Mindfulness for Families

Raising children is a labor of love and to paraphrase Kristin Hannah’s artist statement at the back of her book The Nightingale, moms & dads often feel like a woman in labor, “overwhelmed and desperate in that please-help-me-this-can’t-be-what-I-signed-up-for-give-me-drugs kind of way.”

The good news is just as focusing on our breath helped us through labor, it can help us in our daily life. Mindfulness is the art of paying attention, and awareness of our breath is where we begin. With practice, the awareness expands to include inner feelings,surroundings, daily routine, triggers – for ourselves and our entire family.

Our breath is like a remote control for our mind. When we are relaxed we use a diaphragmatic breath, our belly is relaxed and expands on the inhale. Babies breathe this way naturally, and when we are asleep so do we. Once we recognize how we breathe when we are relaxed, we can use this breath to help us relax no matter where we are or what we are doing.

We can practice with our kids at nap or bedtime, by lying down and placing a small stuffed friend on our stomachs – inhale and our little stuffed friend rises, exhale and our little stuffed friend falls. Once we can feel our belly expand lying down, it is easier to feel it on-the-spot when situations arise.

Our breath is always with us, and so is our hand – we can let it remind us to take five: inhale and feel the expansion as we count up to five on our fingers, exhale feel the release as we count back down from five on our fingers. Doing this five times in a row brings calm.

Helping our kids recognize their own feelings and put them into words is a very important skill. One of my favorite pictures of our recent family trip to Disney is my little granddaughter, 4 ½, in her princess dress, sitting quietly off to the side with her dad, deep in conversation. She seems to be taking her role as princess seriously, discussing official ‘affairs of state.’ Her mom told me later that it had been time-out, so in a way I was right. She was learning to manage her state-of-mind, avoiding a full-blown melt down.

I love the idea of a time-out. Not the “you are bad, go sit in the corner!” kind of time-out, but a gentler version that says, “we agreed that this behavior is not acceptable, do you need a moment?” My granddaughter thinks of these moments as helpful and says “yes.”

When I was a kid I didn’t get ‘time out,’ I got spankings. They didn’t help me to be more mindful, they taught me to be evasive. Spankings didn’t help me connect to my inner wisdom and give it a voice, but instead taught me to mistrust myself and to look to others for direction.

Kids are not miniature adults. They are more sensitive to their surroundings and often more in-tune with themselves than we give them credit for, since they don’t yet know how to express themselves. Once we realize that everything we are exposed to affects us, we can also recognize the effect it has on the little ones in our care.

Kids are like sponges, they see and absorb everything we do, so hopefully we are modeling the kind of behavior we would like them to learn. What would the best behavior be? The loving choice is always the best choice. The clock is ticking; our kids are not little for long. Hold them, love them – as parents and grandparents, this is our highest calling.

A grandmother friend of mine asked if I had ever heard of not saying no to children. My first mental image of a tiny toddler terrorist running wild gave way to recalling the law of attraction, the idea being to stay focused on the positive, speaking of what we want more of.

With that in mind, the negative reaction of, “No! No! Don’t do that!” transforms into a positive reinforcement, “Yes, honey lets do this.” This also encourages paying attention to triggers. By noticing what situations cause unwanted behaviors and catching the behavior at the beginning, we can usually avoid the full-blown reaction, just as my granddaughter was able to avoid her melt down with a well-placed time out. Children respond best to a person who is calm and assertive, someone who sets clear and consistent boundaries. They instinctively know somebody needs to be ‘the grown up’, and they can relax when they know it is you.

Here I am focused on writing my article, only to look up and notice that my dog is chewing a hole in the carpet, reminding me that electronic devices can be a huge distraction. When we are with our children, they need our undivided attention.

My behavior caused this situation. I can add this to the list of things that I do NOT want to happen again, because if it does happen again it’s not my dog’s fault – it’s mine. There is also a list of things that DO work, that I want to do more often, but both are learning experiences. We learn to make wise choices by first making unwise choices.

I still remember my childhood development professor in college. She ran the daycare center on campus and was very knowledgeable and confident in her theories, but at the end of the day, the kids went home. Even then, before I had kids of my own, I could see that 9 to 5 is VERY different than 24/7.

Little humans don’t come with instruction manuals, we write the book as we go, while relying on our intuition, experimentation, and observation. Mindfully guiding our children to be aware of themselves so they can self-regulate is one of the most important things we can do.