The Power of Mindful Parenting

mindful parenting

At the end of a busy workday recently, I was hurriedly clearing the dinner dishes so I could get started on preparing the next day’s school lunches when my daughter called to me from the family room. “I need your help with an essay I’m writing,” she said. “Can I read it to you?” As I listened, my mind began to wander to the laundry that needed to be folded. “It sounds fine,” I snapped, grabbing the laundry basket and heading to the basement. And then I heard: “Mom, please come back here! I just need you to sit with me while I keep working on this.” Immediately, I felt bad for not focusing on her. Instead of relishing the fact that my teenager actually wanted me to be near her for a change, I was preoccupied with the tasks on my to-do list.

Many parents these days are just like me: overwhelmed and in search of a better way to interact with their children. Increasingly, they’re turning to a practice called mindful parenting, which focuses on slowing down and becoming more attuned and sensitive to your child. “Mindful parenting is parenting in a way that is responsive, not reactive, from the calm of the present moment, not the chaos of the past,” says Chris Willard, Psy.D., author of Child’s Mind and a clinical psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has spent the last 10 years helping families adopt this increasingly popular approach.

Mindful parenting is parenting in a way that is responsive, not reactive, from the calm of the present moment, not the chaos of the past.

Mindful parenting, with its message of staying calm, centered, and focused on one task at a time, is resonating with distracted, stressed-out parents who feel pressure to be perfect in every aspect of their lives, from work to family, as they try to navigate a technology- driven, fast-paced world. “They’re longing for a way to tune out expert voices that aren’t relevant and return to what actually matters in parenting,” says Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker in Boston and the author of Parenting in the Present Moment. A desire to connect meaningfully in a community of like-minded parents is also a motivator, says Dawn Scott, family program coordinator at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.

A Movement On the Rise

Mindfulness isn’t a new concept. It’s actually a fundamental part of Buddhism, and it’s been cultivated in various ways in different cultures. In the United States, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, brought the practice into the mainstream when he developed what would become the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in 1979. (These programs are now offered in more than 720 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics worldwide.) In 1997, Kabat-Zinn, along with his wife, Myla, published Everyday Blessings, The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, which eventually led to a new field of psychology. (A second edition, fully revised and updated, was published in October.)

Interest in the practice has been growing ever since. In 2001, New Harbinger Publications, a major publisher of books on psychology and health, printed one book that incorporated mindfulness; it’s since published more than 200 titles on the subject. “Thirty years ago, mindfulness was of interest to only a handful of New Age people and folks into Eastern religion,” says Ronald D. Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Now it’s quite mainstream.”

Many experts who teach mindfulness are busier than ever. Lesley Grant, director of the Marin Mindfulness Institute in Fairfax, California, which was founded 12 years ago, has seen mindfulness grow exponentially during that time. Her institute provides programs for families as well as training for mental health professionals and educators; last year, nearly 500 people attended a daylong introductory course. Kristen Race, Ph.D., author of Mindful Parenting and founder of Mindful Life in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, has educated more than 2,000 schoolteachers in mindfulness and says that every parenting class and workshop she runs is filled to capacity.

And with good reason: Research shows that mindful parenting can significantly strengthen the parent-child bond, says Doug Coatsworth, Ph.D., a professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University. In a study he conducted of mothers and teenagers, both moms and teens noticed that mothers were more in control of their anger in heated moments when they practiced mindfulness—and that the decrease in negative interactions led to a stronger relationship. “Mothers who were more mindful may have been better able to step back from a potentially explosive situation, see it from their child’s perspective, and respond in a calmer way,” Coatsworth says. (A study that included fathers will be published in the December issue of Developmental Psychology.) More research on mindful parenting is under way, much of it funded by major institutions like the National Institutes of Health.

Slowing Down, Stepping Back

Mindful parenting isn’t a fixed goal that you attain but instead is an ongoing creative process that provides strategies for being more present and openhearted, says Myla Kabat-Zinn. “When we begin to train the mind and body to notice what’s happening in the moment, we become more aware of the nuanced details,” says Harvard’s Siegel. “This is enormously useful because successful parenting involves being emphatically attuned to our kids and understanding their physical and emotional needs moment by moment.” Race says that when adults begin to reduce their own stress by practicing mindfulness, it helps reduce their children’s anxiety as well.

Successful parenting involves being emphatically attuned to our kids and understanding their physical and emotional needs moment by moment.

So how can parents embrace this philosophy with their children? We asked top mindfulness experts around the country to share their best advice.

Focus on your breathing.
Race suggests spending five to 15 minutes a day practicing mindful breathing. The idea is to pay attention only to your breath, training yourself to focus on one thing that’s occurring in the present. When practiced regularly, at times when you’re not under stress, it becomes easier and more natural to use this type of breathing during tense situations when you really need it.

The practice can bring huge benefits, says Diana Winston, director of mindful- ness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Studies have shown that it can help lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system; increase attention and focus, including in those suffering from ADHD; ease anxiety and depression; foster well-being and lessen emotional reactivity; and thicken the brain in areas in charge of decision-making, emotional flexibility, and empathy.

If you want to practice mindful breathing with your family, Race suggests a “three-breath hug,” in which you embrace your child and take three deep breaths together. This helps your child learn to use breathing to manage strong emotions, she says.

Observe your child.
Choose one time in your day to be fully present with your child, suggests Myla Kabat-Zinn. If it’s waking her up in the morning, be aware of the voice you use to greet her and how she might be feeling in that moment. Being even slightly more mindful in such a moment—and less caught up in what you have to do next—can make a profound difference. “This practice gives us a chance to get to know ourselves and our kids better,” says Kabat-Zinn. “We’re waking up in ways that bring a richness to our experiences that sometimes gets lost.”

Parents can also point out when they ob- serve a positive family dynamic, like when everyone is getting along and talking happily in the car, says Grace Fisher, who teaches mindful parenting classes at Spirit Rock. In that moment, you could tell your family how lucky you feel to be with them.

Take a break.
“Problems won’t get solved when a parent or child is agitated,” says Diane Reynolds, executive director of the Center for Reflective Parenting in Los Angeles. So if your child is getting worked up, you can say, “I see you’re getting upset. Let’s take 10 minutes to quiet down and discuss this later.” Or if you’re the one having an “I’m about to lose it” moment, explain that you need a few minutes to calm down before you continue the conversation. “This defuses and de-escalates the situation,” says Reynolds.

Eat together.
In a perfect world, your family would eat together every night. But in most families, that’s not possible. When you do gather around the table together—whether it’s for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and whether it’s five times a week or two—Willard suggests practicing mindful eating. This could involve discussing where the food comes from or eating slowly enough to notice the color, smell, and texture of your meal. Taking the time to appreciate your food leads to a healthier, more gratifying experience that brings the family together, he says. “Emotionally, you’re slowing down and connecting as a family by taking the time to speak and truly listen to each other.”

Give thanks.
When you’re eating together, ask family members to take turns saying what they’re grateful for. Scott says this allows parents and kids alike to focus on what brings mean- ing to their lives and stay connected to each other and themselves. Or you could play a game Race calls Rose/Thorn/Bud: Family members take turns discussing something pleasant they experienced that day, a mistake they learned from, and an act of kindness they witnessed or initiated. “This wires your brain to pay more attention to positive emotions,” she says.

Forgive yourself.
Parents aren’t perfect. All of us have, at times, reacted impulsively or with anger toward our children. “You don’t need to feel guilty when you aren’t mindful,” Naumburg says. “None of us are mindful all the time, and the power of mindfulness is that we can always begin again.”

Her words have been reassuring to a perpetually distracted mom like me. Recently, my daughter asked for my help on another essay. I stopped cleaning the kitchen and sat by her, listening to the sound of her voice as she read her work. When she finished, she smiled and said, “Thanks, Mom.”