Parenthood is among life’s greatest joys but it’s inherently challenging. As a father, I certainly know this to be true. An American comedian aptly described how many parents suddenly feel upon bringing their newborn baby home from the hospital on that first momentous day, “What now? Where’s the owner’s manual?” Positive psychology is yet to find that manual but research has increasingly examined a relevant and important dimension known as mindful parenting. In an earlier White Swan Foundation column, I highlighted the broad personality trait of mindfulness — the ability to fully focus on the present moment — and its diverse mental and physical health benefits. These positive effects include closer friendships and romantic love, greater work productivity, and even improved cardiovascular fitness.
This said mindful parenting is a lot more specific. It refers to the ability of parents to “Intentionally bring moment-to-moment awareness to the parent-child relationship," according to Dr Larissa Duncan at the University of Wisconsin, the originator of this evocative term. Indeed, research shows that high overall mindfulness is insufficient when it comes to parenting. How so? Because it may induce greater calm throughout the day but not necessarily help us cope with a six-year-old having a severe tantrum or a teenager who comes home at two am. For these types of situations, mindful parenting may be specifically needed.
In Duncan’s view, mindful parenting is a skill that all parents can learn. It comprises five different but related dimensions:
1) Listening with full attention, so we correctly discern how our child is behaving.
2) Adopting a nonjudgmental acceptance of self and child, in order to have realistic expectations and goals for our child.
3) Emotional awareness of self and child, so we accurately understand and respect our child’s emotions.
4) Self-regulation in the parenting relationship, so that we stay calm and avoid overreacting to our child’s mistakes, whining demands, tantrums, and other negative behaviors.
5) Compassion for self and child, involving such admirable emotions as affection, kindness, forgiveness, and gratitude toward one’s child, and self-compassion for oneself.
Although probably no parent can embody this mindset at all times, Duncan and her colleagues view it as a realistic ideal to follow and have launched specific training programs. The underlying idea is that many well-meaning adults have difficulty staying aware of their moment-to-moment parenting emotions and actions, and that general mindfulness training is too broad to lessen the day-to-day stresses of parenthood.
Do such training programs actually work? The answer seems to be yes. For example, a study led by Dr Caitlin Turpyn at George Mason University surveyed parents on their degree of mindful parenting and then analyzed how they conversed with their 12-to-14-year-olds about a conflict in their relationship. Parents higher in mindful parenting expressed less negative emotion (such as anger) and shared more positive emotion (such as laughter) compared with those lower in mindful parenting. In another study, a research team led by Dr Justin Parent at the University of Vermont assessed parents’ overall mindfulness as well as parental mindfulness and then analyzed their offspring’s extent of emotional problems. For both children and teens, higher levels of parental mindfulness – but not overall mindfulness – were associated significantly with better outcomes for the offspring.
How can you improve your mindfulness as a parent? Before deciding to change your behavior, I advise that you first assess where you actually stand when it comes to this important trait. For example, a questionnaire developed by Duncan’s research team focuses on one’s parenting behavior in the past two weeks and contains useful questions such as “How often could you tell what your child was thinking, even when they didn’t tell you?”; “Did you wish your child was like another child?”; “Did you do other things while your child was talking to you?”; “Did you notice the way your emotions affect your child?”; and “Did you take time to think about your parenting?”
If your answers to these five questions show that your parental mindfulness can be boosted, keep a journal for the next two weeks and each day write a paragraph about something you did well in parenting and something that could be improved. You’ll undoubtedly find such self- reflection to be effective.
Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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