enough to handle the immense stress of caring for a child with disabilities or really high needs.  A study from the Journal of Pediatrics looked at mothers of children with Autism and other disabilities, they were taught mindfulness skills for six weeks. Their feelings of anxiety and depression significantly decreased and they had fewer dysfunctional parent-child interactions. The moms slept better and had greater life satisfaction during treatment and then maintained these improvements for at least 6 months after treatment ended when the researchers checked in again

The last study we will look at today was done at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin.  Researchers were studying physical inflammation.  From reading this I learned that our barrier tissues, such as our skin, the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and urogenital tracts are highly susceptible to stress.  So these researchers looked at inflammation on barrier tissue and tried both a wellness program, where participants walked, focused on core strength, received nutritional education and music therapy, so a lot of good stuff here, focusing more on the external resources and compared that group to participants using mindfulness which, I'm going to quote from the article here, a practice which "cultivates an open, and accepting awareness of whatever is occurring in the present moment,without reacting or being absorbed in the contents of the experience."  Both were found to be helpful but those that went through the mindfulness training showed significantly less post inflammation than the other group. 

So we are finding that Mindfulness helps us be less anxious, stressed and depressed parents, that have more positive interactions with our children which is going to help them develop with less stress and more confidence.  And we are seeing this does not just affect our emotional well being but our physical wellness as well. 

 What are your thoughts after hearing about the benefits of mindfulness?  Please share with us!

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Kirsten Kuzirian