As a marriage and family therapist I know there is a whole bag of tricks when it comes to treating anxiety. Deep breathing, counting, visualizing a safe place….these are all great tools, but what I have found to be the most effective for my clients and myself is learning the skill of mindfulness. Mindfulness seems to bypass the fluff of things that don’t work and gets to the heart of the problem…our emotions and thoughts. Psychology Today defines mindfulness as, ” a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad.”
I’ve shared a little bit that in the earlier part of my second pregnancy, I started to feel an unexpected and increasing amount of anxiety that started to take over my life. This little babe still in my belly sent me back to seeing a therapist of my own and has had me working on myself more than ever…I’ll thank him one day for it. Learning to live in the present and look at my emotions without judgement has become a daily practice that has helped me get off the hamster wheel of anxious thoughts.
A few weeks ago my 3 year old woke up from a nightmare in a terrible fit, screaming for anything and everything that he found comforting. He wanted 2 cups of milk, I knew he would wake up even more upset when he peed the bed if I gave into that. He wanted to get up and play but I knew he was exhausted and needed sleep. While this all unfolded I laid next to him in his bed and held him while my insides rattled with their own chaos and I wanted to scream, “just go to sleep!!!!” That’s when the zen master in my mind appeared kind of magically since I’m not naturally that zen ha ha. I took a deep breath and asked myself what is my son feeling? What does he need right now? and What does he need from me right now?
As a parent it’s my job and honor to be my children’s “safe place”. Children typically don’t have good emotion regulation skills or any at all, it is a parent’s job to model that for them. I have to admit I totally did not model this in the car yesterday when an immediate fit of road rage took over me….I mean not letting a full-term pregnant lady merge on the freeway is a serious offense especially when you give her stink eye ha ha!
If we used mindfulness more in parenting I think we would find that some situations just aren’t worth working ourselves up over. Staying mindful helps us to respond to the needs of our children in a more calm and accurate way, all the while modeling a healthy method to dealing with problems. I call mindfulness a practice because it is not something you attain overnight but a skill of being aware that is first recognized, used and then strengthened over time.
This may sound somewhat “out there” or a little confusing so let me break it down into a few steps of how one would use mindfulness in parenting:
Step 1) Red Flag: Next time your child is screaming, or generally just not doing what you want them to do, imagine a red flag that tells you something in your child is off and needs your attention before responding.
Step 2) Acceptance: Tell yourself that you accept what is happening in your child as not good or bad it just is and it needs your attention. Also taking a deep breath helps with this one.
Step 3) Labeling: Once you have accepted the present situation with all its feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations try to label what you are feeling and what your child is feeling without judging that feeling as good or bad.
Step 4) Action: Sometimes this is choosing to do nothing at all but hold your child in the moment and whisper words of love and comfort or it might be removing your child from the situation, or verbalizing and validating what they are feeling. Once you’ve reached this step you will probably have a better idea of what your child needs even though you might still feel rattled and frustrated inside cause let’s face it this is hard stuff to do. Just keep breathing and remind yourself that emotions come and go and that this situation, phase or problem won’t last forever.
My son’s nightmares have decreased since I’ve become more mindful and attuned to his needs. I may not be getting the best sleep during this phase in my life but I have a peace like non other knowing that I am aware of what my child needs and that I am doing my best to meet those needs…at least most of the time.
We’ll revisit this when I have two screaming children waking up in the middle of the night…. but then again I’m staying in the present moment because I don’t know nor should I know what the future holds. I’m a much nicer mom and wife when I stay present and worry less.