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.