Mindfulness and meditation have become buzzwords in many different aspects of life. However, don't let the popularity fool you! Mindfulness is actually quite useful. I've found my formal and informal practice of mindfulness has made me a more patient person mother. Consciously practicing mindfulness, however, also demands awareness of deep feelings such as guilt and shame (spoiler: guilt and shame are prolific in parenting). This can be quite painful, so more than a few things mindful parents want and need you to know.
As a therapist, I see and encourage the value of feeling all the feels, acknowledging them with loving kindness, and learning from them. That, after all, is the stuff of life.Why wouldn't I want to do this for my own children and in my every day life, right?
For me, starting a mindfulness-awareness practice 20 years ago was life changing. I can't be totally positive, but I'm pretty sure at 16 years old I was starting the practice to get magic powers. I had no idea, at the time, that this seemingly simple practice would lead me to ultimately train as a mindfulness-based transpersonal trauma therapist, get me back into the body that I had shunned, and impact every facet of my life. This, of course, includes parenting. By the time I had kids I was a person with a mindfulness practice. So when I became a parent, naturally, I became a mindful parent. So, with that in mind, there are some misconceptions about mindful parents that I'd like to clear up.
That We're Not Perfect And That's OK
We neither expect to be nor pretend to be perfect. We are not pushing mindful parenting on anyone else as the way to do parenting. Let's face it, we're all just flying by the seats of our good-intentioned-parent-pants. We do want to do parenting with more intention than our parents did. As a mama that means paying attention whenever possible.
I almost make an effort to remember what my developmental psychology graduate school professor said. "Even the best parent in the world is only the best 80 percent of the time."
That We Don't Judge You
We, too, are parents just trying to get by. We're trying to do the thing we think is best for our kids and our family. So, in no way do we judge you for having differing ways of parenting. Ain't no parent got time for that, anyway.
That We Raise Our Voices, Too
We are not walking around whispering at our children, speaking in hushed tones and giving bedtime dharma talks. OK, maybe some of us are. However, I'm sure as hell not.
Having grown up with a whole lot of yelling, I'd rather not ever raise my voice at my kids. In real life that is really f*cking hard, though. I'm a work in progress as a human and a parent. Mindfulness helps me face and own my flaws, then go on to forgive myself. With awareness comes opportunity for choice. With choice comes opportunity for change.
That Mindfulness Isn't Fake
There is a big misconception that mindfulness or meditation is fake. I've even had one person tell me she had this idea that it was flaky and somehow associated with drugs and hippies. I promise you, besides the occasional pain reliever and my daughter's asthma medication, we aren't giving our children drugs.
Mindfulness is about cultivating awareness. Yes, adults may meditate (and both my partner and I do). We also offer meditation as an option for our kids. The 7 year old occasionally takes us up on it, but the other two are much too young for formal practice. Yet.
The core practice of mindful parenting is being intentional in our interactions, breathing before we speak or react, feeling through all our emotions with gentle compassion, and cultivating those qualities in our children.
There is a lot of research on the benefits of mindfulness alone, in conjunction with religion and in psychology. There is also quite a bit of research on how mindfulness helps children in school.
Mindfulness Is Not A Religion
If your religion helps you teach your children kindness and helps you show up to defend human rights, I say more power to you. Religion is not for us, though. Many religions teach mindfulness in various ways (Buddhists have mindfulness, Christians have contemplative prayer, etc.) but mindfulness itself is not a religion. It is simply a practice of awareness of the present moment as opposed to the future-focus or past-obsession that permeates our culture. Mindfulness practice also cultivates compassion for self and others.
Mindfulness Helps Regulate Emotions
There is a lot of research about how mindfulness helps people regulate their emotional states. As an evidence-based clinician, that research certainly helped convince me of it's usefulness. However, as a parent, individual, and partner, what matters to me most is seeing the difference mindfulness makes in my family's every day lives.
Emotion dysregulation is a tenet of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). This emotion dysregulation stems from nervous system activation. In my house, we have two adults with PTSD, one child and one adult with ASD and another child with moderate to severe anxiety. (Side note: Phew!) The immediate results of a few present-centered breaths is undeniably and immediately impactful.
With consistent practice my partner and I have both increased our ability to regulate our own nervous systems. When we are regulated we can better attune to each other and to our children. It is also quite astonishing to see the power of teaching children the path of radical acceptance.
Mindfulness Helps Reduce Anxiety
As I previously mentioned, my 5 year old son has moderate to severe anxiety. When he is very anxious he gets stomach aches, has difficulty falling asleep, and has a million "what if" fears racing through his head. From this place it's nearly impossible to get him regulated and can take an hour or more to help ease his panic. But if we take a few minutes each day, a couple times a day, to help him name his feelings and feel his breath it can shift his entire experience of anxiety.
In my 5 year old it may look like this: "Say, 'I'm sad, I'm sad.' Now, breathe innnnn and breathe outtttt with me." Doing this with my child also reminds me to breathe and name my feelings, so bonus!
That A Rambunctious Child Is Not A Mindful Parenting Failure
Our children are incredible, energetic bundles of explosive joy. I think it's in the DNA? I used to joke with my brother that I'd likely end up with the rambunctious kiddos because I was such a calm kid, while he'd end up with the calm kids because he was so rambunctious as a kid. (Side note: so not fair.)
Maybe it's just me, but as an anxious person myself (I'm one of the adults with PTSD in our house) having people assume we're mindful parents is a bit nerve wracking. While we do our best to intentionally parent in this way, it's never easy. I can't help but feel, sometimes, that people look at our children bouncing off the walls and think we're mindful parent failures.
When these thoughts come up it is an opportunity for me to practice mindfulness and a good opportunity for me to reality test. Other parents of autistic kids get the same stares and head shakes we do. It's not about us.
Rambunctiousness isn't a problem to be solved, necessarily. Sometimes it's just a present fact to be observed, named, and accepted radically.
Mindful Parenting Is Not A Fad
Mindful parenting is a practice. It's not a destination and it's not enlightenment. It doesn't make you the best parent on the block. It's not a fad. It's just what makes the most sense to my partner and I as parents. That's it.
That We Are Doing The Best We Can
Just like every other parent, we don't have the magic serum to make parenting easy. We are just doing the best we can.