Mindful parenting can benefit your child’s emotional development as well as your own peace of mind.
Before you become a parent or caregiver, you may have many ideas about what kind of parent or caregiver you will be and what your relationship with your child or children might look like.
Then comes your toddler’s first tantrum. At that moment, it can be incredibly difficult to control your own emotions, let alone figure out how to best support your child.
You’re not alone if any ideas you once had about your parenting philosophy went out the window right then and there.
But it is precisely at stressful moments like these that mindfulness and mindful parenting can come in handy. This can help you better prepare yourself – and your child – for the next inevitable stressful situation.
Mindfulness is a practice designed to help you be fully present in the moment, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
“It’s an active practice of being fully present with one’s thoughts and feelings,” explains Pete Loper, pediatrician and child psychiatrist.
Mindful parenting is therefore the practice of applying awareness to your daily parenting. This is when you make the conscious choice, over and over, to pay attention to whatever is happening to yourself and your children in the present moment.
It can help you to be more curious, discerning, kind and accepting. It can also allow you to be more reflective and emotionally regulated in front of them.
“Being present means really paying attention to your child,” explains Steve Cisneros, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in family and couple mental health. “For example, noticing the different shades of brown in their eyes, how their nails have grown since you last saw them, [and] witness their enthusiasm or hurt feelings.”
There are several main components of mindful parenting:
- Self-awareness. It refers to the ability to think about and identify feelings you have in response to your child’s behavior.
- Self-regulation. It is the ability to sit with your feelings rather than reacting impulsively.
- Empathy. It is the ability to appreciate and understand your child’s feelings, whatever they may be, regardless of whether you agree with them. Empathy allows you to help your children learn to name their emotions and validate how they feel without judgment.
- Active listening. It is the practice of really hearing your child by taking in what they are saying verbally and non-verbally.
By practicing these skills, you can learn to let go of unrealistic expectations for your child, yourself or difficult situations and accept what is going on in the moment. And by doing so, you can both better navigate the present with self-awareness and compassion.
When you practice mindful parenting, you can model positive behaviors for your child, such as:
- self regulation
- listening skills
And modeling, Loper explains, “supports the development of your child’s emotional intelligence.”
In other words, mindful parenting can help your child learn how to recognize and regulate their emotions, which can help them:
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Mindful parenting can also help you:
- become more aware and responsive to your children’s needs
- be less critical and more empathetic
- regulate your thoughts, emotions and actions
- significantly reduces parenting stress while increasing parenting satisfaction
- encourage parents to be more involved
- reduce aggression, stress, anxiety and depression
- promote better child-parent communication
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Mindful parenting requires that parents first practice mindfulness with themselves. However, learning when “time to yourself” can be difficult for busy parents.
So, when you’re sleep-deprived, cranky, or just “out of it,” you may find it difficult to regulate your own emotions or practice mindful parenting.
Mindful parenting is also not the end-all, be-all for every parenting situation.
Loper explains, “Mindful parenting is not appropriate in circumstances of imminent risk to your child, where the immediate response to your feelings is required to prevent danger or harm.”
There are also times—like during an argument with your child—when you may need additional tools or strategies to navigate the situation.
Sarah Harmon, licensed mental health therapist, mindfulness teacher, and founder of The School of Mom, says, “Being a mindful parent can help you be a curious and grounded witness to your children having an argument. It can help you helps to be intentional about how you arrive at this interaction.”
But, she continues, “You need some tangible guidance or tools about what you’re saying and doing in that moment to help de-escalate the argument.”
In general, there are three steps you can take to be more mindful than your parent:
- Look. Try to non-judgmentally observe your current feelings about what is happening to your child in the present moment.
- Stop. Try not to react impulsively. Instead, try to sit there with your feelings or emotions so that you can name and acknowledge them before you react.
- Listen. Try to truly and actively listen to your child’s perspective with compassion.
For example, let’s say your child throws a tantrum at a store. Chances are you may feel frustrated, embarrassed or judged by onlookers. This in turn makes you angry or causes you to judge yourself as a parent. But the truth is, the emotions you feel are not that helpful for you to manage the situation.
If you find yourself thinking, “Why am I such a bad parent?” or “Why are you embarrassing me?” you are more likely to get excited or scream, creating a bigger scene and emotional upset for you and your child.
Instead, says Harmon, “Mindful parenting invites you to slow down and be present with your child and yourself in a heated tantrum moment.”
Mindful parenting strategies encourage you to look about the frustration, embarrassment and anger you feel and stop before you react impulsively, so you actually can listen what your child says they are upset about, even in such an unpleasant moment.
Plus, responding calmly to a crisis can help end a tantrum sooner.
“The grounded presence of a parent on its own has the power to change the mood of the child,” Harmon says, “as it helps them safely move through whatever emotion they’re experiencing.”
Likewise, toddlers can be picky or picky, so something as simple as serving them food in the “wrong” bowl can set them off.
As silly as it may seem to you, if you look at how their reaction makes you feel and stop yourself before you get angry, you’ll probably find out better why your child is actually upset.
Chances are, their behavior isn’t actually about the bowl. Maybe they are tired, or maybe they are stressed because there has been a lot of change at home. Or maybe they just don’t feel well.
Although mindful parenting is not currently recognized as one of the four main parenting styles, it is gaining popularity as an effective strategy.
The biggest difference between mindful parenting and other parenting philosophies or strategies is that it focuses less on telling you to do something specific and more on encouraging you to simply take the time to be present in the moment.
Not to be confused with authoritarian parenting, this parenting style focuses on creating structured environments for children to learn and thrive by communicating clear expectations and consequences with empathy and patience.
According to Loper, mindfulness can be a core component of this parenting style, which can help children become more resilient, confident and relationally competent.
Authoritarian parenting places more focus on structure with rules and punishment and less on nurturing, communication and opportunities for negotiation.
While some parents may feel the need to assert authority over their children with rigid rules, overly strict parenting can be an unbalanced approach.
Children raised by authoritarian parents may have problems with:
- low self-esteem
- feelings of uncertainty
- love connected with approval
- maintain relationships
- behave when they are away from their parents
A mindful approach to parenting can help an authoritarian parent become more self-aware of their own habits.
Mindful parenting encourages you to step back and slow down, rather than following a specific script on how to handle certain situations.
Permissive parenting is a relaxed approach that may lack structure, as well as consistent rules and consequences. Parents can allow children to break rules and bend to their child’s feelings to avoid conflict.
Sometimes people adopt this parenting style in response to their own childhood experiences with authoritarian parents.
However, parenting without consequences can be destructive to child development. Children raised by overly permissive parents may:
- seek structure outside the home to feel valued and validated
- struggle with relationships
- lack of self-discipline and self-control
- struggling in school
- experience problems with boundaries
- lack of sense of responsibility
Involved parenting is characterized by a parent who is often away from their children and home, either busy with work or social activities.
Children are usually left to fend for themselves with this parenting style, and parents are often unaware of their child’s physical and emotional well-being, needs, and safety. Involved parents may not know their child’s teachers and peers.
Involved parenting can cause children to take on adult responsibilities too early in life, “robbing” them of their childhood. Children raised by uninvolved parents may have:
- problems with low self-esteem
- a skewed view of well-being and safety
- problems with trust and forming intimacy with others
Mindful parenting can also be used in certain types of family therapy, such as parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT), explains Cisneros. PCIT is a type of therapy that Cisneros uses with families where a child has been diagnosed with a conduct disorder.
“In PCIT, we teach parents how to communicate with their children using evidence-based techniques, including effective communication and play strategies,” he explains. This may involve:
- spend unstructured time together
“It is possible, even best, to apply these skills mindfully as a parent,” adds Cisneros.
Mindful parenting is a strategy that can help parents learn to be more present with their children in every moment, even in stressful moments.
“[It’s] everything about who you are and how you show up or want to show up with and for your children,” says Harmon.
Mindful parenting can be used on its own or in conjunction with other parenting styles and can also be helpful in family therapy.
By learning how to slow down, recognize your feelings and listen to your child with empathy and compassion, you and your child can co-regulate emotionally and improve your bond as a family.