Tag Archives: mindfulness

Why Mindful Parenting is Important

Whether they would ever admit it or not, the way we relate to our children sets up patterns and expectations for their future relationships. As parents, we are our kids’ first testing ground for how they ought to be treated. Interacting with our kids in purposeful ways as much as we can (while allowing ourselves to make mistakes and acknowledge them in front of kids) is important for many different reasons.

We know that children watch us and learn. While we often wish they would do what we say, the fact is, they are more likely to weigh what we do against what we say our values are in order to see what they ought to do. The next time you are in a position to teach your child something, ask yourself what you’re modeling. What do we want for our kids, do we want them to find people in their lives who wield power over them or do we want them to be with people who respect them as equals? Would we rather they experience relationships as power struggles or as fertile ground for collaboration and an exchange of ideas? Do we want them to be with people who are always telling them how to do things or with those who encourage them to think for themselves, examine their own values and beliefs, and act on them?

Mindful parenting asks questions, teaches introspection, helps our kids figure out why they do what they do and how to do better without us prescribing it for them. It lets our kids know that we value them for who they are, not for how well they follow someone else’s rules. It encourages creativity, independent thinking, and sets healthy boundaries for relationships.

For more information on mindful parenting techniques, check out or information here or email kari@theselfproject.com to ask about forming a group in your area. Stay tuned for The SELF Project for Parents coming out in book format soon.

Mindful Parenting Tip: Strip the Labels

By the time our kids become adolescents, we as parents have often formed some pretty rigid ideas about who they are. Even if we think we are letting them explore some of the different ways to interact with the world, we often don’t give them as much freedom to interact with us at home. We make assumptions based on who we “know” they are (the oldest is the ‘clever, crafty’ one and the youngest kid is the ‘kamikaze who doesn’t look before he leaps’) and often react without thinking from that place.

But what if we take a step back and challenge those ideas a little bit? We might be  sending a message of tolerance and curiosity about our children instead of boxing them in to a place where they might not be happy existing. Here are four questions to ask yourself the next time you jump to conclusions about your tween’s motives:

  1. What assumption am I making right now about my child and is it true? At this point, it’s easy for our brains to start listing off all of the supporting evidence for our assumptions. “Of course he’s the kamikaze! Look how many broken bones he’s had. Remember the time he moved all his furniture around and broke the bookcase?”
  2. Are there other instances I can think of that counteract or mitigate this label I’ve given my kid? Could it be that he is really athletic and determined to give 110% in sports and that accounts for the broken bones? Are there times when he has done things that seem risky and pulled them off brilliantly? Can I think of times when he has been appropriately cautious? 
  3. What is my gut reaction to the assumption I make about this child? Am I disgusted because he is nothing like me? Am I frightened because that’s exactly how I was as a kid and it eventually got me into trouble? What is my emotional response down deep and could it have something to do with how I treat this child when he makes a mistake?
  4. What would happen if I let go of that label and tried to see my kid as a person with many different attributes and abilities? How would he respond if I let go of this particular label and didn’t see him only through that lens? How might my reaction to him be different the next time he comes to me with a problem? Would our interaction be more satisfying if I simply remained curious about why he makes the choices he makes instead of condemning him for things I don’t really know? 

Helping Kids Combat Their Inner Critic

We all have an inner monologue, and sometimes it can be quite nasty – especially if we have just said or done something we wish we could take back. Teens and tweens are particularly susceptible to this kind of self-talk, especially since they are also hearing criticism (both constructive and harsh) from many different corners of their lives. When the adults around you are concerned with helping you grow up safe and strong and smart, they can feel as though it’s their job to point out how you can improve yourself. Often, this translates into self-criticism when they’re alone and it can be destructive if they don’t know how to handle it.

Here are three ways adolescents can learn to mitigate some of the constant chatter going on in their heads.

1. Practice radical acts of self-kindness – Ask your child/student how they would talk to a trusted friend who makes a mistake. Often, we are much more forgiving of others than we are of ourselves, but it is important to extend ourselves the same kindnesses we offer to others. Would you berate or belittle a friend who messed up or would you remind them that it’s okay to make mistakes and that things will be okay? Sometimes it feels strange to talk to ourselves in a comforting way, but I am a strong believer in the “fake it ’til you feel it” school of habit-forming.

2. Remember, you’re only human – Avril Lavigne sings a song called “Everybody Hurts,” and while it is about a sad breakup, there are a few lines that resonate with me every time I hear them.

Everybody hurts somedays
It’s okay to be afraid
Everybody hurts, everybody screams
Everybody feels this way, it’s ok

Even if you feel like the only person who has ever screwed up like this, you’re not. And it pays to remind ourselves that we will never be perfect and that we aren’t alone. Your child is special and unique, but not inhuman. Nobody’s perfect.

3. Call that inner voice out when it’s bullying you – It may seem trivial, but when you notice that your inner critic is shaming and blaming you, it’s important to notice. Stop for a beat and say to yourself, Dang! I’m really beating myself up right now! Often, that is enough to interrupt the lecture you’re giving yourself and pull you out of that place where you’re cowering in your own mind so that you can begin to stand up for yourself.

Self-kindness is important to learn at any age, but especially during the adolescent years when the brain is incredibly receptive to emotional onslaughts and when it can build resilient neural pathways. The earlier we can all recognize our tendency to be hard on ourselves and shift those thinking patterns, the better.

“Desirable Difficulty”

A_rocky_pathThat sounds like an oxymoron, to be sure, but it turns out that things that count as obstacles in our way are those things which are directly responsible for our learning and growth. Any sort of stone or roadblock that causes us to flex, to snap out of a reverie, to think creatively to overcome something is offering us the chance to pay attention.

Our human brains are designed to find the path of least resistance, and often, when they do, we go into a sort-of autopilot mode. This is adaptive, because it allows us to conserve energy and multitask, but it also means that we stop being fully aware of what we’re doing. Think about how many times during the day your mind wanders off while your body is still performing – driving to and from familiar places, washing the dishes, taking notes in a lecture. Sometimes, this is useful. I know that I often do my best ‘writing’ when I am walking the dog and my mind strays to explore other ideas or work out some thorny issue I can’t seem to solve when I’m sitting at my laptop.

Sometimes, though, it is important for us to really pay attention, and that is where “desirable difficulty” comes in. If you find yourself in a class where it is important for you to really assimilate and understand the information, do yourself a favor and introduce some level of difficulty – take notes by hand instead of typing them or force yourself to add drawings to your notes. There is increasing evidence that these kinds of tricks are incredibly valuable when it comes to retention and comprehension of difficult material, and often, when you take notes by hand with lots of space for doodling in the margins, you find yourself drawing conclusions about what you’re learning and expanding your interest in the subject.

Because of our tendency to find the ruts and settle in to the simplest way of doing things, we often miss opportunities to deepen our knowledge. But sometimes, tripping over a rock in the path can cause us to look up and notice something we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Curriculum Snapshot:Mindfulness and Body Image for T(w)eens

Many adolescents struggle with body image issues, and while there is a spectrum that has eating disorders and self-loathing at one end and mild frustration at the other, this is a great opportunity to introduce some self-awareness.

I encourage students to engage in three things that can help them come to terms with how they feel about their own changing bodies and take back control. While these steps are by no means a substitute for counseling, if an individual is struggling with eating disorders or other self-harm behaviors, they can help students understand the foundations of the complicated emotions they have with regard to their own self-image in tandem with professional help.

The first step is to ask “why.” Anytime we hear the voice in our own head that says, “I’m too fat/short/hippy/undeveloped,” it’s important to ask where that idea comes from. Many kids can stand in front of a mirror and point out specific areas they don’t like – hips, boobs, underdeveloped muscles, big feet, ears that protrude a little more than someone else’s, hair color, etc. But going one step beyond that to inquire as to why these bits of ourselves are considered undesirable is important. Do any of these things prevent us from doing the things we truly want to do? Are they keeping us from accomplishing our most important goals? Are any of these things truly a problem for us?

If the answer is no (and I ask the kids to answer only to themselves; there is no need to utter a word out loud during any of these exercises), then it will take practice to remind ourselves that we can spend less time and energy worrying about them. Often, at this point, it becomes clear that media and social messages are giving them the impression that they are not good enough and it is important for them to decide how much they want to be beholden to these external ideals.

If the answer is yes, the next step is to gather information.  In this case, I find it helpful to put something to paper. If a student has self-identified that they are overweight and it is keeping them from doing the things that they really want to do, I encourage them to keep a food diary. Again, this is something they need not share with anyone else. This is about information-gathering. Often, when they monitor what they are eating for a few days, patterns begin to show up. It is incredibly important during this stage to reinforce self-compassion and lack of judgment. If they descend into beating themselves up for noting that they have eaten a cupcake every day for the last three days, shame creeps in and can derail any forward progress. That is one reason it is important for them to know that they don’t have to show their food diary to anyone else. This is a scientific endeavor that requires that they be honest with themselves and not harsh judges. This is incredibly difficult for many kids, and often, it takes several stops and starts before they will do it. The voices in our heads are so strong and so often present that most of us don’t stop to recognize them for what they are.

The third step is to ask, “what am I willing to do with this information?” If the student is clear on what they want to change and why, they now have a choice to make about their behavior. If they need help, they can seek out a trusted adult who can support them with resources and encouragement. Utilizing their connections to people who care about them is an important part of this step, and it is incredibly empowering. This step, too, often involves many stops and starts and can take years to develop. It is important to note, though, that the ultimate goal of this exercise is to improve self-awareness, not to improve one’s body. Once we can teach kids to recognize their own biases against themselves and understand why they have these particular negative views, they can begin to decide whether or not they want to hold those views any more.

Why is Mindful Parenting Important?

Mindfulness is all the rage these days, having inspired a magazine, at least one NFL coach, some school districts, and much more.  But why is mindful parenting something you should think about?

In my experience, mindfulness in parenting has benefits for the whole family, and, I suspect, our larger community as well. It results in a calmer household, less escalation and power struggles, and fewer misunderstandings.

I once heard Gloria Steinem say, “Our children will never know that they have anything to say unless someone listens to them.” She is right, and our children want to be heard, but if the person they are speaking to has their eyes diverted to a pan of noodles on the stove or the glow of a laptop or a smart phone, they aren’t really being heard, even if we think every word has penetrated our brains.

When our children are intent on sharing something with us – especially as tweens and teens – it is in our best interest to really pay attention because if we don’t, one of two things can happen: they give up trying, or they ratchet up the emotion a notch.

Every time our children attempt to tell us how they’re feeling, we are presented with an opportunity to connect with them and try to understand them better. Making eye contact, shutting the laptop and taking a moment to listen without judging or jumping to conclusions sends the message that what they are saying is important, that we value their time and willingness to come to us. Even when it is something that feels trivial to us as adults, it is vital to let our kids know that we acknowledge their concerns.

If we belittle their emotions, either by not paying full attention or by laughing it off, we have effectively told them that their perceptions are not real, that there is something wrong with the way they feel or see things. If your child is embarrassed or ashamed of having come to you because of your reaction, they won’t likely try again for a while unless they are absolutely certain you will see things their way. If they believe that their feelings are valid and you just aren’t “getting it,” they will talk louder, exaggerate, or act out in an attempt to get you to see things the way they do. Both scenarios make your life as a parent more challenging.

Once your child has your attention and you are truly listening to what they have to say, you can focus on their facial expressions and tone of voice to discern even more about the situation. Listening without forming your own opinion or letting emotion take over lets you ask questions to help clarify details. Some of my favorite mindful parent questions are:

  • do you just need to vent or is there something I can do to help? (This one is especially helpful for me, because then I know if my role is just to listen quietly or begin thinking about ways to help my child manage the situation.)
  • why do you think this happened? (This gets their brain to switch from emotional response to trying to see the issue as something they can learn from.)
  • what is the worst part of this for you? (This question is vital to understanding what exactly they are afraid of. I am often surprised by the answers my kids give.)

When we parent mindfully, we are more careful not to judge our children or blame them or say things we wish we could take back. We can begin to let our adolescents know that we trust them to deal with challenging situations and that their burgeoning independence will not be squashed if they come to us needing help or advice. And we can model calm problem-solving techniques for them instead of jumping right to shaming and blaming and talk of punishment.

It is not often convenient to take the time to fully focus on your child when they come to you with a problem (or when you overhear something or sense that they have had a rotten day), but the more you do, the more they will believe that what is important to them is important to you and you will forge a deeper, more trusting relationship with your child. You may even see that they are willing to put down their phones when you come into the room to talk to them.

Increasing Evidence that Social-Emotional Education is Important

"Cerebral lobes" by derivative work of this - Gutenberg Encyclopedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cerebral_lobes.png#mediaviewer/File:Cerebral_lobes.png
“Cerebral lobes” by derivative work of this – Gutenberg Encyclopedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This article explores ways to think about re-structuring our educational system to more fully support educators and students in a world that has changed immensely since the beginning of the public school system. We are living in a much different world and the way we approach education hasn’t kept up.

“…society must decide what it wants to be: interconnected individuals responsible to a community or a world filled with “consumers,” dependent on products, services and authority figures.” John Abbott, 21st Century Learning Initiative

Much of the disaffection with the school system stems from a pervasive feeling that the intense focus on formal academics has inadvertently neglected the rest of a child’s personality and humanity. While employers, psychologists and other researchers have repeatedly noted that social and emotional skills like empathy are some of the most important ones for success, many schools still lag in developing effective programs to nurture those soft skills.” Katrina Schwartz

Enter social-emotional education. With the newest revelations in brain development research, it is possible to more purposefully approach education in ways that are meaningful to our kids. Scientists like Dr. Dan Siegel believe that adolescence is a crucial time in brain development that offers the potential for us to impact lifelong patterns of thought and behavior by emphasizing certain neurological pathways. Because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in a human brain until around age 24, there is a lot of opportunity to shape it positively during the teen years. (The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain that integrates emotion and behavior, brain and body, and ultimately is responsible for how we choose to act, especially in the most stressful situations.) One way to strengthen the prefrontal cortex is through mindfulness.

The double-whammy of adolescence is that, not only is the prefrontal cortex undeveloped, but the emotion centers of the brain are overactive during these years. This is why kids ages 10-20 can be so emotionally volatile and do things that we as adults cannot begin to understand. Using mindfulness to interrupt the sudden swells of emotion has been shown to be effective in stress management for individuals and reducing incidents of relational aggression in school communities.

The beautiful thing about these techniques lies in the malleability of the brain itself. The more you practice something, the easier it gets. Giving kids the tools to implement mindfulness as their brains are developing means that those responses will be more automatic as they age and are likely to ultimately reduce anxiety and aggression in their adult lives as well.

Unfortunately, many teachers are overwhelmed with the tasks they are already expected to do in any given day, and carving out time for one more set of lessons can feel impossible.  That is where The SELF Project comes in. If you know a school or other organization whose kids could stand to benefit from some research-based, dynamic workshops using mindfulness, contact kari@theselfproject.com

 

Simple Gratitude Practice for Kids

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I created these cards for my daughters when they were ten and eight. My oldest was struggling with anxiety at bedtime and cried every morning when I woke her up for school, desperately searching for some reason I ought to let her stay home. I hated to see her start and end every day like that and, honestly, it was wearing on me, too. After thinking about ways she could re-frame her day to inject some positive energy, I came up with this system.

I made each of them a ring with six beads in alternating colors.  There are three questions to ask before they get out of bed in the morning and three to ask right before they fall asleep. The idea is to slide the first bead to the side as they ask the first question, and slide the second bead as they come up with an answer. The morning questions are:

1. What can I expect from today?
2. What can I do to make today great?
3. What can I do for myself today?

The goal of the first question is to get some idea of what the day holds (a spelling test, a visit from Gram, school and then basketball practice, etc.). The second question offers them an opportunity to understand that they have the power to make it a good day, and the third helps to ensure that there is something they can look forward to that incorporates self-care.

The evening questions are:

1. What made me happy today?
2. How did I help someone else today?
3. What am I looking forward to tomorrow?

At the end of the day, I want them to look back and focus on the parts that they enjoyed, the places where they chose to make a difference for someone else, and have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning.

I started out by sitting with them as they asked and answered each question, gently guiding positive responses, and gradually weaned them off of having me there.  My oldest was happy to do it on her own, realizing that sometimes she wanted to keep her answers private, and my youngest prefers to have an audience. I designed the rings with their favorite colors and my youngest, who is a very tactile kid, really enjoys sliding them back and forth as she goes through the exercise. My other daughter, who is the kind of person that loves little treasures, slept for a year with the ring underneath her pillow as a talisman.

While I didn’t make myself a ring, I have found the simple practice of asking myself these questions to bookend my day is a powerful reminder of where to place my energy and how to ground myself every morning and every evening in what is most important to me.