Learn How to Practice Mindfulness as a Parent
What is Mindfulness?
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”-Jon Kabat-Zinn
Have you ever jumped in your car, started driving, arrived at your destination and thought to yourself “How did I get here?”. A large portion of our days as parents are spent functioning on autopilot. As we get up in the morning and start brushing our teeth, we’re already thinking about waking up the kids, getting them dressed, and packing their lunches. While we’re brushing our teeth physically, our minds are off somewhere else.
On the other hand, have you ever been in a situation where you had the opportunity to really be present and savor the moment? Maybe you were at the beach and could feel the sun on your skin, sand between your toes, and observe the waves crashing against the shore. This experience of being present with your experience is mindfulness.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), mindfulness involves present moment awareness through paying attention without judgement. For some people this involves a formal practice of daily meditation or yoga, but for busy parents just a few moments of mindful attention can be refreshing.
Why Practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has been shown to help decrease stress, depression, anxiety, improve sleep, and reduce chronic pain. For parents, mindfulness can help you feel more present and patient with your children, which can only serve to improve the parent-child relationship.
When I introduce the concept of mindfulness to clients in my psychotherapy practice, it is often met with comments like “I can’t do that because I can’t stop my thoughts” or “I would love to, but I don’t have time.” As a clinical psychologist, I try to help them understand that the goal of mindfulness is not to “stop your thoughts,” but instead to observe where your thoughts go, whether it is the past or future, and bring them back to the present moment.
How Can I Practice Mindfulness?
I like the image of leaves on a stream from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). During this exercise you imagine your thoughts on a leaf floating down a stream. Moments later another thought will pop up, which is completely normal. Again, imagine that thought on a leaf floating down a stream. Sometimes you might not realize that you had a thought for several seconds or even minutes. This is also completely normal. Again, just imagine that thought on a leaf floating down a stream.
This practice of observing your thoughts and letting them float by may seem simple, but you are improving your ability to control your thoughts and return to the present moment. If you can practice this for a few minutes each day, you will be more likely to implement this practice in difficult parenting moments, like when your toddler is threatening to test your patience by having a temper tantrum.
The second argument that I often hear has to do with finding the time. Before having children I would devote anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes each day to my meditation practice, but post-children it is a much different story. I’m constantly reminding myself that sometimes even 3 to 5 minutes of focused attention is just as valuable. Sometimes the only time I can find to meditate is while I’m nursing a fussy baby at the same time.
Here are some quick mindfulness exercises for busy parents:
If you happen to be lucky and catch a free moment while your child is asleep or playing independently, set a timer, find a comfortable sitting position, and bring your attention to your breathing. Using your breath as an anchor, bring your attention to your inhales and exhales. As thoughts pop up, which they inevitably will, practice imagining them as leaves floating down a stream.
Focus on your senses.
In addition to your breathing, you can also use other senses as anchors. For example, if you decide to focus on sounds, simply observe any sounds you hear in the room or in the distance. As your attention wanders, bring it back, once again, to the sounds you hear. You can also practice this with your sense of touch by observing the sensations of your various body parts.
Parent in the moment.
No time for a quiet formal meditation practice? Take a few moments with your child to really “be” with them. We like to think that most of our time spent with our children involves us being fully present, but we can’t help but have other thoughts, like planning dinner or reviewing that tense conversation with our partner, in our minds. Take a few deep breaths and bring your attention to your senses – what do you see, hear, and feel as you’re interacting with your child. If thoughts arise, which they will, simply note that this is happening and release those thoughts down the stream.
Mindfulness is a practice
Mindfulness, put simply, is the practice of being in the moment without judging our experience. If thoughts or emotions arise, note that this is happening and allow them to go, bringing your attention back to the present moment once again. Each time you practice a mindful moment, give yourself a pat on the back! You managed to be more aware, which is a skill that serves not only you, but your children.
Kabat-Zinn, M., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2014). Everyday blessings: The inner work of mindful parenting. New York, NY: Hachette Books.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York, NY: Hachette Books.