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.