What are your parenting wishes for the new year?
Is it more laughter, less scowls?
More cooperation, less clashes?
More bonding, less rush?
It is really in your hands, or should I say in your mind, to fulfill your wishes.
Families without conflicts do not exist. You have your own needs, expectations and priorities. Your children have their own. Conflicts are inevitable. Whether they will end in peace or war depends on you, the adult. Will your knee-jerk reaction escalate the conflict, or will your mindful response resolve it without drama?
Mindfulness in parenting is about being attentive, non-judging and non-reacting when interacting with your child. It involves acting in a way that serves the best interests of the child. As cited by an article by Jill Suttie (1), mindfulness not only improves your well-being but also that of your children.
Here is a 3-step approach to mindful parenting:
Understand how your brain works.
When your child is behaving well, it is so easy to be loving and kind. But it is so tough to stay calm, when he pushes your buttons. Why? It is because his defiance is perceived as a potential threat by your brain. A moment comes when you can’t take it anymore. And then, FLIP!
You just “flip your lid”, a term coined by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a leading neurobiologist and the author of “Parenting from Inside Out”. The lid is your prefrontal cortex, the “Upstairs Brain” as Dr. Siegel calls it.
The moment your “Upstairs Brain” disengages, you lose your capacity to reason and think rationally. It is no longer capable of coordinating the “Downstairs” limbic brain where emotions and memories reside.
The “Downstairs” brain takes over; resulting in a fight, flight or freeze response. You no longer feel connected to your child. You may yell, threaten to punish or withdraw love. Possibility of peaceful resolution no longer exists.
The “Upstairs Brain” takes more than 20 years to develop fully; from the age of 3 until the mid-20’s. No wonder children have such a hard time regulating their emotions on their own. They need your guidance.
You are their safe harbour in stormy seas. Dr. Siegel’s work shows that by being mindful, one can retrain and rewire the brain to respond with compassion and empathy, when things don’t go your way.
Practice mindfulness every day.
In their book “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting”, Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn (2) have recommended practical exercises for mindful parenting.
“Try to imagine the world from your child’s point of view, purposefully letting go of your own. Do this every day for at least a few moments to remind you of who this child is and what he or she faces in the world.”
Reflect on your interactions with your child. Think about how you can respond differently without letting your own emotions or ego come in the way. It is not about being permissive, but being empathetic while setting limits when necessary. Daily mindfulness practice will prepare you to handle conflicts when they actually occur.
When conflict occurs: S.T.O.P.
Lisa Kring (3), mindfulness teacher recommends following strategy for self-regulation when you find yourself in a potential conflict with your child: S.T.O.P.
S- Stop, T- Take a breath, O- Observe, P-Proceed
Stop: By pressing the “pause” button, your “upstairs” wise, rational brain gains control over “downstairs” brain. You can be more aware of what’s happening right now.
Take a breath: Inhale slowly 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and exhale 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Take 5 breaths, and you will already start feeling calmer. Give yourself time to distance yourself from the situation.
Observe: Just observe yourself and your child without judging. Name the emotion you are feeling. Anger? Disappointment? Hopelessness? Whatever it is, accept it. Dr. Siegel’s research shows that the moment we acknowledge and name the emotion we are feeling, it is easier for us to control it.
“Name it to tame it” – Dr. Daniel Siegel
Focus your attention on what is happening right now. Be aware of the signals your body might be sending. 90% of communication is non-verbal. It is louder than words.
Children can detect disappointment in the shake of your head, exasperation in the roll of your eyes, hopelessness in the heaviness of your sigh, irritation in the tone of your voice, anger in the tightness of your jaw. Compose yourself.
Step into your child’s world. What is your child feeling? Where is he coming from? Is this a way to get your attention? Is he tired and feeling overwhelmed? What does he need now?
Proceed: Start with establishing a connection first. Recognize that he is not his tantrums. Acknowledge your child’s feelings, even though you may not agree with his views or actions. Focus on what he may need NOW.
“You seem out of sorts. I wonder if something happened at school.” Help him name what he is feeling. Once your child feels heard and understood, he will start feeling much better. Set limits once connection is established.
Research (4) shows that your interactions with your child shape the very structure and function of his developing brain. That is why it is so important to be mindful and break the old habitual patterns of ineffective communication.
Good news is that you can teach your brain new ways to respond at ANY age. It’s not too late. Next time you feel tension rising, take the first step; simply S.T.O.P.
Also READ: Wong Li Lin’s letter to her son on mindfulness is a must-read!