Breathe in, breathe out. Have you ever been in the heat of a parenting moment with these words ringing through your head? Then you're on the right path toward mindful parenting.
Mindfulness, a concept rooted in Buddhism, is the focusing of attention and awareness. It has become increasingly popular in Western culture thanks in part to practitioners like Jon Kabat-Zinn and, locally, Richard Davidson of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
Mindfulness can aid anyone in his or her quest for wellness, but this is especially true for busy parents, who can spend much of their time feeling stressed out and overwhelmed.
"I do think it's been involved in how to parent all along," says Meg Miller, executive director for Madison's Center for Families, which provides resources and respite care to families in highly stressful situations.
Although they don't refer to it as "mindfulness," Miller says the Center for Families has always used the concept in supporting parents.
"Always, people have been told to take a deep breath, to step back from the situation if you're feeling anxiety rising.... Calm yourself down," says Miller.
Mare Chapman, a Madison mindfulness coach, says there are three essential questions for parents to ask themselves in stressful moments:
- 1. What's actually happening to me right now?
- 2. How am I relating to that?
- 3. Given how I am relating to it, what's a wise and kind way to respond to myself right now?
If you find yourself in a power struggle with your kids, or it's the fourth time you've uttered the same sentence about putting toys away or starting homework, Chapman advises parents to step back and recognize their feelings before responding.
"Typically, our reaction is to want to get [our kids] to change. Our attention goes to them and trying to fix them," says Chapman. "They react to that, then off we go in some kind of skirmish."
But Chapman says that if you can anticipate your feelings of frustration and impatience, you can respond to your kids from a better place mentally. As parents use mindfulness and meditation more naturally in their parenting, they can develop increased empathy and compassion for themselves and their kids. And this can be especially important during challenging situations.
"I think the potential for improving our relationship with our kids is better," says Chapman. "We're more able to listen to them and be kinder and wiser parents. I think it can help us deal with worries of being a parent, which can be so vast."
Kristina Stadler, a former student of Chapman's and mother of two, has experienced this phenomenon firsthand.
"It helps me to realize I don't need to be going that fast all the time. Things are not as big a deal as I tend to make them sometimes," says Stadler.
She tells the story of a visit to the Madison Children's Museum when her young daughter wandered away from her in the midst of a large crowd. Her initial feeling was panic. But Stadler used "dropping in," a method of bringing attention to physical sensations, thoughts and emotions for a brief period of time, to help her get through this moment as efficiently as possible. Focusing on her daughter's clothes and features, Stadler took a long, mindful breath before looking around the crowd. She was able to locate her daughter in a few minutes, and she credits her mindfulness practices for keeping a high-stress parenting situation from getting out of control.
Mindfulness also leads to greater self-awareness. This can help parents recognize what they need for themselves, in turn allowing them to be more present for their kids. Parents need to be able to say "I just need to go take a walk, and that doesn't mean I'm a bad mom," says Stadler.
Of course, parents are busy, so how can they include one more thing -- the mindfulness practice -- in their daily lives?
Stadler suggests paring down the to-do list. "So many times we have a list of things to do as a parent. Figure out how many of those things are other people's expectations, how many are yours, and how many involve your children's needs. Reevaluate your ever-present to-do list."
Parents can also build mindful interaction with their children into the day. Stadler says this can be as simple as narrating a trip to the grocery store. Take your grocery list and focus on each item at a time, saying to your child: "Now we're going to get apples; look how red they are. Here's what it feels like to bite into an apple. What do you feel when you bite into an apple?" Don't worry about what's ahead on the list; focus on that apple.
Stadler has written a book, Frog on My Head, based on her own meditation practices with her daughters, who have also benefited from mindfulness techniques.
"What are the benefits?" she asks. "Fewer conflicts. The ability for kids to problem-solve among themselves rather than having to turn to you."
Mare Chapman empathizes with parents trying to fit everything into the day. "We're just juggling so many balls at the same time. It's a definite challenge, but it can be totally worked with," says Chapman.
Chapman reaches out to area moms by offering a Mindfulness for Moms course, the next of which is in February (see sidebar). During these courses, Chapman says many of her attendees mention dedicating their free time in the car while they're waiting to pick up the kids from school to meditation practice.
"Three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, any amount of time," says Chapman. "Meditation practice is like the gym for cultivating these mindfulness muscles."
Chapman encourages parents to seek out guided meditations that can be downloaded (see sidebar); then listen while folding laundry, washing the dishes, or driving to pick up the children.
By incorporating elements of mindfulness into parenting, says Chapman, "We can potentially find wiser and kinder ways to respond to ourselves and our kids."
Mind over motherhood
- Mindfulness for Moms class: Feb. 11-May 1. MareChapman.com. 608-233-7431 ext. 1. $250.
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: UW-Health Integrative Medicine. uwhealth.org/alternative-medicine/mindfulness-based-stress-reduction/11454. 608-265-8325. Courses are available for children and adults.
- Insight Timer App: Insighttimer.com, for iPhone, Android and iPad.Includes features such as a timer that allows you to set session lengths, the ability to connect with others using mindfulness practice, and a variety of guided meditations you can listen to.
- The UW Department of Family Medicine offers a digital media library (fammed.wisc.edu/our-department/media/mindfulness), with guided meditations, put together by their own practitioners.
- The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=107) offers free guided meditations, with a new offering every week.