Mind over Matter: Understanding Mindfulness, Part I

His mother was in a panic. As she stood at the bathroom door, she helplessly watched him in the shower, fully clothed, water off, yelling that he was so mad he wanted to hit something. Visions of bloody glass flying paralyzed her, and then he was quiet. Before she could say anything he began speaking, “Mom, mom, just leave me alone! I need to practice my mindful breathing.” Gradually, he composed himself as he focused on his breath. His racing thoughts and his pounding heart slowed. His body relaxed and his anger seemed to melt away.

Eric had been participating in a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy group for several weeks when this episode occurred. Mindfulness is the practice of careful, nonjudgmental attention to yourself and your world. It is founded on the principles of meditation where one intentionally focuses on the present moment. With practice you can learn to be more alert, attentive and relaxed. Rather than maintaining focus on various aspects of your life by placing stress on yourself, mindfulness can help you become more centered by facilitating greater awareness of your thoughts, feelings and body sensations. Mindful practice can lead to reduced anxiety and greater skill at “paying attention to paying attention.” This provides the time and space for you to stop and choose healthier behaviors rather than to simply react automatically. Studies of mindfulness have even revealed an increase in the size of parts of the brain that regulate emotions after a number of guided mindfulness sessions.

Mindfulness and ADHD
Eric’s mindfulness group was developed specifically for children experiencing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders and/or Anxiety. ADHD is characterized by inattentiveness, distractibility, impulsivity and in some cases hyperactivity. Research has shown that a substantial number of children with ADHD also experience anxiety.

Anxiety can cause children to be hypersensitive to criticism and rejection. They experience difficulty being assertive or advocating for themselves. Feelings of inferiority can lead to poor social skills, underachievement and avoidance of many beneficial activities. Physical symptoms such as cold, clammy hands, tremors, a shaky voice, and irritability may be observed. Some of the same symptoms that are seen in children with ADHD are also typical of anxious children. ADHD or excessive anxiety can result in impaired concentration and restlessness. Excessive tiredness, feeling on-edge, irritability, tenseness and problems sleeping are also common. Children with ADHD or anxiety can display oppositional and angry behavior as well.

If you are the parent of a child who, like Eric, has ADHD and/or anxiety, mindfulness training can have great benefits. It can minimize common stressful child-parent interactions, allowing all to put their “best foot forward.” Learning to pay attention to experiences with openness and without reacting judgmentally reduces stress, and improves decision-making. You begin to respond more thoughtfully to behavior, rather than react to it. By reducing old, ineffective “autopilot” habits you become more adept at pausing and observing your feelings and thoughts. This can lead to calmer, more effective interactions between you and your child.

Steps to Mindful Parenting
Duncan, Coatsworth, and Greenberg delineate five Dimensions of Mindful Parenting. By learning to utilize these principles you can improve your interactions with your child.

  1. Listening with Full Attention
  2. Nonjudgmental Acceptance of Self and Child
  3. Emotional Awareness of Self and Child
  4. Self-Regulation in the Parenting Relationship
  5. Compassion for Self and Child

Listening with Full Attention
Giving your full attention to a situation when parenting can enhance your ability to interact with your child more calmly, warmly and consistently. This can contribute to a more constructive relationship characterized by more positive and less negative interactions. This can also promote greater trust and emotional sharing. It can decrease parenting stress and lead to the use of more effective parenting strategies.

Nonjudgmental Acceptance of Self and Child
Being a mindful parent means being aware of and accepting, in a nonjudgmental manner, your child’s and your own the personality attributes and behaviors. This does not mean that you have to approve of behavior when it does not meet your expectations. Rather, a mindful parent has learned to step back and take the time to observe the child’s style of interacting with the world. You also remain cognizant of your own strengths, weaknesses and underlying prejudices so they aren’t the driving force behind your sense of self as a parent. This encourages flexible thinking and allows for greater control over impulsive reactions. When problems arise, it becomes easier to provide clear, age appropriate standards and expectations for the child. Realistically recognize your child’s ADHD or anxiety symptoms in order to encourage him to make changes in unhelpful patterns in thinking, feeling or acting.

Emotional Awareness of Self and Child
Parenting is a challenging endeavor colored by your own and your children’s emotions and way of thinking. Strong emotions can trigger automatic responses before you have had time to fully consider the most effective course of action. The potential for a negative outcome that you will later regret increases substantially. By parenting mindfully, you can gain a greater capacity to be aware of yours and your children’s emotional state. You can more clearly determine the best course of action to take because your emotions have not clouded your thinking. As you become more capable of modulating your thinking, it will be easier to listen to your children, as well as to be heard by them.

Self-Regulation in the Parenting Relationship
While some mindfulness theorists have warned against confusing mindfulness with self-control, others postulate that mindful parenting requires self-regulation in the parent-child relationship. The mindful parent attempts to respond in a thoughtful positive manner when disciplining a child. Certainly, all parents experience negative feelings such as anger or helplessness when dealing with their children. However, the mindful parent practices stopping before reacting in order to more consciously decide on the best response. Research has shown that when parents demonstrate self-control when disciplining they model appropriate expression of negative feelings. Such a display of control in the face of a stressful situation by a parent promotes the development of self-regulatory skills in children.

Compassion for Self and Child
Compassion is defined as a deep awareness of the suffering of others coupled with the desire to relieve it. Mindful parenting involves self-compassion as well as being concerned for your child. By avoiding harsh self-blame, a parent feels less helpless when unsure or when missing the mark as a parent. We become less threatened of being judged by others. Showing compassion toward yourself as well as your child imparts a greater sense of acceptance and support for your child. When this occurs children will recognize a parent’s attempts to meet their needs or comfort the distress they may feel, even when being disciplined. A mindful parent begins to more readily observe the importance of the overall process of thoughtful parenting rather than becoming caught up in one difficult episode or situation. By being more self-aware and compassionate, as well as less driven by unhelpful, automatic reactions, you will feel more competent even when your actions don’t produce the hoped for outcomes.

Next week, we will give you the steps toward learning mindfulness and the techniques to help you parent in a more calm and thoughtful way. We will also pass along the steps your child can use to learn mindfulness.