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.

Try a Little Tenderness… the alternative certainly isn’t helping.

self love

Photo credit: Loving Earth

Parenting is a mirror in which we get to see the best of ourselves, and the worst…” Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn

I think that a few weeks ago, I actually cracked the mirror! I saw the worst of myself as a parent and I crossed a line that I had thought would not be crossed.* Not hitting, not name-calling, but nonetheless, parenting I was not proud of. I lost my temper and I lost control.  My emotions got the better of me. I totally overreacted –  In the words of Dan Siegel, I “flipped my lid.”  And this was on the heels of a time when I was feeling so pleased with how I handled a challenging moment (see previous blog post about taking the ‘Dis’ out of Discipline’).  This time, I was not pleased. I felt awful. My son felt awful. It was just plain awful all round.

Remembering how parental perfection is not possible and the importance of repair, I immediately apologized to my son. No excuses, no reasons; just a heart-felt apology. However, I still felt bad. Really bad…

I noticed throughout the day, at work, on the subway, picking him up from school, making dinner, putting him to bed, that I still felt bad. “How could I have acted that way?” Over and over this question played in my mind, leading me to feel worse and be quite distracted – no longer present in the pleasant moments that followed with my son.  My mind was still back at the incident that morning.

Fortunately, I was facilitating a mindfulness group the following day, with the theme of self-kindness and compassion – a lovingkindess practice was led by the co-facilitator.  What a perfect opportunity to practice kindness, and when I needed it most – during this very challenging time.  I imagined myself back in that moment and offered myself words of kindness. Reminding myself that I was experiencing a very difficult time; consequently more vulnerable to get swept up in a tsunami of intense emotions.

May I be happy and live with joy, May I be healthy and strong, May I be safe and protected, May I be at peace.

As I repeated these phrases over and over, with an intention of kindness and compassion towards myself, I felt the shame start to lift. I was able to remind myself of what I so often reminds others – I  am human and I made a mistake. I will do better next time.

When I went home that day, I had lots of fun playing with my son. Beating myself up led to disconnection. Tenderness towards myself brought us closer… and felt a lot better too!

* I have decided not to share the details of the experience as people have different ideas of what they would or wouldn’t do and want to focus on responding to my experience of what happened, rather than entering a debate of whether or not it was “really that bad.”

Photo credit: Loving Earth