What is mindful parenting?

The adventure begins cup

Surprised not to see a photo of a woman or man sitting by the water in a yoga pose? Good, that was the plan. Too often, mindful parenting is placed in the category of woo-woo. This aims to be much more grounded and practical.

Often enough we see these unrealistic images of zen-like Instagram creatures who are far removed from the realities of day to day parenting. You know – poop, screaming, sleep deprivation, questions about why the sky is blue, or what do we have to do homework for anyway? Plus, those *amazing* moments of hugs, smiles, and joy.

Anyway, back to why you’re here – what the heck is mindful parenting?

The secret sauce of mindful parenting

Photographer: Yulia Khlebnikova | Source: Unsplash

Mindful parenting was put forward as an idea by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn in their book Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting in 1997. While Jon Kabat-Zinn is very clear on his earlier and original definition of mindfulness itself as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”, the book that he and his wife Myla wrote is less clear in the first edition with regard to a specific definition of mindful parenting. However, it is that type of book – not a ‘how to do’ but a ‘how to be’. Equally, it is not prescriptive – it holds a respect for parental autonomy in a continually evolving parenting relationship between each parent and each child.

However, what can be gleaned from the first edition of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting is that mindful parenting is understood as the practice of being present and aware in everyday interactions with children, through paying attention without judgment, as each moment happens.

Mindful parenting is understood as the practice of being present and aware in everyday interactions with children, through paying attention without judgment, as each moment happens.

Larissa G. Duncan, as part of her doctoral thesis, produced the Interpersonal Mindfulness in Parenting (IEM-P) scale. This measured mindful parenting across five dimensions, specific parent-to-child interactions:

  • listening with full attention
  • non-judgmental acceptance of self and child
  • emotional awareness of self and child
  • self-regulation in the parenting relationship
  • compassion for self and child

Notice the focus on ‘self’ and on the parent. This is not so much as ‘how to do’ or ‘what to do’ but much more about ‘how to be’.

Mindful parenting extends the internal process of mindfulness to the interpersonal interactions taking place during parenting.

Everyday parenting and interactions with children are about being calmer in your approach, being open to what comes in the ongoing relationship between you and your children. It also means being well regulated emotionally yourself.

Naturally, these things then lead to more consistency, balance, and being able to respond rather than react. Attachment bonds between you and your child become stronger, and the relationship between you is filled with more warmth, supportiveness, and being positive. This reduces and replaces negativity, judgment, guilt, and conflict.

Hands up, who wants that?

Happy Hand
Photographer: Analia Baggiano | Source: Unsplash

Of course, you do. And, of course, your children do too.

Breaking it down further – in practical terms

Duncan et al. (2009)

Duncan et al’s (2009) research, A Model of Mindful Parenting: Implications for Parent–Child Relationships and Prevention Research, includes this table which breaks down the five dimensions of mindful parenting into effective parenting behaviors that are promoted by mindful parenting. These are all positives that increase. For example, more positive affection in the parent-child relationship. The same table also shows how negative behaviors decrease through the use of mindful parenting. For example, less overreactive automatic discipline.

Essentially, these are characteristics, skills, and practices that become part of daily life as a parent. They increase the more they are used and practiced.

The sum of five parts in mindful parenting

Metal Number 5
Photographer: Waldemar Brandt | Source: Unsplash

So, Duncan et al’s (2009) model of mindful parenting has five working parts. It is useful to distill these down further and look at each one in turn. That way, we have a better chance of understanding how they add up to mindful parenting. Let’s do that now briefly.

Listening with full attention

Photographer: Alireza Attari | Source: Unsplash

Notice the pairing of both listening and doing with full attention. sometimes we listen and only half-tuned in, or we are looking at a phone or a TV screen. We might be in our own heads or in the middle of cooking dinner.

Listening with full attention means being focused and aware of what our child is saying or trying to tell us. We listen with our ears and hear words. We hear the tone of voice used, and whether it is loud or soft, funny or serious. We also see facial expressions or body language that tells us when our child is in pain or sad or happy.

Listening with full attention goes deeper than just hearing the spoken words.

In a way, we listen with our hearts and we tune in to the bandwidth or frequency that our child is using to send a signal to us. We tune into the child’s point of view and can understand the emotions or feelings that are powering the spoken words. As humans, we have a unique capacity called theory of mind, where we can place ourselves in the shoes of another and try to understand it from their perspective, while still remaining standing in our own shoes. It’s like a form of astral projection.

Being able to place ourselves in the child’s mind and imagine what they might be feeling helps us to understand more clearly what they might be saying. This is listening with full attention. It’s much harder to do this if your attention as a parent is distracted by your phone or what’s on TV tonight.

In young children, this is particularly important, given that they are forming attachment bonds, as well as building up their own internal working model of how the world works. The more securely attached that children are, the better they can self-regulate, learn, and develop.

The more tuned in that we are to our children, the greater the understanding that exists between us.

Children are in the process of development – they need a lot of help to understand the world and how it works. They are not always very clear in telling us what they want or need, because the might not have the language or thinking skills to do so. This can be frustrating for busy parents, or we can struggle as parents in trying to understand.

The more tuned in that we are to our children, the clearer the signal being sent and received by them. This leads to a deeper level of understanding and trust between parent and child.

Fast forward to an adolescent child – if you have been a mindful parent, you may have a deeper and more trusting relationship with your adolescent child. This then has the potential to reduce disagreement and conflict between you both, as well as more sharing by the adolescent. (By the way, it’s not too late to begin now as a mindful parent, even if your child is a teenager already).

Non-judgmental acceptance of self and child

An example of gender non-conformity. Bink, drag kid persona.
Photographer: Sharon McCutcheon | Source: Unsplash

Mindful parenting means paying close attention to internal judgments that we may be making about the expectations that we have of ourselves as parents and of our children. We also need to be very aware of the internal judgments and perceptions that we have of our children’s behavior, abilities, qualities, and motivations.

We can be too quick to judge both ourselves as parents and the behavior of our children.

When we are too quick to judge or when we misread things, we send out this message in our words, our tone, and our body language. Instead of a message of clear blue water, the message is cloudy and discolored by bias. We can place expectations on our children of what we would like them to be, as opposed to helping them be who they are as separate individuals. We carry these messages from our own parents and their expectations of us, or we make comparisons between our own children or the children of others. This can create unrealistic standards for how we would like our children to be, instead of allowing them to be who they actually are.

This is where being non-judgmental comes in.

Mindful parenting doesn’t mean accepting all behaviors of our children or pointing out where they need guidance or boundaries.

Mindful parenting does mean suspending judgment of the behaviors, characteristics, and traits of both yourself and your child. Yes, I hear you – easier said than done. Like any skill, it takes some learning and some practice.

Mindful parenting is about moment to moment acceptance of what is happening right now in the present. Not what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow.

Parenting is one of the toughest jobs on earth. We feel joy, we feel guilt, we question our abilities, we are constantly and consistently challenged by situations. It’s an unpredictable roller coaster. At times we lose our balance or feel very thrown up in the air. We don’t always get it right. The secret is not to fight it but to learn how to stay on that roller coaster and enjoy the ride! Accept that it will be challenging at times.

Growing up in the world is tough for children and parents. There are incredible challenges. Life is not a straight path from A to Z. There are always twists and turns, with one step forward and two steps backward. It’s like a magical quest where you have to learn how to slay dragons.

Being a mindful parent gives you all the skills you need to be a dragon-slayer.

Non-judgmental acceptance means that we accept the child for who they are, as unique individuals in their own right, but that we also hold each other to what are acceptable standards of behavior based on the child’s culture, age, and developmental level. We give this message to our children clearly.

Emotional awareness of self and child

Painted eggs expressing a range of emotions from joy to depression.
Photographer: Tengyart | Source: Unsplash

This component of mindful parenting is about being aware of our own internal emotional states and those of our child. Many of us have heard the phrase ‘emotions run high’ and sometimes in life they can. Emotions and feelings are like a form of rocket fuel that can be lit by a judgmental thought. This then leads to action and consequences. Before we know it, we are left wondering how the explosion happened (then we feel guilty).

We can derail our own efforts to be calm parents, who deeply understand our children, when we let a word or an action light our emotional feeling fuel and set off fireworks in all directions.

Mindful parenting calls on us to tune into our own inner emotional states and the inner emotional states of our children. Mindful parenting gives us the ability to respond rather than react. We make more conscious choices instead of trying to hang on to the unleashed rocket of emotions, zinging in all directions.

It helps us to be a strong container for the hot emotional lava, as it swirls about, and it helps to stay with it until it cools and no longer poses such a threat. We make calmer, clearer choices and we stay with whatever emotional states are showing up in ourselves and our children.

Feelings are just feelings – we don’t have to light them up like emotional rocket fuel.

What would it be like for our children to know that they can feel intense emotions such as happiness or sadness or anger and that we can stay with them? Have you ever heard a child describe a parent as having ‘blown up’ or ‘lost their shit’? It would be better if we could hold it together (even if we are ducks looking calm above the water, while paddling frantically below the water). Children would feel much more at ease being themselves with us, in all their emotional states (think of how hard it is for teenagers going through puberty to manage hormones, or girls trying to cope with a monthly cycle).

How much more calm we would be and what would this do for us in other areas of our lives, if we had a stronger handle on our own difficult emotional feelings.

Self-regulation in the parenting relationship

Photographer: Jonathan Borba | Source: Unsplash

Okay, still with me?

Let’s look at self-regulation in the parenting-relationship.

It’s important not to confuse self-regulation with self-control, in mindful parenting. They are two different things.

As a parent, you can feel strong emotions – we know this already.

Self-regulation is about managing the flow of emotions. Just because we see a fire doesn’t mean we turn the fire hydrant on full blast in response, or run around screaming that there’s a fire. We observe first how we need to respond.

Instead, we breathe before responding in our parenting choices and decisions. We regulate the flow of our own emotions. We choose how we will respond and what response will we take as parents. We are able to build up a level of tolerance so as to support our children’s emotional states. We don’t have to meet fire with fire. If a child is angry, we only end up inflaming that anger if we respond in a fiery way.

You don’t put out a fire with a fire. You use the foam of a fire extinguisher to cool it down or you use a fire blanket to wrap around the fire.

When a child is angry or sad, we don’t want to dismiss that. We want to be able to stay with the child and understand how they feel. If we are well-regulated and maintain this, we help the child to become calmer as well. We would like our children to able to regulate their own emotions, to know what their feelings are, why they feel them, and to be able to express them. In school, children learn to be literate.

As parents, mindful parenting can give out children the emotional literacy that they need to grow and develop as people. This is a gift we can give to our children.

This process of knowing how to regulate your emotions is an essential skill in being with others in society. Children need to know how to do this.

Compassion for self and child

Photographer: 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič | Source: Unsplash

Last but not least – compassion for self and for the child. As parents, and people, we can often tend to be really quite good at being compassionate towards others. However, it can be like a lightbulb moment when someone tells us that we can be compassionate towards ourselves. We might dismiss self-compassion as being something like becoming too self-absorbed, or big-headed in ourselves or even vain or overly proud. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Paul Gilbert and Kristen Neff have written extensively about self-compassion, with Kristen Neff devising the self-compassion scale as a way to measure this. Neff (2003) defines self-compassion as “being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them”.

Applying self-compassion to parenting means having a more realistic view of your own parenting and being far less judgemental of your parenting efforts. Yes, you won’t get it right all of the time. That’s part of learning – you are human. You may not have won the ‘Parent of the Month’ award this month, but there’s always next month to try again! Parents can face huge pressure in how they are parenting because not alone are parents very self-critical of their efforts, society is constantly passing judgment on what constitutes good parenting. Go into any bookstore and prepared to be confused by the wide selection of books telling how to parent this way and that way.

When we are self-critical of our parenting, we don’t feel good about it and this can influence our mood. We can feel despair sometimes. We send these signals to our children about how we feel about ourselves and our own parenting. We need to take stock of this.

Self-compassion means turning down the voice of our inner critic, and turning up the voice of our own inner kindness.

When someone is struggling or in distress, we often show them compassion and kindness. Compassion is about reducing or removing suffering. We deserve no less than this ourselves.

Mindful parenting helps us to stay on track in the face of ups and downs, where not all our parenting efforts will be successful. Rather than an internal blame game, it is better to focus on accepting the good efforts being made at parenting and to notice what is working as well as what could be different. No one learns if someone is harsh with them. We learn when someone shows us an understanding of our distress and our nervous system calms down so that we can think and feel clearly. Then we can continue to learn. This is a journey. It is a marathon as opposed to a sprint. We need to be able to see what’s going on along the way as opposed to becoming fixated with the destination or outcome.

Just as there is compassion for self, we also need to show compassion for our children. We need to be able to comfort children in times of their distress and to meet their needs or to help them find ways to meet their own needs or to self-soothe. Children feel more supported by this, and less distressed.

Still here?

Photographer: Dominik QN | Source: Unsplash

Okay, this has been a long post. I appreciate you staying here until near the end.

At Mindful Parent, our philosophy is very much in tune with both the Kabat-Zinn’s philosophy of mindful parenting, that has come from Everyday Blessings, and the model proposed by Duncan et al. (2009)

They summarise it as comprising of

“the five interrelated elements described above, but we should also note that mindful parenting is an approach to parenting that is reflected in qualitatively different intrapsychic and interpersonal processes within the dynamic parent–child relationship.

When parents bring the practices of mindful parenting to parent–child interactions, they can cultivate an enhanced capacity for parenting calmly, with greater consistency, and in greater accordance with their goals and values, while engendering a warm and nurturing affective tenor in the parent–child relationship.

Mindful parenting will also contribute to a more generally positive parent–child relationship (e.g., more positive and less negative affect, greater trust and emotional sharing), to greater flexibility and responsiveness within the dynamic exchanges of parent–child relations, to a decreased level of parenting stress, to a wiser use of parenting strategies, and to greater youth well-being.

We also believe that a mindful approach to parenting can disrupt the destructive cycle of negativity and disengagement that can become entrenched and almost “automatic” for some parent–child dyads (Dishion et al. 2003).

Finally, we view mindfulness and mindful parenting as potential psychological resources in the stress and coping process (Lazarus and Folkman 1984; Folkman 1997), allowing parents to exercise more adaptive coping and therefore avoid the potentially disruptive influence of contextual-, family-, and parenting-related stress appraisals on their own psychological well-being and their parenting.

This is quite a lot to take in. It emphasizes strengths, enhanced capacity, conscious choice, and more adaptive coping. It is both hopeful, and possible.

What does it mean for you?

First of all, it means that mindful parenting is not some ‘woo-woo’ fad of new parenting. It has a solid research base that goes beyond what Duncan et al. (2009) originally developed. Mindfulness itself has an extensive research base of thousands of pieces of research that demonstrate how effective it is, across a range of areas from depression to pain management. However, it doesn’t require special tools or expensive equipment.

Secondly, mindful parenting is possible but it takes a bit of work. This work is best supported by a mindfulness practice (which the Kabat-Zinns make clear) and then bringing mindfulness into your parenting relationship with your children. This makes sense – if we have to run for a bus, we have a better chance of catching it if we have been doing even some level of regular exercise. Practicing mindfulness helps us bring mindfulness into our parenting relationship with our children. We want to give ourselves every chance to succeed.

Thirdly, we can keep doing what we have always done and we will get the same old results – that our parenting relationship with our children is not as we would like it to be. Our children seem disconnected, angry, or that we have the same arguments, stress, and discussions with them. Add to this the possible feelings of ‘failure’, of not being ‘good enough’ as a parent, and of guilt.

Or, it could be different.

Cute little girl embracing soldier mother in uniform, armed forces duty parting
Photographer: Bermix Studio | Source: Unsplash

Imagine yourself as a parent who can make a choice to begin again and try to be a different kind of parent – responding rather than reacting. Being calmer, being empathetic, and connected fully to our children and fully understanding them and what is going on in their worlds.

How would that picture look instead?

It’s never too late to make a start.

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  1. remember the five keys to being a mindful parent (on one page), and
  2. start a mindfulness practice for a few minutes every day

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