Mindful parenting can benefit your child’s emotional development as well as your own peace of mind.
Before you become a parent or caregiver, you may have lots of ideas about what kind of parent or caregiver you’ll be and what your relationship with your child or children might look like.
Then comes your toddler’s first full-on temper tantrum. In that moment, it can be incredibly difficult to control your own emotions, let alone figure out how best to support your child.
You’re not alone if any ideas you once had about your parenting philosophy went out the window right then and there.
But it’s exactly at stressful moments like these that mindfulness and mindful parenting can come in handy. It can help you better prepare yourself — and your child — for the next inevitable stressful situation.
Mindfulness is a practice designed to help you be fully present in the moment, rather than thinking about the past or worrying about the future.
“It’s an active practice of being fully present with one’s thoughts and feelings,” explains Pete Loper, pediatrician and child psychiatrist.
Mindful parenting, then, is the practice of applying mindfulness to your day-to-day parenting. It’s when you make the conscious choice, over and over again, to pay attention to whatever is happening in the present moment with yourself and your kids.
This may help you be more curious, discerning, kind, and accepting. It can also allow you to be more reflective and emotionally regulated in front of them.
“Being present means really paying attention to your child,” explains Steve Cisneros, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in family and couple’s mental health. “For example, noticing the different hues of brown in their eyes, how their nails have grown since you last saw them, [and] witnessing their enthusiasm or hurt feelings.”
There are several major components of mindful parenting:
- Self-awareness. This refers to the ability to reflect on and identify feelings you have in response to your child’s behavior.
- Self-regulation. This is the ability to sit with your feelings rather than reacting impulsively.
- Empathy. This is the ability to appreciate and understand your child’s feelings, whatever they might be, regardless of whether you agree with them. Empathy allows you to nonjudgmentally help your kids learn how to name their emotions and validate how they’re feeling.
- Active listening. This is the practice of really hearing your child by taking in what they’re saying verbally and non-verbally.
By practicing these skills, you can learn to let go of unrealistic expectations for your child, yourself, or difficult situations, and accept what is going on right now. And by doing that, you can both better navigate the present with self-awareness and compassion.
When you practice mindful parenting, you can model positive behaviors for your child, such as:
- listening skills
And modeling, explains Loper, “supports the development of your child’s emotional intelligence.”
In other words, mindful parenting can help your child learn how to recognize and regulate their emotions, which can help them:
- develop healthy relationships
- do well in school
- generally boost their mental wellness
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Mindful parenting can also help you:
- become more aware and responsive to your kids’ needs
- be less critical and more empathetic
- regulate your thoughts, emotions, and actions
- significantly reduce parenting stress while increasing parenting satisfaction
- encourage parents to be more involved
- lessen aggression, stress, anxiety, and depression
- promote better child-parent communication
Mindful parenting requires parents to practice mindfulness with themselves first. However, that can be difficult to learn when “time for yourself” can be hard to come by for busy parents.
So, when you’re sleep-deprived, cranky, or just “touched out,” you might find it difficult to regulate your own emotions or practice mindful parenting.
Mindful parenting is also not the end-all, be-all for every parenting situation.
Loper explains, “Mindful parenting is not appropriate in circumstances of imminent risk to your child, where the immediate reaction to your feelings is required to prevent danger or harm.”
There are also times — such as during an argument with your kid — when you might need additional tools or strategies to navigate the situation.
Sarah Harmon, licensed mental health therapist, mindfulness teacher, and founder of The School of Mom, says, “Being a mindful parent can help you be a curious and grounded witness to your kids having an argument. It can help you be intentional about how you show up to this interaction.”
But, she continues, “You do need some tangible guidance or tools on what you say and do at that moment to help de-escalate the argument.”
In general, there are three steps you can take to be more mindful as you parent:
- Look. Try to non-judgmentally observe your current feelings about what is happening in the present moment with your child.
- Stop. Try not to react impulsively. Instead, try to sit there with your feelings or emotions so that you can name and acknowledge them before responding.
- Listen. Try to truly and actively listen to your child’s perspective with compassion.
For example, let’s say your child throws a temper tantrum at a store. Chances are, you might feel frustrated, embarrassed, or judged by onlookers. This, in turn, makes you angry or causes you to judge yourself as a parent. But the truth is, the emotions you’re feeling aren’t all that helpful to you in managing the situation.
If you find yourself thinking, “Why am I such a bad parent?” or “Why are you embarrassing me?” you’re more likely to become agitated or yell, creating a bigger scene and emotional upset for you and your child.
Instead, Harmon says, “Mindful parenting invites you to slow down and be present with your kid and yourself in a heated tantrum moment.”
Mindful parenting strategies encourage you to look at the frustration, embarrassment, and anger you’re feeling and stop before you react impulsively, so that you can truly listen to what your child is saying they’re upset by, even in such an unpleasant moment.
Plus, reacting calmly to a crisis might help end a tantrum sooner.
“The grounded presence of a parent on its own has the power to shift the mood of the child,” Harmon says, “as it helps them safely move through whatever emotion they’re experiencing.”
Similarly, toddlers can be picky or finicky, so something as simple as serving them food in the “wrong” bowl can set them off.
As nonsensical as this might seem to you, if you look at how their reaction makes you feel and stop yourself before getting angry, you’ll likely be better able to figure out why your child is actually upset.
Chances are, their behavior is not actually about the bowl. Maybe they’re tired, or perhaps they’re stressed because there’s been a lot of change at home. Or maybe they’re just not feeling well.
While mindful parenting isn’t currently recognized as one of the four main parenting styles, it is gaining popularity as an effective strategy.
The biggest difference between mindful parenting and other parenting philosophies or strategies is that it focuses less on telling you to do something in particular and more on encouraging you to simply take the time to be present in the moment.
Not to be confused with authoritarian parenting, this parenting style focuses on creating structured environments for children to learn and thrive by communicating clear expectations and consequences with empathy and patience.
According to Loper, mindfulness can be a core component of this parenting style, which can help children become more resilient, self-assured, and relationally competent.
Authoritarian parenting places more focus on structure with rules and punishment and less on nurturing, communication, and opportunities for negotiation.
While some parents may feel the need to assert authority over their children with rigid rules, overly strict parenting can be an unbalanced approach.
Kids raised by authoritarian parents may have trouble with:
- low self-esteem
- feelings of insecurity
- connecting love with approval
- maintaining relationships
- acting out when away from their parents
A mindful approach to parenting could help an authoritarian parent become more self-aware of their own habits.
Mindful parenting encourages you to step back and slow down, rather than following a specific script for how to handle certain situations.
Permissive parenting is a relaxed approach that may lack structure as well as consistent rules and consequences. Parents may allow kids to break rules and bend to their child’s feelings to avoid conflict.
Sometimes, people adopt this parenting style in reaction to their own childhood experiences with authoritarian parents.
Parenting without consequences can be destructive to child development, however. Children raised by overly permissive parents may:
- seek structure outside the home to feel valued and validated
- have trouble with relationships
- lack self-discipline and self-control
- have trouble in school
- experience difficulty with boundaries
- lack a sense of responsibility
Uninvolved parenting is characterized by a parent who is often away from their children and home, either preoccupied with work or social activities.
Children are commonly left to care for themselves with this parenting style, and parents are often unaware of their child’s physical and emotional well-being, needs, and safety. Uninvolved parents may not know their child’s teachers and peers.
Uninvolved parenting may cause children to take on adult responsibilities too early in life, “robbing” them of their childhood. Children raised by uninvolved parents may have:
- trouble with low-self esteem
- a skewed view of well-being and safety
- trouble with trust and forming intimacy with others
Mindful parenting can also be used in certain types of family therapy, such as parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT), explains Cisneros. PCIT is a type of therapy that Cisneros uses with families where a child has been diagnosed with a conduct disorder.
“In PCIT, we teach parents how to interact with their kiddos using evidence-based techniques, including effective communication and play strategies,” he explains. These can involve:
- spending unstructured time together
“It’s possible, best even, to employ these skills mindfully as a parent,” Cisneros adds.
Mindful parenting is a strategy that can help parents learn to be more present with their children in every moment, even stressful ones.
“[It’s] all about who you are being and how you are showing up or want to show up with and for your kids,” says Harmon.
Mindful parenting can be used on its own or with other parenting styles and can also be helpful in family therapy.
By learning how to slow down, recognize your feelings, and listen to your child with empathy and compassion, you and your child can emotionally coregulate and improve your bond as a family.