For parents, being self-aware is key for connecting to their kids. When parents aren’t self-aware, they might get caught up in their own emotions instead of being present with their children. They also might not recognize that they’re unconsciously repeating the patterns of their own childhoods in their parenting today.
As Carla Naumburg, Ph.D, writes in her book Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters, “The coping skills and autonomic responses we develop over the years are like the air we breathe. More often than not, we don’t notice that air until it’s choking us.”
Self-awareness helps parents make intentional choices. Naumburg notes, “Quite simply, the more self-aware we are, the more likely we are to behave in ways that are congruent with who we want to be and how we want to interact with the people in our lives, including our children.”
Below are tips and insights for developing self-awareness from Naumburg’s candid and wise book.
1. Practice mindfulness.
According to Naumburg, a social worker and author of the Psych Central blog “Mindful Parenting,” the best way to enhance self-awareness is to pay attention to yourself with curiosity and kindness. For instance, she suggests enrolling in a meditation course.
She also suggests readers simply listen. Sit or lie down. Close your eyes, or keep them open. Take several deep, full breaths. Focus your attention on the sounds surrounding you. This might include everything from traffic passing by to birds chirping to the hum of the refrigerator to your own breathing.
When your mind naturally wanders, just bring yourself back to listening to the surrounding sounds.
2. Talk to family members.
Talk to your parents, siblings or other family members who were there when you were young and can share fairly objective insight into your early years, writes Naumburg.
Again, delving into your past experiences helps you better understand your current reactions. In fact, it’s common for parents to react to their own childhoods when they’re with their kids (instead of experiencing their kids in the present moment).
Naumburg stresses the importance of having this conversation with loved ones whom you know will be supportive.
3. Pay attention to your triggers.
Consider which people, events, stressors or foods trigger you (and spark the very behaviors you are trying to change).
For Naumburg, exhaustion, a looming work deadline, a crash after a sugar high or a family crisis trigger her to yell at her kids. When she becomes aware of any of these triggers, she slows down, puts away her smartphone (and any other distractions) and takes a whole lot of intentional breaths.
She also might let her daughters watch another TV show or take them to their grandparents’ house or to the park so they can run around while she focuses on her breathing.
As Naumburg writes, “Sometimes mindful parenting is about drawing closer to our children, and sometimes it’s about noticing that we don’t have the capacity to do that.” When you feel like the latter is the case, focus on how to best take care of yourself so you can take care of your kids, she writes.
4. Pay attention to your body.
When your body is tense or tired, it’s very easy to take that out on your kids. And you might not even realize you’re doing it.
According to Naumburg, we store emotions in our bodies. Paying attention to your body — and pinpointing the tension in your shoulders or the tightness in your chest — helps you notice your emotions.
5. Keep a journal.
Journaling helps you make connections and spot patterns. Naumburg gives the example of realizing that her tough afternoon with her kids might’ve been the result of an unfinished work project.
She includes a great quote from Julia Cameron: “writing is a powerful form of prayer and meditation, connecting us both to our own insights and to a higher and deeper level of inner guidance.”
6. See a therapist.
A good therapist can help you connect your past to your present and develop healthy coping skills, writes Naumburg.
“Once we start to understand where we came from and where we’ve been, we can move from a place of ‘I’m a terrible parent’ to ‘This is the legacy I’ve been given, for better or for worse. Now that I am aware of it, I can choose what I want to do with it.’”