2 Essentials of Mindful Parenting
When I was a new parent, I spent a lot of time focused on getting the right stuff for this new role as parent: the baby carrier, the stroller, the co-sleeper, the right toys, etc. Like many of us, I had subconsciously bought into this idea that if I had the right stuff, I’d be ready.
By the time my daughter was two years-old, I figured out that organic baby food wasn’t the make-it-or-break-it factor in parenting. My interactions with my daughter actually depended very little on what kind of stroller I had or her toys. The stuff didn’t matter at all. It was the quality of our relationship on a moment-to-moment basis that mattered.
Now that I’ve taken the jogging stroller around the block a few times, I realize that the two things that I really did need, the two things that mattered most…weren’t even on my radar.
Parenting is like that. We think we’ve prepared by reading baby books and getting a boppy, but then parenting hits us over the head anyway.
What are the two things parents really need?
First let me say this: by the time our child is walking and talking, most of us realize what parenting actually is: how we respond to our child in each moment. Parenting is easy when things are going well. When there are no problems, when it’s peaceful, then we can all be pretty rockin’ parents.
I was a great parent when my daughter was happy—I was a calm parent then. We went on walks together and read tons of books. I had ascribed to the idea that parenting was “instinctual,” and these easy moments with good behaviors confirmed that.
When she was not happy, however, I was overcome by stress and what I thought were my “instinctual” interactions devolved into the same angry and frustrated responses I experienced from my own parents as a child. It was not helping, to say the least.
We parents need help when we have conflict. When there’s a conflict, a few things happen: our nervous system stress response kicks in and we become reactive, then we’re on autopilot from old patterns (ie. your own parent’s voice comes out of your mouth).
We can break it down our trouble in difficult moments into two problems:
The stress response
We come into the most trouble in our parenting when we are stressed, so it’s important to understand the stress response. There are biological and evolutionary reasons why we “lose it.”
“Losing it” refers to those fast, automatic reactions to a perceived threat which can be triggered in stressful interactions with our child. It literally cuts off access to the rational, thoughtful part of our brain—the prefrontal cortex, which inhibits our impulses.
The first and most fundamental thing we need as parents (for our stress response!) is this:
You’ve heard of it. It’s a buzz word, but for good reason. Mindfulness practice is one of the single most effective tools we have to lower our stress response and become less reactive.
With practice, we can acknowledge our thoughts and feelings, but not be swept away by them. We can tolerate the unpleasant feelings that arise and still access our whole brain. Think about this. For parents, it’s a complete game changer.
With mindfulness practice, we can cultivate the ability to slow down that stress response. With the stress response slowed down, then we can access our whole brain and respond to our children thoughtfully. It's the difference between responding and reacting. It helps us act not react. It's conscious parenting.
As a longtime student of mindfulness, I saw that I needed to stay disciplined with my practice so that I could be more grounded with my daughter.
A client of mine said, “After settling myself through daily meditation and yoga I was able to come out of the “fog” and see a lot of things that I needed to work on. Now I am able to really listen to my kids. I am able to respond calmly, most of the time.” Mindfulness parenting is how to parent without yelling. Mindfulness is do-able and really changes everything. It's how to stop yelling at your kids.
Okay, so here’s the catch: once we are able to calm down and become less reactive, what do we say?
Many, many people are like me—the language that I used was the language I grew up with, commands and demands. The problem is that they didn’t work and caused resentment in my young child. The language I was using was weakening our relationship rather than strengthening it.
The Second Thing parents need help with (perhaps most of all): #2 Skillful Communication
We go into parenting with great intentions to be loving and kind, but with the combination of our stress response and our unskilful, habitual ways of communicating, we get really stuck.
Since parenting comes down to, at its core, our moment-to-moment interactions with our children, parents need training in how to communicate in those moments. The blaming, shaming, judgmental words that come out of our mouths create resentment in our children and make them less likely to cooperate with us. We need positive guidance strategies which are the essentials of communication for parents.
The crazy thing is that this language may be so much a habit that you don’t even recognize it as harmful. I didn’t.
Take some common ways we respond to our kids:
“Don’t talk to me like that!” “Stop complaining.” Commanding and demanding make kids feel guilty, bad, and resentful. Over time it makes them less likely to cooperate.
“If you do that, I’ll have to take away your ____.” Threatening also causes your child to resent you and makes kids less likely to want to cooperate.
“Babies do that. You should act like a big boy!” This shames the child. Name-calling and categorizing our children limit them.
When my daughter was young, I could see that the things I was saying were not helping the problem.
When she got upset, because of my mindfulness practice, I was often able to stay calmer, but then I would say some unskillful thing that would escalate the problem. This is the essence of mindfulness for families.
The thing is, there are ways of communicating that really help, but it takes training and practice. How do we talk to create stronger connection rather than resentment in our children? How do we communicate so that they want to cooperate with us?
These answers are out there, and parents really need them.
For example, in Mindful Parenting I teach the members examples of positive communication, like how to use I-messages rather than you-messages, so that we are speaking from our own experience. This is positive family communication.
As I started to learn and study how to talk to my child, I realized that mindfulness is the foundation for communication as well, because it's how to stop reacting. It moves us into parenting in the present moment. Skillful communication asks you to be aware of how we are feeling and how the situation is affecting you. It’s nearly impossible to turn on that awareness without calming our stress response first.
What do I wish I had as a young parent? I would have given up all of the stuff for these two things:
Mindfulness for the stress response and cultivating non-reactivity.
Skillful communication for more cooperation and a better relationship.
Mindfulness and skillful communication are incredibly powerful tools for parents (and for every part of our lives). These two things can change the world, one family at a time.
Do you agree? What do parents really need that we don’t focus on? Start the conversation in the comments below!