Finding your way to a calmer, happier family and self could be easier than you might think – no silence or chanting required, says author Amber Hatch
What is mindfulness?
When we are mindful, we experience life as it is actually happening. We can watch where our thoughts are going, rather than be swept along with them. We are also more aware of our feelings, whether they are joy, sadness, contentedness or anger. And when we are being mindful, it is easier to choose whether or not to act on those feelings.
How can it help us parent?
Parents often need to learn new techniques to rise to new challenges of family life, and this is especially true in the first few years. Among other things, mindfulness can help us to stay calm in a crisis; feel more connected to our children; be patient; throw ourselves into an activity; not say something we might regret and keep a sense of perspective.
Being around children is like living with the volume turned up. Everything is more extreme and children can court the full range of human emotions each and every day. Parents may be vomited on, screamed at, poked in the eye, woken up several times in the night; they will have to tear apart children who are trying to bite each other; they will hear ‘I want that lolly’ 27 times; they will be humiliated in the supermarket; they will hear ‘I hate you’ and ‘I love you’ in the same minute; they will, at times, need to do everything one-handed; they will need to read the same story six times in a row; they will have to rescue a child who is gagging; comfort one who is crying, soothe one who is terrified of the dark; they will have to navigate through perpetual noise and chaos and mess, perhaps all in the course of a single day. Mindfulness can help parents to cope with all of that.
Mindfulness in children
Young children live very much in the present moment. When engaged in an activity they are absorbed by it, presumably not distracted by thoughts about the past or future, or by a running commentary. They often approach the world with a freshness, examining objects around them – a spoon, an insect, a crack in the pavement – with curiosity and wonder.
As children grow, their language increases and they begin to conceptualise much more. Instead of seeing the world as disjointed incidences to be wondered at, they start to make connections, creating a bigger picture, which gets more complex each day. That characteristic fresh-eyed wonder begins to be replaced with notions of familiarity and categorisation. They begin to be more absorbed by their inner worlds of fantasy and imagination. Thoughts come hand in hand with language, and their minds – which no longer need to make sense of their immediate surroundings – are more occupied with the past and the future. As their brains develop and move toward a more adult mind, their ability to raise mindfulness grows, and also their need for it.
How to be a mindful parent
1. Attach mindfulness to an activity: Ideally, we would be trying to be mindful all the time, but sometimes it’s worth earmarking a certain activity for special mindful attention. It doesn’t matter what you choose – it could be hanging out the washing or walking up the stairs or reading to your child. Keep this as a regular mindfulness activity, so that you practise every single time you do it. You get many of the benefits of formal sitting (though perhaps not with the same depth of relaxation), yet you can do it while carrying on with your daily business.
2. Make time for play: Earmarking special times for being together is a wonderful way to protect those times for reconnection. It may be that we need to actually schedule in certain times in the day – perhaps at bathtime. Alternatively, look out for opportunities to seize as and when they come along.
3. Keep shopping fun: If you have to go to the shops together, reduce the sensory overload by slowing down the task, perhaps by taking time to mindfully explore the aisles – noting all the different smells and colours.
4. Work out strategies in advance: When we are confronted with a new or tricky situation, the need to act quickly may make it hard to choose the best course of action in that moment. Later, however, see the incident as a learning opportunity. Rather than getting caught up in regret, this is a chance to handle the situation differently next time.
5. Find ways to empower your child: Look out for campaigns you think would interest them and help them to come up with ways to support that cause. Children can raise money through bake sales or sponsorship, or they could write a letter to a politician.