Mindfulness: How it Can Help Us Weather the Storm We Call ‘Parenting’

I want to be a happier parent. Less prone to resorting to yelling matches and threats to get my kids to do what they're supposed to. I want less temper tantrums, and more moments of connection, bonding, and joy. Turns out that's just what learning how to be mindful does.

In the Storm

Do you recall a storm a few weeks back that hit the Netherlands and Germany pretty hard?  Well I’ll tell you I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.  You see I was in a little airplane trying to land in Amsterdam during gale force winds. As the airplane shuddered and we bounced around in our seats, white knuckled and very quiet, I was never more acutely aware of the fact that we were in a little metal box with nothing but (very angry) air between us and the earth. I assure you I was not the only person to suddenly become very religious on that flight! I remember thinking over and over, I hope my girls don’t grow up without their mother.  And also, thank God I’ve told everyone I love them, my last words weren’t in anger.  

My last words may have not been in anger, but I’d be lying if I said that none of my words were.  I can get so frustrated sometimes, especially when the girls are whining and crying uncontrollably. They’re two years old, so sometimes they want things they can’t have, or pick fights with each other, or just throw temper tantrums for the hell of it.  It’s all normal, but it brings me to the edge of my sanity quicker than I ever thought possible.

Anyway, back to my airplane story.  My connection boarded a little while later and then we spent two hours waiting on the tarmac before takeoff.  The wind was relentless!  I’ll put it this way: I’ve never experienced turbulence on the ground before.  But this isn’t an article about my sudden come-to-Jesus experience aboard a flying aircraft.  It’s about what I spent 5 hours talking about with the person seated next to me during this storm, and how it will change those moments of frustration into moments of calm. Mindfulness.  What she had to say was simple, but profound, and I want to share it with you, because we’re all in this storm we call ‘parenting’ together.

In my heightened sense of spirituality I knew that she and I had found each other on that weather-beaten aircraft for a reason. Like I said before, as a parent I sometimes struggle with meeting my children where they are, with remaining calm when the $h!t is hitting the fan, often resorting to yelling matches or threats to take away stuff to get them to do what I want, leaving me feeling guilty and helpless.  Needless to say, what she had to say about mindfulness and how it can help families was just what I needed to hear. 

She explained to me that she was on her way to a retreat not as a participant, but as an instructor. Annette Saager is a Dharmateacher of the Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in Germany. She works with parents, and their kids, at first separately and then together on developing their mindfulness. You might be saying to yourself, “A retreat to work on mindfulness?  You must be joking.” I understand you. Don’t give up on me yet, though.

Mindfulness: What is it?

Think of it this way: Cultivating our self-awareness and mindfulness skills allows us to connect in a healthy, loving way and HEALS those bonds that we may have damaged with our words and actions that came from stress, fear, and fatigue.  

Practicing mindfulness PROTECTS us from being hurt, scared, and stressed as often because we understand that when others lash out, or are rude, or make dividing statements, etc, it is because of their own issues.  

It also helps us identify our emotions, where they are coming from, and how to DEAL with them without becoming depressed or hurting other people. Mindfulness, like any other skill, is learned through practice, and the result is that one becomes less hyperactive and violent, and more tolerant, understanding, and appreciative.

You can see why self-awareness is such a valuable skill, and why it might help avoid the emotional meltdowns I was talking about earlier.

Learning to be Mindful

Failing to show any patience myself I asked my neighbor right away, “How do I teach my kids this?!”

First you have to start with yourself, she said, one must learn what self-awareness is before one can teach their children.  The premise is that we are always doing doing doing doing, especially as mothers, but we don’t often pause to SEE what we are doing.  To step back and take note of how we are.

Woah.  Already she seemed to know me so well. I felt like the young grasshopper being trained by a wise zen master.

Then she told me about how MEDITATION can really help with this. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that to be aware of one’s breathing is to connect one’s mind and body and therefore be in the present.

I take this to mean that concentrating on calming your breathing means you calm your mind as well.

Calming your mind allows you to have a deeper understanding of what you are experiencing, feeling, and thinking in the present moment.  On a side note, meditation also does good things for your body, relieving stress, and improving productivity for example.

The goal is to concentrate on one’s breathing.  This can be very difficult; maybe you try it and the first time you are only able to count two breaths before you unintentionally start thinking of something else.

Well, I thought that was silly.  I could definitely do more than two breaths without thinking of something else, and gave it a try. I didn’t even make it to the damn exhale before I forgot I was supposed to be tracking my breathing, so yeah, apparently I have the attention span of a goldfish. 

Here’s a charming and adorable Tibetan Buddhist monk, Mingyur Rinpoche, explaining meditation

Another resource you might like is Breathing Techniques: A Guide to the Science and Methods.

Mindfulness and Children

Then we talked a little about why children should practice mindfulness.  Turns out they get the same benefits I mentioned above.  They lash out less, they play well with others, and they’re just happier.

“A lot of children these days have issues with violence, inattention and hyperactivity.  This is because they are being stimulated by the outside world now more than ever before.”

And in my head I thought “I’d like to see you try and get my two year old twins to focus on their inhales and exhales, that’s going to be a barrel of laughs!” but she continued:

With children this has to be approached in a different, more playful way.  When children are absorbed in an activity, they are in this state much like meditation.  They do this naturally, to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else is much like the state of meditation, this is the state we want to evoke but instead to focus on ourselves, what we hear, how we feel.  One way to approach self-awareness is to evoke the sound of a bell and have children simply listen to the beautiful resonating sound, to really experience that brief moment and appreciate listening.

And children of 4 actually manage this!?  I seemed dubious.

“Oh yes, she assured me.  Children are very capable.”

So there’s my story.  I love the parallels between the wind storm and my life.  My new friend Annette and I weathered the winter wind storm together, and mindfulness is going to help you and I through the storm we know as parenting.

Coming Soon

She lent me her book, called A Lifetime of Peace, and I was particularly moved by the entry about telling your mother you love her before it’s too late.  Then she told me about another special ritual, called Beginning Anew, or as she likes to call it “Watering the Flower”.   

I’m determined to give it a go with my family.  I’ll keep you posted on the results 😉

UPDATE: It went really well!  I tried it out, here’s the story.

What about you, do you practice meditation?  Mindfulness?  How have you brought mindfulness into your parenting, and taught your children to be mindful?  We’d love to hear your stories, advice, or resources.   

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