Practising mindfulness as parents and modelling the same for our children might just be the factor that tips the balance from increased chaos to increased happiness and harmony! Mindfulness is about consciously slowing down and becoming present to our in the moment experience, including our inner experience of thoughts, feelings and sensations, with the intention to witness without judgment or evaluation.
“But why is this important for parents?”, some might wonder, “surely that’s more relevant to Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged in a temple with hours to kill!” As counter-intuitive as it may feel to slow down and become mindfully present when there’s so much to be achieved, doing exactly this can be the most constructive thing we can do in our day! It helps because the quality of witnessing our inner and outer experience without judgment effectively reduces mental and emotional turbulence, brings relief and can thus take us out of the stress response and back to feeling more calm. When we come out of the stress response (activated sympathetic nervous system response), we can again think, function and feel so much better! Managing behaviour in the family is mostly about managing stress, so the better we can manage our own stress, well that’s what gives us the patience to help our kids to manage theirs!
When mindfulness sounds like another thing to fit in. The concept of practising mindfulness, to most people, tends to be a nice idea associated with organics, yoga and all that good stuff, but all very airy-fairy ethereal and hard to grasp why it’s actually worth practising. Even that word “practising” can feel so exhausting! Unlike sitting in a funky cafe with coffee and cake, now that gets those dopamine receptors firing! Coffee and cake versus sitting with my messy stressy feelings hmm. This article aims to provide clarity about what mindfulness is and why it works and what that can look like in your family.
What is mindfulness really? Let’s break down the definition I gave above; “Mindfulness is about consciously slowing down and becoming present to our in the moment experience, including our inner experience of thoughts, feelings and sensations, with the intention to witness without judgment or evaluation.” What does slowing down, becoming present to our experience and witnessing without judgment mean and why does it help? The more stressed we become, the faster and more chaotic our thinking and the faster and more shallow our breathing becomes. Mindfulness is about making a choice to slow down and truly notice our experience. Mindfulness in action can be resisting the urge to keep doing the doing and instead just sit with the intention to land and reduce our stress. We give our full attention to our experience of sitting, observing our thoughts and our body’s sensations, like our contact with the chair our breathing.
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This article offers 13 easy ways that you can bring mindfulness into your child's daily life and help them develop more mindfulness in their thoughts, feelings and actions.
An affirmation like “I observe these sensations” can help to keep your mind focused on your experience in this moment. This affirmation has lived on with me since doing a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation retreat in India in my twenties. When we observe with the aim to accept rather than change, fix or push away our thoughts, feelings and sensations, we evoke our witness consciousness, as it’s called in certain spiritual circles. Or as Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegal explains it, we’re applying the more logical perspective of our higher brain’s thinking (the prefrontal cortex or upstairs brain) to the heightened emotions in the limbic and brain stem (or downstairs brain as he calls it), which reduces mental and emotional chaos.
When a child can’t sleep. When my son was young, if he had trouble sleeping, I would do this last activity with him and he’d quickly settle into sleep. When he was a little older, if he couldn’t sleep, I would suggest; “watch your breathing in your belly” and tell him I would check on him again soon, and it always helped him fall asleep quickly. As adults or children, any activity that shifts our focus to our body awareness tends to bring more balance.
Bringing mindful parenting into busy stressful days! A parent collects their child from kindy on a busy day, an argument ignites when the child demands they go to the shop for a treat, the debate is raging when the parent realizes their stress is through the roof and remembers they actually need to slow down and get centred. Instead of continuing the argument, they bring their attention inside and tune in to their breathing and notice how strained it is, they now feel their body’s need to make each breath a bit deeper and longer, taking in more air and more fully releasing stress on their out breath. They become aware of how their nerves react to their child’s upset, they notice how tightly they’re holding their shoulders, neck and jaws and naturally drop their shoulders. They become conscious of the blaming thoughts racing through their head, “just STOP child!”, “why do I fight back!”, “if her Dad didn’t say yes to treats every time!” Witnessing their experience and slowing down their breathing reduces the pressure just enough to resist the urge to raise their voice (or just go and get that treat) and instead say; “honey it’s not going to happen, I know this is hard for you, let’s do something nice together when we get home”. Their child might still be upset, but the parent can now start to be more present to their child’s inner experience; “you’re so disappointed aren’t you”
Meanwhile in their brain … The fast breathing and the stressful thoughts were giving information to the limbic emotional downstairs brain that there was danger afoot. Their emotional centre was becoming increasingly over activated and hijacking the upstairs brain making it hard to think straight. When stress rises, the right brain’s imagination can run riot, connecting dots to see all the contributing factors, imagining how things will keep getting worse “the whole day is ruined and it’s going to be impossible to meet that deadline, no doubt hubby will be late again”.
“Part of the process of developing mindsight involves reducing reactivity when it’s not actually necessary.” Daniel Siegal
This is tricky, not tragic. When we focus our mind on noticing what we’re thinking, feeling and experiencing in this very moment, it reduces the right brain’s imagination and puts a halt to catastrophizing the situation. When we stop, drop into our body awareness and notice what’s happening inside, we can then feel the body’s pleas for relief, so we naturally breathe more fully, which slows down the breathing, sending messages to the limbic centre that the threat is reducing. Noticing and witnessing our thoughts engages the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) and sends messages from to the limbic (or downstairs brain), that we’re just stressed, there isn’t a real threat in this moment and everything’s going to be ok. One of the affirmations I suggest in my peaceful parenting eCourses is “this is tricky, not tragic”, which helps this process of bringing things back into perspective, back to the present moment. The tools I teach in these courses fit within my CCC model; Centre, Connect, Communicating because without being able to get centred, we can’t connect in a way that settled our child, which results in the communication resulting in power struggles.
Training the brain to disengage the stress response when it’s not necessary or helpful. Every time we choose to be mindful, we practice focusing our mind and strengthening our mental “muscles” in a similar way to strengthening our physical muscles through exercise. When faced with genuine threats like being physically attacked or a near car accident, it’s appropriate and helpful for the stress response to kick in. The sympathetic nervous system response takes over and there’s a huge increase in adrenalin and cortisol giving us superhuman energy, strength and speed and allowing our primal instincts to fight, flight or freeze to override more methodical problem solving and strategizing. Emergencies require this very rapid mobilization of energy throughout the body and brain.
It is that it is. Common affirmations used amongst those who teach and practice mindfulness are “it is that it is” and “I am that I am”, both statements are a reminder to accept our experience, rather than reject, judge or try to avoid our experience. Much of the peaceful parenting advice is based on these exact same principles, when we become truly present with our child and just acknowledge their upset rather than reacting to it or trying to fix it, our child can feel that presence, they may feel seen, heard and cared for and it can be very soothing for them. Sometimes they cry louder because it feels safe to have that release, sometimes they just drop in for a cuddle, but a beautiful bonding can happen in these moments.
Meditation changes the brain! I’ve been practising meditation for over 30 years and enjoy teaching it because it’s possibly the most powerful healing agent a person can bring into their life. A parent is much more likely to be able to notice that their stress levels are rising and that their tone of voice has become tense if they managed to get up a bit earlier that morning and did 15 minutes of meditation, or sat in the garden listening to the birds with bare feet on the grass or did even a couple of yoga stretches. It’s all the little practices that make a really big difference.
Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a Parent Educator and Coach, public speaker and Founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute. We offer eCourses, forums, webinars, special interest groups and more through our Peaceful Parent Membership Village.