How can the foundations of mindful parenting possibly work when we have intense kids?
We don’t have the usual parenting challenges. We don’t have neurotypical kids. Our kids are intense, our time precious and our anxiety high.
Who in the World Has Time for Mindful Parenting?
“Not me!” we all exclaim. But then we stay caught in the stress cycle, and our kids are affected by that. What about parental burnout?
You may have heard of peaceful or mindful parenting. You may have written it off because you’re just trying to survive day to day, or the examples you read didn’t reflect your parenting experience. At all.
I was talking with Amy Weber, LCSW, about offering parenting support, and thinking, “How am I qualified to do that? I don’t have all the answers. My family is quirky AF.” She reminded me that I have applied the principles of mindful parenting with my ASD/ADHD/Anxious kid for many years, however imperfectly, and parents need to hear my perspective.
“So many parenting books are written assuming that the child is following a certain developmental track, so I think hearing your story will be particularly powerful.”
– Amy Weber
She’s right. When my son was young, the stories and scenarios in parenting books didn’t match our family’s struggles at all. I figured I was a terrible parent or the advice was not effective. Either way, the books were worthless to me. In fact, after reading about developmental milestones, social connections, and the number of hours my kid was supposed to be sleeping through the night, I felt worse.
Out of desperation, I tried everything anyway.
Attachment parenting strategies turned out to be only slightly more useful to me than the rigid, fear-based parenting strategies of my ancestors. Those proved to be a disaster with my son. From the start, things didn’t go as I expected. I was angry a lot of the time. My boundaries were nonexistent.
The time it took to manage his calendar of therapies, meet with his teachers and psychologists, soothe his meltdowns, and make his meals the way he would eat them… there was nothing left for me. Worrying took up a lot of my time too. Was I also supposed to be a perfect parent? That was the bar I set, but I always felt like I came up short.
In retrospect, the books I read all assumed typical neurology.
I’ve found a few more helpful ones since then. Being imperfect but respectful and present is the only parenting ‘style’ that has helped my family find harmony. Call it what you like, just try it.
We parents are just trying to get through the day. Still, mindfulness can be part of our parenting tool-kit. It is a paradigm shift, but it doesn’t have to take any extra time. Take the moment you have, and be present and nonjudgmental. It takes practice but you can definitely do it.
So What Are the Foundations of Mindful Parenting?
- Put the relationship first.
- Collaborate with our kids.
- Model growth mindset.
- Communicate our boundaries.
We CAN Put the Relationship First
Mindful parenting starts with prioritizing relationships.
What does prioritizing the relationship look like? At home, I create structure and communicate rules around health and safety. Other than that, I follow my son’s lead. I listen to him talk about his interests and get involved. We don’t pack our schedule, even with therapies, because we all need downtime. When we are more relaxed, coziness and connection follow. We play in silly ways like chasing each other around and tackling. This has taken a while to learn. Play doesn’t come naturally to me, and not all play brings us closer. Competitive games tend to have the opposite effect.
I invest time in my son’s emotional needs before a storm happens. When there is a disconnect between us, I lean in and find a way to repair it. I look for the root cause of the rift. I ask myself why.
If we are out in public and my son is behaving in a way that is unexpected, and people we don’t know are staring, I double down and focus on him. Yes, I scan the environment to ensure our safety, but I keep his wellbeing in mind, not the comfort of others.
I have a lot of practice ignoring dirty looks. My vibe says “We’ve got this.” I genuinely don’t care what other adults think, because they don’t know our whole story.
Sometimes internalized ableism still rises up in me, and I find myself cringing under scrutiny. When that happens, I say “I see you, shame!” and it slinks away.
We CAN Focus on Self-Regulation
“In his book Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, Dr. Shanker describes a body of research on emotional co-regulation that shows the prefrontal cortex of a child’s brain is not fully developed, so it co-regulates with the prefrontal cortex of significant adults.
–Lisa Pinhorn, M.Ed.
Sometimes my mind tries to blame my circumstances for my stress, but I know that’s not fair. I was anxious long before I had an atypical kid. Having a demanding life means I need to use my self-regulation strategies.
We can self-regulate by practicing mindfulness ourselves.
Beyond the benefit to us, self-regulation helps our kids co-regulate. As a yoga and mindfulness teacher, many fellow parents ask if I can teach their kids. That is a great idea, but it won’t work as well as practicing yourself. You are the emotional heart of your family. Your own self-regulation will have the most bang for your buck. Seriously, try it and see what happens.
I’m not asking you to take time out of your life to meditate. I’m inviting you to make your life your meditation. Keep your eyes open, and take in the world around you. Pay attention to this moment and drop judgment. Try it for one complete breath. There you are, practicing mindfulness.
If you want a specific technique, try 5-4-3-2-1: Look around and find 5 things you can see… Then, 4 things you can hear… 3 things you sense on your skin… 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. It can be grounding to immerse yourself in your senses, gathering together scattered thoughts and emotions.
We CAN Collaborate with Our Kids
Collaboration is the basis of respectful communication.
It starts with knowing my own feelings and needs. Then, I can give myself empathy. After that, it is easier to listen to my child’s feelings and needs, in whatever way he communicates them. Then, I affirm him and give him empathy. I ask for his ideas when trying to solve problems. I’ve learned to work with him, rather than against him. This is a collaborative approach. We negotiate. I don’t get everything I want, and neither does he.
“Next time you are tempted to solve a problem your child is having, ask your child what his/her ideas are about how to solve it.”
-Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson
If your kid doesn’t communicate conventionally, you can still collaborate. You know your kid best, and you are both communicating with each other all the time. Tiny babies can be given a heads-up before picking them up to move them out of the crib.
I assume that everyone is doing the best they know how to do at that moment. Sure, I know how to make a gourmet dinner, but in a heap of exhaustion after a long week, I’m not capable of that level of effort. The best I can do is order Seamless. I give myself grace. I need to be willing to extend my kid that grace too. He may technically be capable of using a fork, but I don’t harp on it every time.
If something your kid is doing is causing harm, tell them why you are concerned, and ask them to join you in coming up with solutions. Ask questions and listen. The problem may be a skill they don’t have… yet.
We CAN Model Growth Mindset
Perfectionism is a product of our ableist world, and it is hard to shake. The belief is deeply entrenched in our culture. We’re indoctrinated to believe we must produce in order to be valuable, and we cannot make mistakes. Unfortunately, mistakes are how we learn, and everyone makes them. So this myth perpetuates shame.
Growth mindset is the antidote. We are lovable in our imperfection. Mistakes make us better if we learn from them. You can find lots of resources online to support this paradigm shift. The thing is, they are only empty platitudes to our kids until we parents buy into the mindset ourselves.
The next time you catch yourself saying something critical about your work, stop. Think about the effort you put in, and how you can learn from the process. Cut yourself some slack. We are human. We have to retrain our own brains, and that takes effort. Especially when the world, and our own habit patterns, are constantly rewarding achievement over effort. Persist.
We CAN Communicate Our Boundaries
Of course, the first step is knowing it is okay to have boundaries. We all have them. If we don’t know where they are, they will get crossed more often. How does anyone feel when their boundaries have been crossed? Angry!
Yes, other parents get angry, not just you.
Figure out what you need in order to show up as your wholehearted self, and then communicate that boundary as often as you need to. Our kids are supposed to push against our boundaries. Knowing that makes it easier to continue to hold them. Start with something small. State the boundary calmly. Repeat. A thousand times if necessary. No one said this would be easy, but it is easier than screaming. Boundaries are not selfish, they are an act of love.
“Parents of special-needs kids often feel guilty if they are not spending every moment either with their kids or seeking out the best services for their child, for instance. That can cause, or contribute, to caregiver burnout, which is destructive to both parent and child”
When we practice mindful parenting, we have to slow down in order to switch gears. That doesn’t mean it will always take more time. Think how long a battle of wills takes. Approach each interaction with respect and the willingness to collaborate, and you will save time and stress in the long run.
Put the relationship first, self-regulate, collaborate, model growth mindset, and communicate your boundaries. Start with just one of these foundations. I want to stress that you are not alone, and I know you can apply mindful parenting to your unique family situation.
You may also feel calmer and kinder when you parent mindfully. Bonus!
Kate Lynch (she/her): Parent of an amazing atypical kid, meditation coach, inclusive yoga teacher, and author. Kate has been teaching and cultivating community since 2002. She is the creator of the podcast and upcoming book, Mindfully Parenting Atypical Kids. Kate specializes in empowering parents of atypical kids to build resilience to anxiety.