Stress or frustration in the midst of parenting can sometimes lead to hurtful, or unhelpful, remarks directed at our kids like: “There’s no reason to cry.” “Why can’t you be more like your sister?!” or “Hurry up!!”

Fortunately, as Maya Angelou once quipped, “When you know better, you do better”—and that’s the gentle place where mindful parenting begins.

What is mindful parenting?  “Being a mindful parent doesn’t mean being a perfect parent,” says Amy Zoe Schonhoff, a mindfulness trainer, educator and founder of Mindfulness in the Heartland. “It means bringing awareness to the relationship we’re having with ourselves and with our child. We’re trying to bring more nonjudgmental acceptance to this process of parenting, both in terms of how we’re relating to ourselves and how we’re relating to our child.”

How do parents leaning into mindfulness parent differently?

They care for themselves. Recognize when your tank is running low. When we’re hungry, tired, cranky, stressed from work or not feeling well, we’re more likely to say things we wish we hadn’t.

“It’s natural for parents to say things they regret,” says parent coach Julia Harkleroad, MS, LCMFT and facilitator of the project ON Parenting: Powerful Conversations to Raise Successful Kids. “It’s excellent practice to understand the catalyst behind these statements and set up an environment that is more conducive to mindful, intentional responses.”

Create daily self-care rituals, like meditation, exercise or connecting with friends, which can help you better manage day-to-day stress.

They pause before reacting. We’re more likely to say something hurtful when emotions take the wheel.

“Step one is to give yourself a time out when you feel like you are about to unload on your child—even if that means delaying needed correction of the child,” says Mindy Hart, a divorce coach specializing in communication strategies and child-centered parenting. “Better to delay and come back at a rational point than to cause emotional scars and disengagement of the child altogether.”

When you tell your child you need a break, you model healthy emotional regulation skills.

“It’s good for our kids to see us doing this because we are modeling to them that they can do that too—that they can recognize when they’re getting dis-regulated and then hopefully take action,” Schonhoff says.

They learn about brain development. Our kids often behave in ways that seem neither reasonable nor logical from our adult vantage point. But usually their behavior directly correlates to their brain development.

“Our children’s capacity to self-regulate is not fully developed until they’re in their early 20s,” Schonhoff says. “Things are happening in the brain that oftentimes explain the behaviors that parents see that make them absolutely batty.”

To better understand why your child acts out or pushes your buttons, learn if their actions are developmentally appropriate. Then, strategize ways to best address the specific behavior.

They get curious. If your child frequently runs late in the morning or makes poor choices in school, instead of getting frustrated or angry, get curious. Harkleroad recommends asking questions/statements that start with “how,” “tell me about,” “I wonder if” and “I made up in my head that you….” “This leaves room for the child’s experience to inform the parent and help the entire situation to resolve itself more effectively,” Harkleroad says. “Repeating what you have heard your child say back to them is also very helpful. Then you can ask ‘Did I get that right?’”

Schonhoff realized the value of curiosity when her daughter was in preschool.

“We were always running late. One morning I found her hiding in the closet. She looked like a terrified wild animal. I recognized in that moment something was wrong. This was not just about not wanting to go to school,” Schonhoff says.  She soon learned that her youngster had sensory processing issues. Putting clothing on was uncomfortable and time-consuming.  By getting curious, rather than labeling her daughter as “always running late, never on time,” Schonhoff was able to better understand the issue and modify their morning routine.

They acknowledge feelings. Repeatedly dismissing a child’s feelings (i.e., “You need to toughen up.” or “Quit acting like a baby.”) can be detrimental as they grow into adulthood.

This “produces a highly insecure child that either only knows how to do what other people want them to do, who can’t make decisions independently or who doesn’t listen to anyone ever anymore and can’t tolerate constructive criticism,” Harkleroad says. Instead, empathize. For example, if your child is upset about leaving a playdate, you might say: “I know it’s hard to leave. You and James have fun together.”

They focus on desired behavior. Getting kids to comply through hurtful labels or judgmental comparisons can create confusion and insecurity. Among divorced couples, Hart recommends avoiding remarks like: “You are just like your father (or mother)!” or “I can’t wait for you to go to your mom/dad so I can have peace.”

“Address the behavior without likening it to the other parent—‘Johnny, remember we don’t throw things when we are upset. How about we take a walk?’” Hart says.

Otherwise, children may worry: “What if I am a little like the parent my other parent ‘hates.’ Will they stop loving me too?”

Establishing structure and a plan of action can help you proactively coach desired behaviors (when everyone is calm) while still giving kids a sense of control.

“I believe in using warnings, scales, providing choices and most especially having an evaluation process together with the child after an event or experience,” Harkleroad says.

They reflect. Take time to consider how your values can guide you as a parent.

“These could be principles such as patience, compassion, hard work, education, responsibility,” Harkleroad says. “When a parent is modeling these values and guiding the child towards these values with their parental words, I believe the process flows much more smoothly.”

They apologize. For many of us, apologizing when we make a mistake or hurt someone is an essential part of our value system. “The most transformative interaction a parent can have with a child is to repair together after a misunderstanding or conflict,” Harkleroad says. “Done well, this helps a child learn how to be accountable for themselves by watching their parents do this very thing.”

 

Additional resources:

ON Parenting: Powerful Conversations to Raise Successful Kids (includes events, podcast, group support). Learn more at https://onparenting.community/

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel, MD

Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself by Susan M. Pollack, Ed.D.

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