In today’s society, our lives can become hectic and busy with the expectation that we have to be and do everything. To be the perfect friend, parent, sibling, employee… As a parent in this world, those expectations appear to be heightened, sometimes to the point that we may become so busy in our lives that the richness of raising children becomes reduced to the management of children and the family, instead of simply being with them. This can lead to us parenting on auto-pilot. Due to having an endless to-do list inside of our heads, parenting can become just another task on that list. We start to lose touch with our experience of being a parent and of being in the moment with our children and our families.
The constant pressure to be giving our absolute all to every role in our life leads us to be in a constant state of stress. When our brain is in this state, it is hardwired to act as if we are in a life-threatening situation. Our brain is wired this way to protect us and to ensure our survival. The problem is that, in today’s society, our brain tells us we are in life-threatening situations when we are not. Being late to work, or running late for school drop off, is not life-threatening (although stressful!) but our brain tells us that it is. This is a problem because the brain then tells us to act as if our life is in danger. Stress causes us to take the “short route” in our brain. Instead of taking time and accessing the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that uses logic, thinks rationally, directs attention, engages perspective taking, plans, and organises, it bypasses this and goes directly to the limbic system, where emotion is processed. This means that as opposed to thinking through our decisions, we act on instinct and impulse. While this is helpful in a situation that is life threatening (e.g., jumping out of the way of a moving car), it can lead us to act in ways we would not normally during stressful situations. In parenting, stress can have a negative impact including decreased attentiveness and more impulsive reactions.
I am sure you are all now picturing how this works in a parenting scenario. Imagine you are getting ready in the morning. Two of your three children are ready and waiting in the car, but your youngest child is still upstairs re-doing their hair for the ump-teenth time even though you have called upstairs three times asking for them to come down. You have recently spoken to the teacher who is concerned about your children’s constant lateness to school, and your boss has already given you a warning for being consistently late to work. You decide enough is enough and you really have to leave. You go upstairs to give your youngest child their final warning. You open the door and they fling themselves on to their bed screaming that they don’t want to go to school. In this scenario, what bodily sensations do you notice? What thoughts are going through your head? What feelings do you notice? I am sure reading through this you can resonate with this being a stressful situation. We can all think of what we would like to do in an ideal world - be responsive to our child, see what is happening for them. But in the reality, with pressure from work and school, we are more likely to act on our stress and impulsively yell, drag them to the car, etc.
The problem with the above incident, is that while we are in this state of stress, it is difficult for us to see the pattern that has arisen until we are mulling over the incident hours later. In mindful parenting, the goal is to become more in tune with our emotional reactions and use this to adjust our behaviours. Mindfulness is all about the direction of our attention. In a busy world, our attention is often divided between tasks, especially as a parent. For example, while reading your child a bed time story, mentally you are thinking about all of the things you need to do once you are finished, e.g., “I need to do the dishes, fold the washing, do the ironing, maybe I will have time to watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy before bed…”. In mindfulness, the aim is to notice that our attention has drifted from what we are doing presently (reading to our child) and redirecting our attention back to that task. This can be done by noticing our 5 senses. What can you feel (your child leaning against you, the feel of the paper), hear (your child breathing, you reading the words), smell (soap from the shower), see (the pictures on the page), or taste (the mint from your toothpaste). By doing this, you can be fully present with your child and enjoy the moment with them. This is a new way of doing things, so you might find that when you first start to mindfully do these types of tasks, that your mind keeps drifting off, and that can be frustrating. Like any new skill though, the more you practice, the better you will become. Through this type of practice, you will notice that you become more mindful in other areas of your life. Eventually as well, you will begin to notice when you are stepping in to the automatic stress response when you are under pressure, which will give you time to step out of auto-pilot and act differently.
If you are interested in becoming more mindful in your parenting, start off by picking one task a day that you would like to do more mindfully with your child (e.g., mindful playtime, mindful reading, mindful dinner time, mindful walking) for the next week and see the difference it makes!
If you need more assistance with increasing mindfulness in your parenting or everyday life, or any other advice on parenting strategies, contact us at Drop of Life.