Parenting Purposefully: Cultivating a Mindful Way of Being with our Children
Parenting Purposefully: Cultivating a Mindful Way of Being with our Children
With all it’s joys and gifts, parenting can also be challenging and intense; Your young daughter is having a tantrum in the library. Your 3rd grader is constantly distracted and “doesn’t hear” instructions. Your middle schooler rudely talks back at a family party. Your high schooler looks unhappy but says nothing when you check in. In response to this, you may experience many feelings; confusion, frustration, worry, helplessness or the need to control. In the flurry of your thoughts and feelings, how do you know what your child really needs and what should you do? How do you respond compassionately and effectively to bring out the best in your child? How do you parent on purpose?
As a Marriage and Family therapist, some of the most magical moments are when I see parents discover that by pausing in such moments they can access exquisite resources within themselves to be extraordinary parents. To explore this capacity, I often ask parents to think of a moment when they felt they connected or responded effectively to their child. It could be a simple, sincere interaction when their child was heading out to school, or a particularly memorable moment when they helped their child navigate a difficult social situation. I then ask the parents to choose a word to describe how they were being in that moment (not what they were doing but how they were being). Inevitably parents say things like, “I was calm, compassionate and curious,” or I felt patient, playful, and clear”. This is often an “Aha” moment. They recognize that regardless of the severity of their child’s behavior or the intensity of their emotions, the parent’s way of being often makes all the difference in their ability to meaningfully support their child.
As they continue to reflect, parents often share how hard they try to be a “good parent” – using communication strategies, researching their child’s condition, trying a friend’s advice, promising themselves they will never overreact again, and so on. They acknowledge, however, that even the best parenting tools don’t work when inside they are actually feeling agitated, frustrated, critical or annoyed. While there is a great deal of knowledge and skill that can help us parent better, the first key is to connect with ourselves. Once we do that, it often becomes clear what our child needs from us or what external resources will truly support them. Simply put, we can’t genuinely connect and attune to our child until we are connected to ourselves.
Ask yourself: How am I being when I am at my best as a parent so I call forth the best in my child? How do I access this way of being? Can I do this intentionally or is it just by accident on a lucky day?
Good parenting isn’t an accident; it is possible to learn how to access this space inside you, this experience you already know of being at your best. So then why aren’t we calm, compassionate, clear, and courageous parents all the time? To understand this, let’s look more closely at what happens inside us in these difficult moments.
Think back to a moment when your child’s behavior was challenging for you. Your child’s tantrum, resistance, or inability to perform a task, can often trigger a stress response in your system. The moment we start to feel overwhelmed, out of control, unable to cope, disrespected or that we might be a failure, our body and mind registers a threat. If you scan your body in these moments, you might be aware of signs of physical stress; perhaps your jaw, hands or shoulders get tense, maybe your breath feels shallow, or there is a weight on your chest or uneasiness in your stomach. Reflect for a moment; what are the signs or stress in your body?
It isn’t just our body that feels stress but also our mind is perceiving cause for alarm. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between every day challenges (traffic or an uncooperative child) and a real-life threat like a bear or a fire. Our lower “survival” brain takes dominance and our “reasoning” brain (that has the capacity for conflict resolution, compassion, and learning) goes off line. No wonder we say and do things we regret when we are stressed! Have you ever heard a child claim, “It wasn’t really me!”? Have you or your children forgotten “good choices” when you are upset? Have you noticed that while arguing all your “wise words” land on “deaf ears”? When our brain is high-jacked by a stress response, we are not ourselves. These are not optimal conditions for effective parenting and learning in our child! It is key that we appreciate this.
What can we do?
Pause. The moment we notice a challenging dynamic arising with our child or any signs of stress in ourselves, our first priority needs to be taking a pause to get our brains back “on line”. (The one exception is of course if your child is in danger, then please get them to safety first!) Learn how to take a mini pause as a family to step back from the situation that has triggered you and discover simple ways to settle down before you respond to each other. Sometimes it helps to step into a different room, go outside, close our eyes, listen to soothing music or do gentle movement. In a physical sense we are taking time to regulate our nervous system. In terms of our thoughts and emotions, we are creating space to gain perspective, rather than reacting yet again on auto pilot.
Mindfulness can offer simple and powerful ways to step back in moments of stress and find our center. In essence, mindfulness is the practice of placing our attention on what is happening in this moment – this can include what we perceive with our senses (sight, smell, touch) as well as what we notice inside ourselves (our breath, physical sensations, thoughts and feelings). When we shift our focus to our experience of the moment, and do this with an attitude of curiosity and kindness, we access the possibility to disentangle ourselves from the dramatic web of our judgments, assumptions, and concerns. As mindfulness practice has become increasingly popular, you may be familiar with different exercises you can do to self-regulate, refocus your attention and bring awareness to your present moment experience. All of these practices are different ways to build our muscle to bring our brain back “on line”. In terms of our experience as parents, mindfulness maps pathways back into a centered way of being where we feel more ourselves again. Ultimately, mindfulness is not about the exercises but about a way of being; aware so we can engage consciously.
I often think of us as tuning forks. If we continually make an effort to attune to ourselves, our child, and the present moment, family life can flow much more harmoniously. Of course the next parenting challenge will always present itself – this is inevitable. The questions is, how are we going to respond? If we learn to recognize the moments when we need to pause and cultivate a mindful way of being, we can access our center, our compassion, our courage and our wisdom. We are poised to respond intentionally and effectively. We are free to parent on purpose.
Joanna Curry-Sartori is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has a private practice in Rocky Hill, CT where she works with clients of all ages to address the myriad issues that arise in family life. Having studied and taught yoga and mindfulness for over 20 years, Joanna is passionate about supporting people of all ages to access their innate resources of calm, compassion, courage and clarity. Over the past four years, Joanna has expanded her work to bring mindfulness into both public and independent schools to not only benefit the children but also parents and educators, thus uplifting the culture and climate of the whole school community. Click here to learn more about Joanna and the services she provides to parents.