I remember this one time when my 2-year old son was being particularly challenging. He started throwing a tantrum – something that does not happen often – and I started losing my cool. Before I noticed, I was yelling and he was crying. The situation escalated quite fast and I felt guilty and ashamed of my reaction.
At the time, I just wanted him to be done with his bath so we could go ahead with our evening routine. Bath, dinner, bedtime. Later that night, before he went to bed, I was writing on my journal and this episode was something worth to reflect about. I was extremely tired that day and my mind was somewhere else. He was having fun and I was rushing him without even noticing. He wanted me to be part of his joyful moment and I was desperate to have some me time. We both had our needs and they were not in sync.
As parents, we want to do our best for our children. Being a parent though is not the only role we play in our life. We are a wife or a husband, a professional, a leader, an entrepreneur, a friend, a volunteer. And the list goes on and on. After a long working day when your kids demand your attention (also after their long day), or during the weekend when you want to relax and they start throwing their fifth tantrum of the day, it is easy to lose your patience and overreact. One second later, you feel guilty and regret your behavior – which means you acknowledge you were at fault – until the next time you behave in a similar way.
How to break this loop? How to avoid getting hijacked by your emotions? Let us leave aside the image of a “perfect parent”. It is not about always knowing what to say and how to respond. For being a parent is not something you master, but rather a process of constant learning and growing.
We have talked about being mindful before, the ability of focusing your awareness on the present moment, acknowledging and accepting your feelings and emotions, while letting go of self-judgement and shame. Mindful parenting means bringing that same awareness to your relationship with your child. Means that by paying attention to your feelings, you become more aware and responsive to your child’s feelings and needs.
You will have good days and bad days. You will still feel angry and frustrated. Particularly in these moments when stress runs higher, emotions are easily triggered. And your child is an expert on spotting and exploring those triggers.
Let us take a closer look at 4 strategies to help you be a mindful parent.
1. Be in the present moment: Kids are like X-Ray machines! They can sense if you are sitting next to them, yet thinking about work or the chores you have to cross from your to do’s list. Be in the present moment while you listen to them or play together. Put your phone and laptop away, turn off the TV and close all your mental tabs. Do not just pretend; show them you are available. Does it annoy you when you are presenting at a client’s meeting and someone is clearly miles away or scrolling on their phones?! That is probably the same way your children feel when you run around the house talking to them at the same time, or playing with your phone when sitting next to them. Regardless of how old your kids are, make sure you play with them. Follow their preferences, it could be from any kind of role-playing to playing soccer, reading books or cooking together.
2. Notice your feelings: We were talking about emotions and triggers before. Especially in stressful situations, including a conflict with your child, specific feelings are triggered. Think about the latest conflict or disagreement you had with your kid and how did you feel. It can happen that the way your child behaved was not in line with your core values or perhaps it awoke a memory from your childhood or even a fear you have. Despite how you felt, instead of pushing it away, try to stay with that feeling. You do not have to do no anything about it (you are not your emotions!). Just sit quietly and be mindfully with your feelings. No reason to feel ashamed or guilty; no need to blame yourself or your kid. Now, still with that situation or conflict in mind, try to see if from your child’s perspective. Your child’s behavior was not an attempt to hurt you, most probably just to draw your attention, to communicate in the best way he/she knew how at that moment in time. Knowing your triggers helps you noticing when you start to feel anxious or upset and deal with conflict more mindfully next time.
3. Pause before responding: The gap between the stimuli and the response is one of the trickiest arts to manage. That little space after your child did something to make you lose your cool and before you respond to it. However tough it may sound, you can do it. You just need to practice it every chance you get. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of opportunities to do so with your children – though they do not have to be your only practice target. Focusing on your body, especially on your breath, is a key aspect. When we pause to breathe, our body and mind focus on this movement and nothing else. Can you imagine yelling at the same time you breathe deep? Go ahead and try it, worst-case scenario you crack a good laugh! While you breathe deeply, your stress decreases and you get in touch with your feelings through your body. From a calmer state, you get to decide how you want to respond, instead of reacting out of control. It is the difference between responding and reacting.
4. Listen without judging: Learn how to listen and be empathic without immediately jumping into conclusions or judgements. Try to see the situation from your child’s perspective, showing them respect and understanding. Practice active listening by noticing what is being said and the feelings being communicated both verbally and non-verbally. Do not rush into the dialogue, especially when you child says something you disagree with or behaves in a way you disapprove of. Your kid is a child, meaning that he/she will act as one. As the adult in the relationship, it is important that you regulate your emotions acting as a model to your child. We tend to make assumptions and judgements in our relationship with ourselves and others, including with our children. When you learn how to let go of judgement, you start listening beyond what is being said. Communication reaches a deeper level and you start listening to your child’s needs, beneath all the tantrums and conflicts.
Parenting is learned by doing. Parenting is done by being. Being present for your child during every step of his/her growth means also feeling vulnerable. You may not have all the answers nor make all the right choices, though being more mindful of your emotions and responses will benefit you and your relationship with your kid. After all, we want to give our children the best and the ultimate gift is to give them the best of ourselves.