When a child acts out reactively, it’s the easiest thing in the world to respond just as reactively – with anger and impatience. And that response says far more than just “your behavior is upsetting, so please stop it.” It says that a big, fast, from-the-gut reaction – full of wild energy and even wilder words – is an appropriate response when things don’t go your way.
Children are sponges. And they model what they witness.
What Does It Mean to Parent Mindfully?
As ever, Jon Kabat-Zinn offers a concise and useful definition:
It means you become less attached to outcomes and more mindful of what’s unfolding in your life and your children’s lives. Mindful parenting is about moment-to-moment, open hearted and nonjudgmental attention.
It’s about seeing our children as they are, not as we want them to be. We let everything that unfolds in life be the curriculum for our parenting—because it is—whether we like it or not.
So often, we tend to view whatever we’re experiencing through the filter of our own expectations and desires. We miss what’s actually going on. In the case of our children, what we miss may be the causes of the behavior, the needs that are driving it – or, importantly, what is triggering our reaction to it.
The more nonjudgmental awareness of yourself and the moment, the more readily you can relate to your child with honesty, respect, and attention to their needs – as well as your own. Again, Kabat-Zinn:
Studies of the brain have demonstrated that empathy is built into being human. When we attune to the experience of another, our nervous system is actually resonating with the same pattern of neural activity as the other person.
If we don’t attend to our children in ways that are emotionally present, we are disrespecting the fundamental threads of connectivity between us. If parents are more emotionally present in a balanced, more mindful way, the evidence is that children grow up to be grounded and functional in dealing with their own emotionally charged situations.
The Benefits of Mindful Parenting
One of the more recent reviews of the literature offers a snapshot of the most consistently reported benefits of mindful parenting. “Mindful parenting programs,” say the authors,
may reduce parental stress, increase parents’ emotional awareness of their 10–14-year-old children and reduce preschool children’s symptoms associated with externalizing disorders. A recurring finding was that the mindful parenting programs reduced parents’ emotional dismissal of their adolescents and preschoolers.
More, studies in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology and Mindfulness have shown that mindful parenting may help keep kids out of trouble, reducing behaviors such as disruptive, acting-out and substance abuse.
Other studies have suggested significant improvement from mindful parenting in cases of children with special needs, including ADHD populations, children on the autism spectrum, and kids with developmental disabilities. Here, we tend to see both reductions of negative behavior and improvements in social and emotional skills.
Yet other research has focused on improvements to the parent-child bond itself. For instance, one study from last year found that
mindful parenting is positively associated with a child’s well-being through a more secure perception of the relationship with the parents.
Mindfulness Is More Than Just Skills
It’s important to realize, as one excellent overview in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review noted, that mindful parenting is about far more than just skills.
We believe that parents who adopt a mindfulness orientation for their parenting and regularly engage in mindful parenting practices will undergo a fundamental shift in their ability and willingness to truly be present with the constantly growing and changing nature of their child and their relationship with their child.
In this way, parents can be freed from the egoistic, habitual, and hedonic motivations that may lead them astray in their parenting practices and cultivate a parenting perspective that incorporates a long view of the enduring nature of the relationship with the use of wisdom in selecting appropriate parenting responses in the moment.
Still, skills can be a great place to start – and that’s what we’ll look at in our next post.