Mindful Parenting

By Kathy Scherer, PhD, RYT. Mindfulness is popular now, but it’s more than a fad or buzzword. Forms of mindfulness have been around since the beginning of recorded history. Practicing mindfulness requires us to be conscious of what is happening in the moment. When we are mindful, we are thoughtful of others’ feelings, as well as our own. Living in a mindful way deepens our connections to those around us. Even when practicing on a small scale, mindfulness can have a positive influence on our lives. Studies have found that spending as little as 5 to 10 minutes a day in quiet time, writing in a journal, or meditating can slow down the mind and introduce a thoughtful awareness that is needed for a mindful presence.

Certainly, we can all find 5 to 10 minutes, right? It can be hard to put aside the time for quiet meditation. In our busy daily lives we can easily lose track of what matters in our hearts. It requires a patient practice to introduce both calm and thoughtfulness into our lives, particularly when we are taking care of children or teenagers. The beauty in the approach however, is that a simple mindful activity, practiced with regularity, can bring us to an inner peace and wisdom that can help us guide our family interactions.

I am not saying that the path to mindfulness is easy. Personally, I find it is hard work to stay mindful. I am not slow or reflective by nature. I tend to flit about and do too many things at once. It takes a conscious effort every week, every day, and every minute to return to thoughtfulness. Sometimes I am reminded by my family, in not so subtle ways, to slow down. For example, when my son was in middle school and working on his homework, I would get impatient with his slow pace at times. If I tried to get him to hurry up, he would get frustrated with me. That was understandable. I knew that it was not good to rush him, but that was my impulsive reaction. So, on a good day, I would slow down my own pace and ask myself “What really matters here?” I could only approach my true goal, which was to help my son find his own strengths, if I acted with respect for his pace and style. One way I could do this was to respect his boundaries and ask if he needed anything from me.

Mindfulness is practiced in many different ways such as singing, meditation, prayer, or yoga. These age-old practices have helped people calm down and focus themselves for centuries. It is no wonder we are still drawn to them today. Recent research has found that practicing mindfulness improves your ability to manage strong feelings and strengthen your sense of security. Even taking time to sit in the garden or color in a coloring book can create a calm and meditative state of mind. (Online meditation resource listed below.)

Scientific studies have found that the regular practice of meditation can improve your mood, enable you to be self-calming, and increase your social flexibility. There are significant changes in the areas of the brain that control stress and emotional stability. One study found that 8 weeks of meditation (2.5 hours per week) with ‘over stressed’ adults decreased the size of their amygdala (area of emotional reactivity), decreased their cortisol level (stress hormone), and decreased their subjective experience of stress. It also increased the activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is the area of emotional regulation and cognitive coping skills.

One popular approach to mindfulness is the Mind Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD which teaches mindfulness practice to help in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and pain. This program integrates self-awareness exercises, cognitive coping techniques, and meditation for stress reduction. Research has found that MBSR programs have emotional and physical benefits such as reduced fear responses, immune system improvements, pain reduction and increased emotional awareness and attention. MBSR can help with depression and anxiety symptoms by reducing negative thoughts and raising self- compassion. MBSR programs are offered all around the world.

Parents can practice self-awareness and focus on what really matters to them. Small day to day reminders of what you value in your life can help you feel centered and calm. Think about what you want in your life or for your family. Let that motivate you and lead your actions each day. Posting reminders to practice mindfulness can help, for example having a cherished picture on your phone, a connecting song on the alarm, or a loving note on your mirror. These small reminders can bring us back to our positive feelings of attachment and strengthen our desire to stay mindful. Acting with mindfulness can change everything, it is worth the time.

Practice is the key. Our brains lay down pathways that are reinforced by repetition, so when we practice being calm and thoughtful at home, we can more easily return to calm during a time of stress or conflict. By practicing we are more likely to repeat it in the future. Just like practicing an instrument, our response becomes automatic and second nature over time. Some individuals find self-reflection easy while others do not, perhaps it is based on their past experiences, neurobiology, or current living situations. If we are treated with thoughtfulness in our daily lives, it is easier to create a mindful style of respectful interaction with others. However, if we are surrounded by criticism or thoughtlessness, it will require an extra effort and the support from others to find a place of acceptance and mindfulness.

A mindful parent brings calm and thoughtfulness to the family and can teach children how to manage their own stress. Children of thoughtful parents are likely to be self-accepting, kind to others, and emotionally intelligent. Only 5 to 10 minutes of quiet self-reflection a day, if practiced regularly, has been found to increase feelings of security, decrease anxiety, improve mood, and boost the immune system.

The research data is clear, mindfulness brings benefits to parents and children at any age. So, if you haven’t done so already, try a mindfulness practice, there is really nothing to lose and possibly much to be gained. You may find surprising new resources in your heart and mind to benefit both you and those around you.

Online Resources:

Guided Mindfulness Meditation: Practices with Jon Kabat-Zinn

Self-Compassion Guided Meditations and Exercises with Kristin Neff

Mindful Self-Compassion: Online Meditations (English & Spanish)

Mindfulness Apps from Plum Village: Mindfulness Practice Center

5 & 10 Minute Guided Meditations with Kathy Scherer

Free Online MBSR Course with Palouse Mindfulness

The Heart and Work of Parenting blog is the written by two Psychologists, Drs. Kathy Scherer and Elizabeth Sylvester, who live and work in the heart of family life. They bring their expertise on emotional development, family attachments, neurobiology, and current scientific research to their work. The contents of this blog are sections of a book in progress; we welcome any thoughtful feedback. Website: Heart and Work.

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