We hear a lot about mindfulness these days. At its core, mindfulness refers to the ability to bring conscious attention and awareness to one’s present experience with non-judgment, acceptance, and compassion. A growing body of research demonstrates its numerous physical, emotional, and mental benefits, and mindfulness practitioners have developed countless programs and resources around the world for adults and children.
I’ve been practicing mindfulness on and off since the early 2000s, and I started teaching it, along with yoga, to children soon after that. When I became a parent in 2010, it felt natural to integrate it into our family life as well. I know that mindfulness has had a positive impact on my kids (whom my husband and I adopted from China), but just as importantly, it has benefited me, particularly my ability to parent in a connected and trauma-informed manner. Here, I discuss three reasons why mindfulness has been a vital practice for me as a parent and why I have recommended it to other adoptive and special needs parents with whom I’ve worked.
To enhance my parenting: One reason why I practice mindfulness is to improve my connected parenting skills. A calm and compassionate caregiver is at the heart of connected and trauma-informed parenting. As David Cross, co-founder of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), says, “Stay calm no matter what. See the need behind the behavior. Find a way to meet the need. Don’t quit—if not you, then who?” Connected parenting experts also encourage caregivers to remain mindful of their triggers and reactive tendencies so they can learn to respond effectively to their children’s needs. Yet this state “mindful awareness,” as TBRI calls it, does not come naturally to most parents, including myself. I find difficult to respond calmly and compassionately to my children on a consistent basis, and I often react to them from a place of frustration, overwhelm, or anger instead. My daily meditation practice has helped to strengthen my “mindfulness muscle” and deepen the self-awareness and self-regulation that I need to parent my kids in a connected and trauma-informed manner.
For my self-care: Connected and trauma-informed parenting is hard work, and it can take a toll on one’s health. Since becoming an adoptive parent, I’ve experienced increased stress and burnout, chronic lower back pain, and bouts of anxiety. I’ve even had a retriggering of my unrelated PTSD from years ago. My experiences, which are fairly common, highlight why connected parenting experts encourage caregivers to practice self-care. For me, mindfulness is self-care. When I practice it on a consistent basis, my well-being improves. I have less physical pain and fatigue, and I feel more resilient in the face of stress and trauma. Mindfulness also helps me become more aware of my self-care needs by helping me better attune and respond to my thoughts, feelings, and bodily signals. Most importantly, mindfulness helps me cultivate self-compassion. My tendency to judge myself for not living up to my impossible standards of parental perfection intensifies the everyday caregiver stress that I experience. Learning to bring compassion to myself lessens this stress and serves as a necessary form of self-care in itself.
To model mindfulness for my children: Another reason why I practice mindfulness is to model it for my kids. When I’m in a good mindfulness groove, I show my kids what self-regulation, emotional awareness, and self-compassion look like in action. These skills can be difficult for any child to learn, but they can be especially challenging to grasp for children with trauma histories or other complex needs. I also make an effort to model activities that help increase mindfulness. For example, my kids have seen me meditate, practice yoga, and take breathing breaks throughout the day. Although I generally prefer to separate my formal mindfulness practice from our family mindfulness activities, I occasionally encourage my kids to sit with me for a few minutes while I meditate. Plus, the more personal experience I have with mindfulness, the better I am at helping them learn to practice it themselves.
Now it’s your turn! Comment below about the reasons why you incorporate—or wish to incorporate—mindfulness into your everyday parenting life.
Barbara Ley is an adoptive mother of two boys from China. In addition to teaching yoga and mindfulness to children and families, she is a professor at the University of Delaware, where she teaches and conducts research on health communication and digital technology, yoga and mindfulness, and gender and trauma. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://facebook.com/treefrogkidsyoga