Parents Teach Mindfulness by Example

Each week we publish an article that focuses on different aspect of Positive Parenting. Articles are contributed by members of Parenting Limerick, a network of agencies working with parents and families in Limerick city and county.

Being a parent isn’t easy. It’s a balancing act trying to meet your children’s needs, managing a household, keeping the family’s finances in check, and also taking care of yourself! Most parents cope by going onto autopilot: acting without thinking, based on instinct. This works really well when completing a task that needs skill, e.g. driving a car, cooking a dinner, or getting up at night to comfort a crying baby.

Children learn from their caregivers in a complex and beautiful way – not just from what they hear us say, but from what they see us do. For example, a child doesn’t think, “Oh, Mom is stressed so she is just focussed on getting the dinner ready”. They might be more likely to think, “Mom tells me off when I try to show her my drawings”. While autopilot helps us to function, it also takes away our ability to notice things that we aren’t expecting.

Mindfulness means paying attention to right now, this moment, and everything that comes with it. Mindful awareness of what’s happening right now can come in the middle of stressful days, like a moment of clarity in between jumping from one thing to another. Paying attention to the present moment offers an opportunity to be free from autopilot, and make new decisions about how to respond to the world around us. If we stop to notice our breathing, our heartbeat, the thoughts racing around our heads—even if we don’t immediately become totally relaxed, the change from reacting to noticing gives us a choice about what we do next.

These skills are extra important for children as they grow up. As their brains develop, children are learning the best way to approach situations that are totally new to them. Often these situations need a maturity that they just don’t have yet parents can demonstrate how to have mindful moments. Children will learn to notice their own emotional responses, to pause for a moment and think, instead of letting “big feelings” run rampage. Mindfulness really means giving ourselves a chance to be surprised. The famous ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus is thought to have said “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Instead of letting lockdown drive us stir crazy, a mindful moment reminds us that every moment is new, and unique.

So what can we do? Practice mindfulness with your children in a relaxed and focused way. You don’t learn to swim when you are drowning, so you really don’t learn mindfulness when everyone is upset! Try some guided meditation recordings together, maybe before bed. Find gaps in your day to have a mindful moment for yourself, to feel grounded by taking some deep breaths, noticing what is going on around you. Set aside time in your day or your week where you have no goal to complete right now—use this as a moment to share with your children, e.g. going for a walk, or sitting down for a cup of tea (with no background TV or radio). Give your children and the world around you a chance to surprise you.

Top Tips

  • Guided mindfulness and meditation: there are many online resources we can find online to guide practice. Annaka Harris has a series of guided mindfulness meditations for parents to do with their children, including Mindful Hearing, Mindful Breathing, Mindful Seeing, and a Night-time Meditation. It is highly recommended that parents do these exercises with their children rather than having children do them alone.
  • Practicing being a mindful parent: introduce pauses and breaks throughout your day. If there is conflict, e.g. a child throwing a tantrum, take a moment to do some deep breathing or counting down from 10 before deciding what is the right consequence for the behaviour you want to change
  • Introduce phrases that encourage patience: don’t say “no” straight away, try something like “I’ll think about it”. Instead of reacting right now, say “we’ll talk about this after dinner”. Instead of rushing through tasks, plan ahead and involve your children in making that plan, e.g. when setting up chores for the weekend.
  • Reflect on how you do things: if something is on your mind, e.g. I’m feeling a bit guilty about not letting my toddler have sweets when he wanted them. You might ask someone you trust for feedback, or try writing things down, in a note or in a diary. For us to be mindful of our feelings we have to respect them, and accept them. Give yourself time to learn from mistakes, and remember that this is the only real way to learn something you didn’t already know.

This article was contributed by Oisin Carey, Assistant Psychologist with Limerick Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Service, a member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations.