Alongside the joy and wonder of raising a child, the frustration and pitfalls of parenting also require navigation –often on a daily basis. Given that childhood is a short season, and parenting is far from easy, could mindfulness help us to lean in and be more present? International barrister, mindfulness teacher and parent, Gillian Higgins explains how the practice can help in turbulent times…
The responsibility of being a parent often feels overwhelming. Our desire to give our children ‘the best’ is easily compromised by exhaustion from simply trying to work, love and live. While it is often said that you cannot spoil a child with too much attention, many of us struggle to be present for any length of time. Somehow, we find it hard to find time to sit, play, chat and listen. So how can the practice of mindfulness help us to tune in, slow down and make the most of the opportunity we have to grow strong and resilient children?
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about paying attention to moments of everyday life with curiosity and openness, on purpose. It involves dropping into our present moment experience and being aware of what we’re doing, while we’re doing it, with a non-judgmental attitude. It sounds easy, but increasingly it’s becoming harder to find time to pause and take stock – especially as a parent.
Mindfulness invites us to experience the ‘here and now’, rather than hankering after how we would like our life to be. It encourages us to witness the essence of the moment, just as it is, so we don’t miss out on what’s going on, right now. The benefits of practice are significant. Research shows that regular mindfulness meditation improves concentration, decision-making and working memory. It reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, alleviates insomnia and reduces anxiety and depression.
How to Practise
Mindfulness is simple and can be practised anywhere. One way is to learn mindfulness meditation by using a point of focus, such as the passage of the breath. When your mind gets distracted and wanders off into thinking, worrying, or planning, simply notice where it has wandered to and gently guide it back to following the physical sensation of the in-breath and the out-breath. Do this every time the mind wanders –with kindness to yourself. In time, you start to recognise that thoughts are not facts about you and will come and go of their own accord, if you allow them to do so.
Another way is to use ‘daily mindfulness practices’. These are instances during the day where you pause, breathe and bring moment-to-moment awareness to something as simple as the brewing of your tea or your arrival back home after the school run. By pausing and staying present with the moment, you might notice the aroma of your drink or the rare moments of silence, taking in your experience fully. So often, the uniqueness of the moment is lost as our focus shifts to simply getting through the day.“
“Being human is a messy business and learning to accept our own imperfections as parents is key to moving on and modelling behaviour that our children can benefit from, both now and in the future.”
Mindfulness Tips for Parenting
As a new parent, mindfulness helped me to carve out much needed breathing space and enjoy the moment, whatever it ended up looking like. I was able to drop, or at least amend, unrealistic expectations of how it was to raise a child. I used mindfulness to bring a moment of calm to the busyness of the school run, the chaos of play dates and the challenge of connecting with new parents without judgment. I could choose to breathe and refrain from losing my temper when my daughter threw yet another tantrum and saw the wisdom of bringing her in close. I was able to decide whether to react to her emotional outbursts or simply let them pass. When our family Christmas lunch ended up with my daughter crying under the table, rather than sat at her seat, I had the know-how to be able to drop the judgment of how we imagine Christmas should be and accept how it really was – warts and all.
- Accepting Your Own Imperfections
Nobody ever becomes a perfect parent. There is no such thing. Being able to let go of frustrations and regrets when raising our children is powerful and the practice of mindfulness helps with this. It teaches us to become aware of when anger, frustration or worry starts to surface. It helps us to feel its presence and allow it to pass. If we can move on more quickly from our own disappointment with how we handled a situation, or lost our temper, then we can repair a situation more quickly. Growing our self-awareness by getting to know our ‘trigger-points’ and breathing deeply when challenged, helps us to respond sensitively, rather than knee-jerk react. Being human is a messy business and learning to accept our own imperfections as parents is key to moving on and modelling behaviour that our children can benefit from, both now and in the future.
- Listening to Your Child
Listening is an art. But how often do we give our full attention to what our child is telling us? Our default tendency is to fill in the gaps, listen while we tidy and give our views on any given situation before we’ve heard the entire question. Listening mindfully requires us to simply listen – without doing or saying anything else. This active approach enables us to pick up emotions, body language and the pitch of our child’s voice. It helps us to diagnose whether there’s been a simple upset or whether something more difficult has arisen that needs our attention. It also enables us to share the joy and understand our child’s experience more fully – through their eyes. Adopting this approach enables us to learn, understand and respond in a way that we might otherwise miss.
“Slowing down and carving out time to ‘simply be’, rather than ‘do’, helps to grow your child’s self-esteem and confidence. While the gift of presence is free, it is often unwisely overlooked.”
- Carving Out “Time for Us”
Downtime at home is becoming a rare commodity as children’s clubs, activities and experiences take up valuable chunks of spare time. Weekends are often planned weeks or months ahead and there is little time for simply ‘hanging out’ or enjoying the creative benefits of being bored.
Mindfulness invites us to experience the ‘here and now’– whatever it may be. With your child by your side, there is much to discover in the present moment, spending time simply ‘being’ in the flow of what the day brings. Time spent together on purpose, without judgment is intrinsically valuable. At some point this week, see if you can set aside some time to chat, explore, garden, play, cook or make and see what you notice. Slowing down and carving out time to ‘simply be’, rather than ‘do’, helps to grow your child’s self-esteem and confidence. While the gift of presence is free, it is often unwisely overlooked.
- Move in Close
The practice of mindfulness grows our compassion for others and ourselves. It encourages us to give the benefit of the doubt and be less judgmental of others. When extended to our children, this approach encourages us to move in close, often when we least want to.
When a child loses its temper, acts unreasonably or storms off, the last thing we feel like doing is engaging with them – and bringing them in close. However, the simple act of being there and offering a safe available space in which moods can be changed, errors forgiven and words overlooked, enables everyone to repair a situation gone wrong and to move on.
From toddlers to teenagers, a parent’s ability to be present ‘no matter what’ is capable of revolutionising how we deal with and emerge from conflict.
Gillian Higgins is an international criminal barrister, the founder of the Practical Meditation website and designs in-house workshops on mindfulness for companies and individuals. Mindfulness at Work and Home by Gillian Higgins is published by RedDoor Press and available from practicalmeditation.co.uk and all major bookshops.