Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) doesn’t just affect the individual. It affects the entire family, according to Mark Bertin, MD, a board-certified developmental behavioral pediatrician and author of The Family ADHD Solution.
Parents of kids with ADHD not only have to navigate a complex neurological disorder, but they also have to contend with criticism and judgment from others, he said.
For instance, parents might be told that ADHD doesn’t exist or that their child’s disorder is their fault. Or they’re criticized for putting their kids on medication.
That’s why focusing on ADHD’s effect on parents is critical. Without it, “we aren’t addressing ADHD fully,” he said.
In fact, parents practicing self-care is a critical part of managing the disorder, he said. Just consider what happens when stress takes its heavy toll.
“When overly stressed we’re more reactive, more likely to fall back on habitual patterns of behavior, and don’t communicate as skillfully as we might with our children,” Bertin said. It also makes it harder for parents to follow behavioral plans for treating ADHD, he added.
That’s precisely where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness “minimizes stress so we can parent at our best,” Bertin said. It’s defined as the ability to pay attention to your experience with openness and without reactive judgments. When parents practice mindfulness, they not only reduce their stress, but they’re able to make better decisions and respond to their child’s behavior rather than reacting to it.
Mindfulness helps parents emerge from autopilot and end ineffective habits, Bertin said. For instance, instead of getting frustrated and yelling at your child during a homework session – like you might usually do — you’re able to pause and observe your feelings, and act in a calmer, and perhaps more effective way.
The benefits of mindfulness for mental health have been well-documented. For instance, one study found that after just 20 minutes a day of meditation practice for five days, students’ attention improved and they experienced less anxiety, anger, depression and fatigue.
Dr. Sara Lazar of Harvard University even found physical changes in the brain. One study revealed beneficial cortical thickening in people who were long-term meditators. Another study showed an increase in size in the parts of the brain related to emotional regulation after only eight weeks of mindfulness practice.
Fortunately, incorporating mindfulness into your life isn’t complicated or time-consuming. Bertin suggested these techniques for practicing mindfulness every day.
1. Give activities your full attention. The key to mindfulness is to focus your attention on what you’re doing. For instance, if you’re playing with your kids, rather than multitasking and texting, talking on the phone or thinking of your to-do list, focus fully on the kids.
2. STOP. “STOP” is a mindful way to remind yourself to pause and proceed with intention – no matter what you’re doing.
As Bertin writes in The Family ADHD Solution, “In any situation, you can practice this: Listen first, breathe, and then respond. Pausing, you take a different path. You choose how to carry yourself and how to best move forward. What could you do differently? What could you show your child? If you could picture yourself in your wisest moment, what would you say or do?”
- Stop what you’re doing.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Observe what’s happening. Bertin writes, “What are you feeling right now, in your body and emotionally, and where are your thoughts?”
- Proceed or pick what you’re going to do next.
3. Incorporate mindfulness into your routine. For instance, before starting any meal, take 15 breaths while doing your best to focus on the sensation of breathing, Bertin said. Or take 15 breaths every morning and night before bed. Or instead, “schedule 10 or 15 minutes during the day to allow yourself to settle by bringing your attention as best you can to breathing.”
This doesn’t mean that you try to stop your brain from thinking, since that’s impossible, Bertin said. “But we can patiently cultivate our ability to focus our attention, guiding ourselves back to our immediate experience,” he said.
4. Explore reputable resources to get started. If you’re new to mindfulness or meditation, Bertin suggested checking out these resources. Some even offer free meditation podcasts.
- Center of Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School
- UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
Again, “Parents caring for themselves…is a vital part of managing ADHD,” Bertin said. And mindfulness is a valuable way to do just that.