Today has been one of those days when I can say that I’ve had a calm, happy, simply perfect day with my children. Yes, I know – I should be saying that every day and every moment with them is perfect, but then you’d be sure to stop reading right now as no parent would believe such a statement. So what I will say is that I always love them madly and unconditionally, but I can’t say that about all their behaviours. And the same goes for my own behaviours. But today, we’ve been helpful with each other, shared stories, laughed lots, and we’ve been outside just enjoying each moment together. No distractions, no harsh words or meltdowns. This inspired me to write about mindfulness, so in this post I will share some insights and tips I personally find really helpful to remind myself how powerful mindfulness is.
What’s mindfulness all about? You have no doubt come across it, hey, you may even be a serious practitioner! It’s not necessary to practice daily meditation to be mindful – it is accessible to all and achieveable by all. It’s about being truly present in the moment, noticing what is going on for us, our thoughts and emotions, and how this affects our behaviours – towards ourselves and towards others.
Today was sunny, the surroundings were beautiful, it felt like we had all the time in the world to just exist, together. My daughter was skipping along, then she turned back and said in a loud, happy voice: “This feels so nice, Mamma, just walking around out here”. She felt happy, relaxed and free, and so her behaviours reflected just that. In fact, I felt the same. I wasn’t distracted, I didn’t feel stress or pressure to get something done or be somewhere on time. I felt happy and chilled out, and I know I was at my best; just being there with both my children, holding hands, chatting and laughing.
I know, that sounded like a cliche or a rose tinted advert for a fabric conditioner. But it’s the truth, and I’m telling you about it because such a day should be a template for all other days. Even though it seems almost unhuman to have it all the time, we could aspire to being mindful most of the time. When we are in a kind, understanding relationship with ourselves, and with those around us. Pausing to allow ourselves to think and feel so our response is calm and considered.
This brings to mind what sometimes happens in this house on school mornings. When we can all feel hassled, tired, stressed about time. When the kids lose control of their emotions, feel overwhelmed, and have a melt-down. And when all good parenting intentions go out the window along with patience and calm responses, because we react in the moment to buttons that have been pushed a thousand times before. And then the regret. Feeling like a bad parent. Or feeling helpless, not knowing how to break the pattern.
This is where mindfulness is a powerful tool, and you’ll notice that even reading and knowing a little bit about it will start making some small positive changes to how you feel and how you want to do things. Because it’s there, in you, just waiting to be noticed and used more. Here are some tips to get you started (or continue where you left off).
4 Top Tips for Mindful Parenting
1. Breathe. This is like pushing a ‘pause’ button, giving you a moment to notice what is really going on rather than react automatically to the situation or let emotions get the better of you. Taking a long intentional breath enables you to notice your feelings and thoughts, and make sure your response is considered and perhaps a milder, kinder version of the original one. When my 5-year old girl starts running and shouting through the house instead of getting ready for school (after being asked to get dressed five-ten times), frustration starts boiling inside. It helps me to take some nice breaths in and out, for cooling down and to consider how I can help her ready for school in time by explaining things and giving her choices (instead of spewing fire).
2. Be Present. The perfect day I described above was all about presence. Connecting fully with the moment. But mindfulness is about being present with all moments; be it fun, play, cuddles, tantrums, school mornings, sibling quarrels, bedtime troubles. When you are present you will notice things you may otherwise have missed, opening your heart and mind to what is going on for your child (and for you). Sit down and have that chocolate sand cake offered to you in the garden, without being tempted to think you can do emails at the same time and still be fully present. Accept the important invitation to crawl into the tent that has been created in the lounge, and let chores and dinner times be a little less important. Tune in to what your child does and says on the way to school. Other busy thoughts, to-do-lists or worries get in the way of connecting with what’s really important in the here and now. A tantrum happens for a reason, and whilst you may have to intervene sometimes, usually tantrums just need to happen and the most important thing is that you’re there both during and after the ‘storm’.
3. See what they see. Just as being fully present gives you a better view of what is going on, seeing things through your child’s eyes will help you understand what they’re thinking and feeling. You understand what triggers their behaviours and how you can best support them and be with them right there and then. Remind yourself of who each individual child is, how this child experiences the world. And seeing things through their eyes from time to time will also give you important insight into what it’s like for them to have you as a parent in that particular moment, and you can decide if some changes are needed in what you do or say. My daughter has always expressed her emotions fairly easily with us, and one day not very long ago I had a prompt reminder to step into her world as she said “how would you feel if I said that to you?”. Even though I didn’t feel my statement had been particularly harsh, I suddenly heard what she had heard, and I sat down with her and talked about it in a way that was calmer and more accessible to her.
4. Accept what you see. All thoughts and feelings are valid, and are certainly not something we can change or manipulate. It’s important to accept your child’s thoughts and feelings, so that they know you’re still on their side. And here’s one of the hardest things about mindful parenting: Accept when things go awry (this includes when things go awry for you, the parent). Accept each moment for what it is, letting go of trying to change what’s already there or wishing it to be different. When you do this, it gives you more space to choose how you want to deal with the situation and you come up with more creative and compassionate responses to parenting challenges. A simple and familiar example: Car journeys can feel stressful if children quarrel, compete to scream the loudest or complain and cry. I am guilty of snapping at them when the loud screams erase any trace of patience in me, or feel annoyed at every “are we there yet” (of which there can be many). When I get it right, I take a deep breath, I remember that sitting still in a car seat can feel boring, and distance or time doesn’t mean much to kids. Rather than wishing they were more patient, or expecting them to behave well the whole journey, I understand that they feel frustrated and bored, and engage them in chats about what we see, where we’re going, what they think it will be like, or seeing how many horses we detect on the way. Sometimes, just the attention itself is enough to make them happy again.
3 Top Tips for Helping your Child to be Mindful
Children live in the moment, so mindfulness comes more naturally to them. Help them cultivate this through learning to really notice emotions, thoughts, reactions, and what is going on inside their body.
1. Breathing. Simple breathing exercises can be powerful for children, helping them practice impulse control and calm down more effectively when they lose control of their emotions or feel worried about something. To understand how to practice noticing their breathing, I love Eline Snel’s exercise “Sitting still like a frog”. The frog is aware of everything going on in and around it, but rather than reacting straight away it sits still and breathes. The children sits like frogs and notice their tummies rise as they breathe in and fall as they breathe out. A breathing exercise like this helps children learn to improve their concentration skills, control their impulses, and notice what is going on inside their mind and body. Additionally, if your child is feeling anxious about something, then focusing on breathing well using the tummy will a)move attention from scary thoughts down to the tummy (where there are no thoughts) and b)relax the body.
2. Attention. To really ‘be in the moment’ and notice everything about it, practice truly seeing, listening, tasting smelling and touching – rather than trusting what our mind is telling us we’re sensing. In other words, notice without judgement. One thing you can do together is spot and remember things you see on the way to the park or school. And spend some of your walk being quiet and just notice all the sounds you can hear around you. You can also add in smell and touch.
3. Feelings. All feelings are valid, and it’s ok to feel negative feelings as well as positive ones. It’s important that children know you accept their emotions, and that they allow themselves to feel they way they feel. Again, Eline Snel has a lovely exercise where children do a “personal weather report”. It may be bright and sunny, dark and cloudy, miserable and rainy, really stormy and so on. Like the weather, moods change. Children learn that they are not their moods or feelings, but accept it’s what’s going on for them right now. Feeling nervous about something doesn’t make you a ‘Meek Mouse’.
And of course, as with everything, you are your child’s most important model. The way you are with yourself and with your child is being copied and pasted.
A mindful life does not mean a life free of pressures, stress, tantrums and frustrations, and there will still be opportunities for doing and saying things we wish we hadn’t. But practicing mindfulness means you become more aware of what you are thinking, feeling and doing. Rather than reacting in habitual ways you remember to take a breath to give room for responses you choose, maintaining a kind, understanding relationship with your children – and yourself.
That perfect day I told you about – I want to imagine I can bottle days like that so that I can sprinkle it generously across all days.
Happy calm love,