If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably come to realise that parenting is a life experience where the ‘good’ comes with the ‘bad’. Challenging, rewarding, exhausting, inspiring, scary, exciting, frustrating, incredible, demanding, and empowering are just some of the words that come to mind when I try to describe my experience as the mother of a two-year-old.
So how can we cope better with the challenges of parenting and be sure we’re making the most of the precious moments, while continuing to support our child’s development? A simple practice called mindfulness can help.
Mindfulness refers to the art of being fully present, with openness, acceptance, and curiosity. When we are fully present, we are not distracted by thoughts about the past, fears about the future, or the usual (unhelpful) stories that our mind creates about our experience. This allows us to become the parent we want to be, to respond to situations calmly and confidently, to observe and correct our own behaviour when we do overreact, and most importantly to sensitively respond to our children’s needs.
To gently introduce more mindfulness into your own daily life as a busy parent, try giving these simple exercises a go.
1. Ground yourself in the present moment
Start taking three mindful breaths throughout your day, to ground yourself in the present moment. By breathing softly and deeply, expanding your ribs or belly as much as possible as you breathe in then letting go of all the stale air as you breathe out, you are assisting your body to shift from a state of arousal and stress to one of calm and relaxation. This is a great exercise to practice with your child when they are feeling upset or in need of soothing. It also helps us to respond to situations mindfully rather than reacting. Try experimenting with increasing the number of mindful breaths and notice how your experience changes.
2. Try seeing the world through the eyes of your child
Try to get into the mind of your child. What is his or her experience like in this moment? Our children are separate individuals with separate minds, and so to truly understand our children we need to try our best to see the world through their eyes. By mindfully tuning in to our children we are more able to let go of our own assumptions and judgments. In doing so, we are better equipped to let them take the lead when playing rather than imposing our own needs or wishes on the situation. This supports their development as well as their confidence.
3. Recognise when your child is unable to be reasoned with
When your child is overwhelmed or throwing a tantrum, forget trying to reason with them (we all know this doesn’t work, right?). Instead, recognise that outbursts are a normal response to frustration and when your child is highly aroused, the primitive area of his or her brain is in overdrive, which prevents the prefrontal cortex responsible for emotion regulation and thought from working. So your job is to understand the purpose of an outburst and put words to their experience. If overwhelmed, what they need most from you is assistance to reduce their arousal (for example, “I know you’re upset because you are very tired, let’s have a cuddle”). And if they are throwing a tantrum because they want their way, it’s important that you don’t give in and reward the behavior (for example “I know you’re upset because you really want that chocolate bar. And it seems really unfair that I won’t buy it for you. When you calm down I’ll give you a hug and we can talk about it”). You could even practice taking those three (or more!) mindful breaths, and see what happens. Once your child has calmed down, the primitive brain is no longer active and he or she is better able to engage in a conversation about what happened, why you made the decision you did, and how you can both manage similar situations in the future.
4. Connect with your parenting values
Values are personally held beliefs about the kind of person you want to be and the relationship you want to have with the world. In exploring your parenting values, consider these questions: What kind of parent do you want to be? When your children grow up how do you want them to describe you? In what ways do you want to parent differently from your own parents? Everyone holds different values, but here are some of mine: acceptance, authenticity, balance, compassion, collaboration, connection, creativity, courage, flexibility, fun, honesty, love, persistence, respect and responsibility. Take some time to reflect on this and use this as a platform for making conscious choices about the way you parent your child. Of course, your partner’s values may not be the same as yours, in which case some compromise is warranted!
5. Take some time out
Commit to noticing the signs that you need a break and consider what your self-care needs are. This could be time with friends, reading, taking a walk, having a glass of wine, a massage, a bath, a movie, or doing some meditation. It is healthy for our children to have time away from us, as this provides them with a sense of independence and confidence in the world, and allows us the opportunity to welcome them back with open arms. It is often difficult to ask for help, and one of the largest barriers to mothers’ seeking help is the belief they should be able to cope on their own. So in asking for support, remember the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child!” Often people would love to help, they’re just not sure how.
Lastly, be kind to yourself and remember there is no perfect parent. We all make mistakes and at times behave in ways that are not in tune with our kids. When you practice mindful parenting, you are in the best place to notice when you make a mistake and to work towards some repair and a better experience for you and your child the next time around. This is good enough.