What Is Mindful Parenting? A Conversation With An Expert

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Meditation has gained increasing attention in the past decades due to potential benefits for health, happiness and well-being. New developments in cognitive and social science show that mindfulness–the state of full awareness in the present moment achieved when meditating regularly–might represent a valuable resource for parental mental health and child development.

This week we talked to Dr. Carolina Corthorn, who has studied the effect of meditation training in working mothers of young children.

Q: The notion of mindfulness has been socialized more and more in the recent years. But not that many people know what Mindful Parenting is. Can you please explain that concept?

A: Mindful parenting is a specific aspect of mindfulness. Personally, I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindful parenting, as a way of paying attention to your parenting actions and to your child in a specific way that is: intentional, here and now, and non-judgmental. It is mindfulness focused particularly in the parent-child relationship. In the context of the interaction with the child, you focus the non-judgment towards the child and yourself as a parent, as well as being aware and present during that interaction.

Mindful parenting involves several aspects, including developing the ability of self-regulation in the parenting situation. This means, being able to respond rather than react. In parenting, this is relevant in so many situations of child rearing that trigger stress, such as being confronted with temper tantrums. This skill means the parent will be able to connect with her emotions during that stressful moment and will be able to respond rather than automatically react.

Mindful Parenting also involves the ability to listen with full attention to the child. Which not only means listening to what children say, their words, but also being attentive, aware of the child’s needs, her non-verbal cues, being connected and receptive or her cues. In my opinion, this is related to the concept of Parent Sensitivity and it is very relevant for attachment between child and caregiver.

Also, mindful parenting implies the ability of being empathic, and to accept the child just for who he or she is as a person. This, for me is the essential feature, which is to be non-judgmental, not only towards your child, but also, to yourself as a parent. We are all learning to be parents! Children don’t come with an instruction manual. So many times we make mistakes, we don’t know what to do, and it’s very important to be non-judgmental towards ourselves, knowing that we all make mistakes and we are all in a process of growing and learning. It’s interesting because I see this quality of not judging oneself as a parent usually extending to not judging the child. It’s like an accepting attitude, which doesn’t mean that you don’t make an effort to correct the mistakes we make. We try to do better, but we don’t punish or feel guilty if we don’t.

For me, when I came into the results of my study (it may sound cliché), I realized Mindful Parenting can be summarized in the idea of cultivating UNCONDITIONAL LOVE, with capital letters, you know? These aren’t really words used in academia, because it’s a concept difficult to grasp, is not easy to measure. But if you think about it, is finally that. You may say “oh, but all parents love their children” and of course they do, but there’s this specific quality of love being completely unconditional that not all of us are able to do, but we certainly can develop.

Isn’t it wonderful how science helps us understand common ideas of parenting and define proper qualities of what does it mean to love? Love doesn’t seem to be an abstract concept, but real actions that occur in the actual moments that parents share with their children.

Q: Before we move on though, I want to clarify: these qualities that you mentioned, are they developed by the practice of Mindful Parenting or one needs them to become a mindful parent?

A: Self-regulation, giving full attention to the present moment, empathy, and non-judgment are dimensions of Mindful Parenting. These are the actions that describe Mindful Parenting.

Q: You were talking about the non-judgmental quality of Mindful Parenting. What are the benefits of not being judgmental to your child? Some people could argue that it’s good to be judgmental because parents need to raise children, judge their actions, and lead them towards a positive path in life…

A: It is important to distinguish between being non-judgmental and having a Laissez-faire style of parenting. Being non-judgmental doesn’t mean that a parent won’t correct a child when he or she makes mistakes or acts in a way that goes against the family’s values. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of discriminating right from wrong. In this domain, what we mean is that you accept the child as a person, even if at the same time the parent is teaching the child that such or such behaviors are not ok, because they hurt the child or they hurt others, or because it’s unhealthy, etc. But even in that situation there’s no need to tell the child he is bad, or mean, or selfish, or judging them in any other way. Just understanding and accepting that just as you as a mother make mistakes, the child also is learning makes them too, and you accept him as a person, even if you don’t accept the situation and need to teach him.

About the benefits of cultivating a non-judgmental attitude when parenting: by assuming a non-judgmental attitude, the child knows that he is fully accepted for who he is as a human being. Even when he makes mistakes, his parents  love him unconditionally. This is essential for children’s mental health, for their security and wellbeing. Enables them to safely explore the environment, make mistakes, not being afraid of making mistakes, and finally thrive, emotionally and cognitively.

Besides this, in my own work I have found that a non-judgmental attitude of the mothers (I worked with mothers), towards the child and towards themselves, is directly related to a lower level of maternal stress, depression, anxiety, and a better ability to be mindful as a parent. The non-judgmental attitude seems to be one of the main predictors of these features of maternal mental health. Since parental mental health is so important for children’s wellbeing, cultivating a non-judgmental attitude appears to be very relevant for parenting.

Q: According to your knowledge and what you’ve seen in our research, do we need to meditate to be more mindful as parents? If so, for how long? And are there other ways to develop mindful parenting? How do we get to be mindful parents?

From my research and the literature, what I can say is that meditation absolutely helps. But also, there are people who are more mindful as parents, even if they have never meditated. Meditation is not the only way we can become more mindful. Some people are more comfortable with other practices such as tai-chi, yoga or other practices that promote being present. It’s not the same for everyone, so there’s not one way. But from my research I can say that meditation can help.

In my research, the meditation training is an adaptation of Jon Kabat-Zinn Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. So in my workshops mothers are instructed to meditate at least 40 minutes daily, six days a week, for eight weeks. They are also trained to do “informal meditation” practices. Informal meditation is when you do an automatic activity -such as washing your hands or eating-, fully present. So what I’ve seen is that many times people don’t have time, or lack in motivation or discipline, and they don’t meditate as much as instructed. But even in participants who meditate a couple of times a week, you can still see significant changes in their well being and stress levels, maybe because of the complementary effect of the informal meditation activities.

To be clear, in these informal mindfulness practices, mothers chose one activity they routinely do with their child, and they are instructed to be present and pay full attention to that moment of interaction with the child: the emotions that arise, the stimuli around, the smells, tastes, colors, feeling of  textures, etc. So what I can say is the optimal is to meditate 30 to 40 minutes every day, to get the all the benefits of the practice. But even if you meditate every now and then for 10 minutes, and alternatively find a practice that brings you awareness of the present moment, then you can still develop mindfulness.

Q: Besides meditating and being aware of our interaction with our children, shouldn’t we try to unplug from technology or not multitask so much so we can actually get to be present when we connect?

I think that helps, but each person should listen to what is meaningful for herself in order to be present with their children. It’s important that it comes from an internal decision. We don’t want to add more judgment, like “I shouldn’t be cleaning while I feed my children” or “I’m not being mindful enough”. So it’s great if you can disconnect from your phone while you are playing with your children.But you can also try small by, when possible, remembering to do consciously whatever you are doing with your child, with that intention.

Q: On a personal level, as a mother and as a scientist, what part of your work has surprised you in a positive way? Anything you didn’t expect?

A: I can think of two things: first, it surprised me very much that non-judgment appeared as such strong predictor of mother’s levels of stress, depression and anxiety. Since we usually relate mindfulness to being present, I thought that the dimension of acting with awareness, of being here and now, would be the most predictive. But it wasn’t, and that surprised me. But looking at the data afterwards, if you think of it, it makes a lot of sense that being non-judgmental with yourself is an essential variable for living with less stress and pain. Judging ourselves usually comes along with punishing us, self-provoking stress. So now I realize that yes, being present is important, but the attitude of that presence is key.

Second, after seeing the results, for me developing mindfulness is about cultivating love, starting by our children and ourselves. If you think of the implications of mindfulness for a family’s happiness and wellbeing, slowly, family by family, we can change the world, one family at a time. It can be very powerful.

Finally, I would say that the other thing that was unexpected is that even though participants meditated less that I expected, certainly less that was assigned, they still showed important improvement in their mental health and wellbeing. So what I would say to people is do what you can. If you can do a little, do a little, if you can do more, do more. Take care of yourselves, and you’ll see effect on your life and your children’s, and most of all, don’t judge yourself. We are all learning, we are all doing our best, we can keep trying, but we don’t need to be harsh on ourselves. Next time we’ll get it right.

References:

[1] Corthorn, C., & Milicic, N. (2016). Mindfulness and parenting: A correlational study of non-meditating mothers of preschool children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25, 1672-1683..

[2] Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.

[3] Shapiro, S., Schwartz, G. E. R., & Santerre, C. (2002). Meditation and positive psychology. In C.R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 632-645). New York: Oxford University Press.

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