The parent I always imagined I’d be?

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Cathy Thorne – Mindful Parenting cartoon guru

Natural consequences, great in theory… a wee bit harder in practice! Maybe mindfulness can help?

Here’s my story…

8:20 a.m. a couple of weeks after coming home from Cuba. It’s time to go. Actually, that was 20 minutes ago! Already late… Another sleep-interrupted night… A dreaded work meeting in a few hours… Snapped at partner… again…Dinner not planned… again…Caffeine not kicking in… Existential crisis, again… You get the picture. And now, this.

Our youngest is refusing to wear snow pants. Nooooooooooo!

“We didn’t have to wear them in Cuba,” our 2 ½ year-old rightly explains.

“Yes, honey. I know. Cuba is is hot, and we’re not in Cuba anymore. Just like yesterday. Remember?”

“I don’t want to wear them.”

“I know sweetheart, it’s hard to be back in the cold.” (My face is getting flushed, and my voice getting louder)

“My brother’s not wearing them.”

“I know sweetie. He’s older.” (my inside voice screaming: “Life’s not fair! Might as well get used to it now! And besides, I ‘let go’ of that battle with him years ago, though for some reason, I am just not able to let go of it right now)

8:37: still not out the door… Then I lose it…

“SIT DOWN AND GET YOUR SNOW PANTS ON!”

(Not exactly the parent I imagined I’d be!)

What am I supposed to do???

Oh yeah. Natural consequences. A parenting value of mine in theory, but not always in practice! Then my rational brain comes back online. She won’t freeze. It’s not that far of a walk. We can pack them. Maybe she can get cold and learn for next time.

So, why didn’t I think of that? Oh, right. I couldn’t think in that moment!

I’ve read and heard lots about the benefits of natural consequences as a way to encourage our children to learn, and to avoid power struggles. Krissy Pozatek, wrote a lovely book called Brave Parenting, in which she talks about how we, as parents, can either metaphorically ‘lay down leather’ on the rocky path of our children’s lives to provent them from experiencing the hard parts of the journey; or we can foster the development of internal resources and emotional resiliency (building moccasins – so-to-speak) – to help us navigate our life trail, rockiness and all.

Similarly, in No Drama Discipline, Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson laud the beauty of natural consequences, where lessons are taught without us having to do much. I think it is actually more about what we need NOT to do in those challenging moments. When we do too much to ‘teach that lesson’, or we overreact, our kids may not even remember why we had a difficulty in the first place. They are just connecting with how our emotional reaction in the moment.

Sounds simple, perhaps, but it’s not easy. In this morning moment above, my buttons were pushed – my need to be in control of the situation (The illusion of being in control – whether we have kids or not – is a topic for another post!)). Our buttons can also get pushed when we are under intense stress, so that we do not have access to the ‘thinking’ part of our brain.

In that moment, I responded like I were under threat, and headed into fight flight freeze. Yes, threat. From my 2 ½ year-old. At that point, my brain couldn’t tell the difference between a toddler and a tiger and I was no longer thinking rationally, rather I was fighting and freezing: a power struggle with the two and half-year-old. Never good odds for success!

How do we reconcile being the parents we want to be, when our buttons are pushed and we can’t think clearly – and we need to get out the door !?!. How can we employ the wisdom from parenting books when we can’t access the thinking part of our brain?

Here’s where mindfulness has helped me. A few things I have learned along the way (and remind myself of on a regular basis):

  1. By regularly practicing mindfulness in some form, we strengthen our brain’s ability to remain calm in stressful situations. This in turn reduces our likelihood of going to fight, flight or freeze mode and can help us recover quicker when we do go there.
  2. With practice, we can learn to just STOP, and reset our nervous system; with some deep breaths, observing and naming our experiences before proceeding.
  3. We can offer ourselves compassion; recognizing that all parents have challenging parenting moments, all parents have their buttons pushed – and we can offer ourselves a comforting touch and some kind words (like we would say to a friend who came to us with a similar challenge)
  4. And if we cannot act as we would have liked, we can at least be aware of our behavior – and make a repair with our child and relax into what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls, “The Full catastrophe of parenting.”
  5. We can remember, that even when we practice regularly, we are human, and we will slip up. Good thing we’ve got many years to keep practicing!

Summer hats and sun screen… bring ‘em on!
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Mindfully Navigating our Reactions to Change – especially when we don’t like it…

“Is the world going to end?” asked our son matter-of-factly the morning after Donald Trump was elected. Though I was feeling that way at some level, I was still shocked to hear these words come from his almost six-year-old mouth. Sure, there had been talk about the US election in our household; however, I didn’t think there had been enough to provoke such a question

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with gratitude for this image

from him. I answered “No,” though inside, I couldn’t stop feeling like I might be lying…

This situation has me thinking about how to navigate such discussions in the aftermath of the election (and other difficult social / political issues). This post is perhaps more of a question, as I am still figuring out how best to proceed. With that in mind, as I reflect on the past few weeks, a few ideas of what I have been learning:

  1. Our children pick up on what we are talking about, and how we might feel about it.
  2. Children hear about what is going on in the world, whether we talk about it or not; and when we aren’t talking about it, they are left to the messages others are offering.
  3. We can use difficult times to talk about important issues – be they climate change, a surprise (and maybe scary) political change, family job changes, etc. in age appropriate ways. Our son has recently become passionate about wind turbines and saving polar bears and building a robot with an extendable arm to erase the racist language on his school’s bathroom ceiling.
  4. We can notice and attend to our emotional reactions, so that we don’t get lost in them while interacting with others. Even in the midst of my growing fear about what lies ahead, I want to be loving & present with my family.
  5. We can continue to model, teach and practice the values that we hold dear. Consent and respect, for example have become regular topics of discussion with both our son and daughter.

Here are a few articles I have found helpful as I reflect on this question (although they are geared towards older kids).

This last article, Responding with Love and Courage, by Mindfulness teacher and psychologist, Jack Kornfield, offered me hope – providing some guidance on how I might act, while also embodying kindness & compassion. He offers the following:

“Sometimes we need to get up, shout out the truth, march, protest, do whatever is necessary to protect our life and the lives of others. The great exemplars of non-violence such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were strategic and skilled in this way. They rallied people, used the courts, broke the law, blocked the way, negotiated, moved forward and back, found allies, and used money, power, shame, speeches, and politics all to stand up for what was right. But they did not act out of hate and violence. This is a powerful example. When self-righteous anger arises, we can let it go. Retaining our own fierce clarity, we too can seek justice, yet do so with a loving heart.”

We’ve got a lot of work to do…

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.

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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…

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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.

We can relax, nothing is under control…

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied… (see full Zen Story below)

A lot of people take comfort in the idea that events, especially ‘bad’ ones, happen for a reason. For better or worse, that has never been the case for me. Rather, in my experience, great things can turn out to be great – or not – and crappy things can be plain ol’ crappy – or have a silver lining. We can never be sure of how we will actually experience the outcome of an event – i.e. things we are convinced will be good, may not necessarily be so (like an exciting new job), while things that appear unfortunate (not getting that exciting new job) can bring about a new, perhaps unforeseen opportunity. The only certainty is that we can’t know beforehand how things will turn out. And the only control we have is over how we respond to whatever comes.

For example, recently my partner and I did sooooo much juggling to increase the chances of our son getting into a particular school for French Immersion – one that is much closer to us than his “home” school – (the ‘home’ school which would necessitate a school bus, rather than walking).  As the time drew near for children to be placed in French for September, I was becoming increasingly stressed about the entire process. I was fixating on him “having to get in” to a particular school. I was certain it would be the BEST thing for him and us. But yet, after doing all that we could to increase his chances of getting in, the outcome was beyond my control. All I could do was wait, and stress, and wait. (Well, I did have some control over the stressing part).

The short little Zen story (below) helped to ease the burden of that waiting and bring me to to a place of acceptance.  After all, we can’t be certain that one outcome will be better than the other. Even if we could, there was nothing more we could have done to influence the outcome anyway. Once I learned to be open to all possible outcomes, I felt a great sense of relief. Will the outcome be good, bad, both? … Maybe.

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Maybe (Zen Story)

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.