Mindfulness in the Face of Challenging Behaviour: Staying Connected with our Children When Problems Come Along

mindful-conference-2016-post2-2This post is an article that I wrote for an upcoming Mindful Parenting conference on October 29, 2016. I will be offering a session on sharing mindfulness with children.


As parents, we all struggle with our children’s behavior at some point. Whether it’s siblings fighting, problems at school, refusal to participate in social activities, or bullying, for example, parents are called upon to deal with many difficulties, at times on a daily basis. This leaves us feeling exhausted, depleted, angry, worried, and even hopeless that things will improve. We might even notice a strain on our relationship with our kids, where the problem has taken over the household. We love our children more than anything in the world, yet our buttons get pushed and those warm feelings get shoved into the background. Managing the problem has taken the joy out of parenting.

What would it be like if we could shift our view of the situation? What if instead of seeing the child as the problem, as in, “My daughter is aggressive,” we could separate the deed from the doer, as in, “Aggression visits her sometimes.” Or, rather than, “My son is shy and anxious,” we think, “Worry sometimes gets the better of him.” By shifting how we relate and respond to the challenging emotions and behaviours that visit our kids, we can work together to address them. In this way we maintain connection, while bringing about change as a team. Here are a few ways to do that.

  1. Give the problem a name: Mindfulness practice teaches us to relate to our experiences with curiosity and kindness, rather than seeing ourselves as the experience. Also, neuroscience research shows that when we can name a problem we calm the amygdala – that part of the brain responsible for emotions, and deeply connected to the fight-flight response. It can be fun to playfully engage in conversations with our children about naming the ‘problem’. The better they can describe it, e.g. Mr. Frustration, The Angry-gator, The Worry Warts, etc., the better they’re able to relate to it as something that comes… and goes.
  1. Bring awareness to times free from the problem: Because of the well-documented negativity bias of the brain, we are more likely to remember the times when problems are showing up and not notice the times when they are not. However, when we take a step back, we can see the problem is not there 100% of the time (sure, maybe 98.5%, but not 100%). My youngest screams a lot, but not 24 hours a day. Practicing bringing attention to the times when the problem isn’t around helps us feel more positive toward our children, and ultimately maintains a sense of connection. The more we do this, the more likely we are to feel free of the problemmindful-conference-2016-post2-2.
  1. Exercise the positive neural pathways of the brain: Bring to mind a pleasant moment with your child, free from problems (or even when you teamed together in a connected way to address a problem). Spend some time reliving this experience, imagining it in your mind’s eye in as much detail as possible. Take some deep breaths and allow the moment to fill your entire body. Linger in it. Notice how your body feels after this practice. How do you feel toward your child? This practice from Dr. Hanson of bringing in the good, enriches our experiences of pleasant moments and also increases our chances of remembering that they actually happened!
  1. Try a little tenderness: Ever notice how we are often kinder to friends who are having a hard time than we are to our children and ourselves? Practicing understanding and compassion, especially in the face of challenging behaviours, helps us (and our children) feel more positive. And when we feel more positive, we are more likely to make changes. Try offering yourself some kind words and encourage your child to try as well. “May I know I am trying my best,” “May I know my own goodness,” or whatever phrases fit for you.

Sure, it all sounds good in theory, but how can we bring these ideas into practice when we are tired, worried, stressed out and pushed to the limit? One of the hardest parts of a new approach certainly is remembering… especially when in the thick of it all. Here is where mindfulness can help us to take care of ourselves so that we can practice other ways of responding to our children.

Tips for Mindful Parenting:

  • Spend a few moments each day in stillness. Follow the breath for a few inhales and exhales, letting your attention rest on the breath and when it wanders to ‘life,’ gently bring it back, over and over.
  • Check in with your body – am I holding tension somewhere? My hands, back, or jaw for example. Can I let it soften?
  • Naming our emotional experiences to calm our brain: “Ahh, worry is here,” “Frustration is showing up,” “I’m noticing judgment.” When we name our emotions, we tame them, instead of getting swept up in them.
  • Take deep breaths with a long exhale: this cliché for relaxation engages the parasympathetic nervous system and kicks in our rest and digest system. It’s much more effective to take a deep breath than to tell yourself to relax!

Put on your own life-jacket first: Practice self-care. When we’re depleted, we’re more likely to be reactive and less likely to be able to support our children with the challenges they may be facing. By taking care of ourselves first, we can better take care of our kids.

and then there were two…


Borrowed with gratitude from “Jar of Quotes

We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” Thich Nhat Hanh

I have been putting off sending out my newsletter as I just could not come up with the time to create a blog post. Amidst the sleepless nights and swing pushing and meal prepping and laundry with a 5 1/2 year-old son and a 15-month old daughter, did I mention laundry? oh yeah, and work- I just couldn’t’ do it. Then I remembered the words of Thich Nhat Hanh. Yes, I do have more possibilities than procrastinating, stressing about not doing it, getting irritated about a ‘lack’ of time – and it came to me. Let it go (sorry for the inevitable Disney song popping into your head right about now). Don’t write a post this month!

So instead, I will share a few of my favourite mindfulness quotes that I often draw on in the thick of parenting — Thich Nhat Hanh’s being one of my favourites.

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” – John Kabat-Zinn (who saw the quote on a surfboard)

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” – Elizabeth Stone

“Enjoy the little things in life because one day you`ll look back and realize they were the big things.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness. ” – Thich Nhat Hanh

5 Tips for Bringing Mindfulness to our Family

Family Meditating together

Doesn’t have to look like this! Hee hee

May you live all the days of your life.” – Jonathan Swift

In celebration of Canadian Mental Health Week, here are 5 mindfulness tips to nurture calm & connection in the midst of our hectic family lives.

  1. Spending some time each day with our children single-tasking. When eating, just eat. When walking, just walk, when hugging, just hug. Feels good & strengthens our ability to focus.
  1. Observing and naming big emotions when they come to visit – both for ourselves and our children; when we name our big emotions, we can tame them.
  1. Reflecting on a pleasant moment from the day and sharing it with each other – noticing the good helps to hardwire happiness and counter the brain’s negativity bias.
  1. Showing ourselves care – with a hug, a kind message, and understanding when we’re having a hard time. What a gift for our children to see us as parents being kind to ourselves.
  1. Remembering to breathe; deep breaths can bring calm & relaxation to the body. – And this can be fun too! balloons, bubbles, pinwheels, oh yeah!

When Push Comes to Shove: Finding a Balance

A  lot of parents will do anything for their kids, except let them be themselves.”  – Banksy

Cathy Thorne cartoon

Thanks Cathy Thorne for the great cartoon!

Okay, I’ve done a lot of personal work in this area. And yet, go figure, it keeps showing up… A couple of weeks ago, the juggling of summer camp sign-up began. Where you have to have every camp planned for the entire summer, then wake up at the crack of dawn, have all of your information ready, and just hope that you’re one of the lucky ones to get what your child wants. Or is it really what they want?  A question that you cannot pause to consider, as you are madly hitting the login button on the computer, hoping to finally get on to the sign-up page. Just in case, I put him on the wait list for music camp…

I have somewhat accepted the fact that my son is not interested in music. I put away the –who am I kidding, MY- Suzuki music-training dream a couple of years ago. He just was not interested and I decided to let it be. Although, not fully… when time came around for finding summer camps this year, of course I tried again for music. And, once again, to no avail. Fine. No problem.

Here’s the tricky part. There’s a lot of great things out there besides music, and we are fortunate to have the means to send him to at least a few interesting, creative camps. I am very well-intentioned, and want to give him exposure to lots of great things, and of course, to have a really fun summer. However, when I put forward some of the really great opportunities, they get met with either a “no,” or “which friend is going?”  I am all for coordinating summer camps and activities with friends. It’s just not always possible, and it is in such situations that my struggle lies.

Do I let it go? Do I sign him up anyway, and then push him to go when the time comes?  Last year he went to a different camp without friends and ended up loving it. How do we push and encourage our children without shoving our agenda onto them? This is something that I guess I’ll continue to learn through trial and error. For this year, we’ve decided that it’s just not worth the potential struggle. After all, it is summer vacation!

And my partner often reminds me, he is only five. This parenting thing is a lifelong project. Slowing down and reflecting on this comment helps me to stay connected to one of the key values I hope to strive for as a parent – to not get in the way of my children truly being themselves. Struggles and all…

Starting off the New Year with Playfulness: It’s much sweeter than the alternative…

chocolate buddhaNothing lights up a child’s brain like play.” – Dr. Stuart Brown

Maybe the same could go for parents as well?

As I was shopping for last minute holiday gifts, I found the cutest hand-made milk chocolate buddhas. How wonderful, for people to be celebrating and savouring the season with a full-bellied chocolate buddha. The playfulness of this treat got me thinking about the benefit of adopting an attitude of playfulness in daily life – especially with children – and even more especially when things don’t go our way – with our children…

Tonight, I finally got the baby to sleep and my partner was putting our son to bed. Ok. Off to meditate – another new years promise to myself, getting back to daily meditation after having a baby. Part way through, I hear a cry through the baby monitor. Again. “So much for meditation tonight,” I mutter as I trudge upstairs, noticing my shoulders tensing and a scowl fully formed on my face.

As I snuggle with my sweet baby to help settle her back to sleep (she is cutting some teeth as we speak, poor thing), I realize I have a choice in this moment. I can hop on the train of anger and irritation, feeling hard done by and clinging to all the unhelpful thoughts like, “I never have time for anything anymore,” “why do I have another baby is not a good sleeper” -whatever that means- “I am never going to get anything done.” The anger just makes me feel worse and certainly does not help her get back to sleep.

Instead I can chuckle to myself and approach these situations with playfulness and acceptance (since they are happening whether I like it or not). “Perfect timing – right before the final meditation bell,” “Now I get an extra snuggle,” “I bet I would be screaming if I had sharp objects poking through my gums,” “She’s just like her big brother” (who happens to sleep VERY well now I remind myself) and of course, the ever important “this too shall pass.” Jumping on this playful train of thought makes me feel much better and the situation feel more manageable.

I relax next to my sleeping baby and I smile as I realize I can always get back to my meditation – the next time it will be mindfully eating my chocolate buddha.

‘Do as I say, not as I do’: On second thought…

Your child will follow your example, not your advice” – Unknown

“I am such an idiot!”  Painful words to hear our children say. In my therapy practice, more and more parents are expressing concern about the harsh words children say to themselves – and at a very young age. And I certainly want my children to learn that even if they make a poor choice or are unable to figure something out, they are not stupid. Everyone makes mistakes – we are not “idiots,” no matter what difficulties we might encounter.

But…. how can I teach that to my children when I say it to myself!?! And in front of them no less! Two times in the past 3 months, in front of my son, I declared, “I am such an idiot!” One time was not even after a mistake – I actually had an insight into a better option – ostensibly calling myself an idiot for having a useful realization. Yikes!

The other time, well that was after making quite a big gaff… but still, I would never want to model for my children that we name-call and berate ourselves when we make mistakes. Yes, I made a mistake, a mistake that led to my son getting his first real taste of road rash, nonetheless. But am I an idiot? No – (as I continue to remind myself when I recall the incident) – I am a sleep-deprived parent of a brand new May-day baby. And sadly, but understandably, I am facing natural consequences for this mistake… My son will not ride his trail-a-bike with me right now. Ouch! That is painful enough – I don’t need to add a heaping dose of self-criticism.

After his wounds were tended to, we had a very good talk about this… well, more like I talked at him about my error in calling myself an idiot and how I hope he knows that he is not an idiot when he makes a mistake… Blah… Blah… Blah (he is only 4 1 /2 yrs. old after all). So really, if I want him to learn this message of self-kindness and compassion when we make mistakes, I need to show it – in what I say & what I do.

Sharing Mindfulness with our Children – Take what we can get…

If we aren’t practicing mindfulness, we can’t teach it to our children” – Brene Brown

People often ask me if I meditate with my son. My answer?

Beckett & cushion

…Not so much…

I find myself immersed in mindfulness, through my own self-practice and in the community – sharing mindfulness with adults, children, parents, teens, educators, clinicians. You name it… But not so much with my son.

Sure, there have been moments over the years where I have shown him some of the practices I do with other children in my work – like breathing with a stuffy on our bellies (or in his case a toy car), sounding a bell and listening until the sound fades away, noticing what we are eating as we eat, etc.  We have also made ‘stillness snow globes’ and ‘inside flashlights’ together (mindfulness crafts children make in my programs).  Some of his favourite storybooks include – Visiting Feelings, Zen Shorts, Moody Cow Meditates and No Ordinary Apple was a fave of his for a while. But in terms of ‘meditation’, not so interested.

Most of the time, I’m totally fine with it – after all, he is only 4. But sure, I confess, there is a small part of me that wishes he would sit with me and focus on his breath – knowing the myriad benefits that this simple (and at times, oh so challenging) act can bring.

And then, the other day, it happened. He asked to meditate! His father was getting him ready for bed and so I told them that I would practice my meditation. He piped up: “Can I meditate too?” Trying not to get too enthusiastic, I casually replied, ‘Sure’ (all the while beaming inside). After he was ready for bed, I dusted off his cushion (a special child-sized cushion I bought him 2 years ago that has sat in his closet ever since), and the 3 of us sat together. I didn’t want to blow this moment. How I can I do this so that he ends up wanting to practice again? (No pressure!) Our son sounded the bell. I invited us to take some deep, soft breaths. I told him that he could sound the bell when he felt he had had enough. I gently encouraged him to follow his inbreath (‘breathing in”) and outbreath (“breathing out”).

We did this for about a minute or less, and then the bell sounded. He leaned over to me and asked, “Mommy, is it ok to talk in meditation?” How sweet. We finished off with him sounding the bell a few times and listening to its beautiful tone.

It really was a sweet moment. We have now had 4 consecutive nights of ‘meditation’ practice. Will there be a 5th? Who knows. And that is just fine.

But I do know that I am planting seeds. I also know that my own mindfulness practice supports me to follow his lead and keep my reactions to his interest (or lack-there-of) in check.  So really – the best way to share mindfulness with my son, is to practice myself…. and then, with a smile, take what I can get.