By Maria Gregory and Marysa Enis

We’ve been really looking forward to this article. It’s that time of year when even the most mindful of people could use a refresher course on mindfulness. Schedules are packed. To-do lists are growing. People are scrambling to get their work done before winter break. Even the fun stuff – giving gifts, decorating, and going to parties – can start to overwhelm.

Add kids to the equation and now you’re really spread thin. Add kids with disabilities and you just might be barely surviving.

Parents of children with disabilities face daily battles unknown to the rest of us. On top of that, they are more at risk for depression, anxiety, and marital discord. We wish we could fix that. We wish we could give parents what they need, like quality child and medical care and specialized therapies and vacations. Instead, we’re giving the best we can: Parenting tips that (we hope) will help keep you sane this holiday season.

Mindful Parenting at a Glance

We’ve already talked about mindfulness in schools (click here to read about it), so now let’s talk about mindfulness at home.

Mindful parenting is pretty simple in theory. It just means being physically and mentally present with our kids. That may sound easy, but believe us, it isn’t (yes, we speak from experience … so much experience … too much experience).

Being present with kids means shifting attention away from our own thoughts and feelings and toward our children’s. That means putting away the cell-phone, ignoring the dirty dishes, and waiting until later to tell our spouse about that thing. It means physically slowing down to be with our kids in whatever way they wish.

In today’s 24/7 phone-buzzing-urgent-alert world, redirecting our thoughts can be pretty hard to do. At first. But we promise that if you make practicing mindfulness a priority, it won’t be long before you feel the amazing effects.

Benefits of Mindful Parenting

There is a ton of data coming in about the benefits of mindful parenting, particularly when it comes to parenting children with disabilities. Dr. Dan Siegel, renowned psychiatrist and author, has long advocated for slowing down and connecting with children as a way to nurture brain growth. As he puts it, “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.”

Research on mindfulness training for parents of children with disabilities is promising. Studies have revealed the following:

  • Improved attention span in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Decreased aggressive, non-compliant, and self-injurious behavior in children with autism
  • Reduced feelings of stress in parents
  • Improved parent-child interactions
  • Increased satisfaction with parenting skills 
  • Increased self-compassion and sense of fulfilment in parents

In a paper on this topic (Self-compassion and Well-Being in Parents of Children with Autism, Neff and Faso 2014), the authors postulated that, “because self-compassionate individuals are mindfully aware of negative thoughts and emotions rather than ruminating about them, they may be less likely to become absorbed by the dramatic storylines that can lead to worry and despair.”

How to Parent with Mindfulness

It’s almost impossible to be present with others if we are consumed with our own stress. Because of this, it’s critical for parents to recognize and take care of their own needs first.

These things will help:

Pay attention to thoughts and feelings – The first step to redirecting thoughts is recognizing what they are. Notice when your mind drifts away from the present moment. Notice what caused your mind to drift, then make a note to address it later (when the time is right).

Know your limits – Identify the things that cause you to react negatively. By knowing your personal triggers, you will recognize them more quickly so that you can respond rather than react.

Remove distractions – It’s harder to be mindful in the presence of distractions. If work is a distraction, build in time to decompress before giving mindful attention to your children. If chores are a distraction, go somewhere where they aren’t. Smartphones are almost always a distraction, so put them away when you are engaging with your child.

Listen to your child – Active listening means listening with the intent to understand rather than respond. It also means orienting your body toward your child, getting on their level, and making eye-contact.

Be curious – Approach your child’s behavior with curiosity rather than judgement.

Take a break when you need one  – If your child’s behavior is a trigger for your own stress, it’s okay to take a break from interacting with them. If you can’t take a physical break, take a mental one by pausing to breathe. This allows you to check your thoughts, then redirect them to something more productive. Not only will your response be more effective, you’ll be modeling self-regulation.

Family Activities that Promote Mindfulness

Since mindfulness is all about being aware of what is happening in the moment, families can easily incorporate it into their daily routine.

Here are a few ideas:

Mindful walk – Go on a walk in your neighborhood or a nearby park. Scan the environment together and share what you see, hear, feel, and smell.

Mindful eatingUse time at the dinner table to build awareness of bodily sensations and feelings.

  • Help your child be mindful of hunger by asking “how hungry are you right now on a scale from 1-5” and “where in your body do you feel hungry?”
  • Direct your child’s attention to the sensation of being full by asking, “how do you know when your belly is full? On a scale from 1-5 how full are you?”
  • Increase awareness of emotion by asking, “how difficult is it to wait and smell your food without just going in to take a bite?”
  • Encourage your child to eat slowly while paying attention to flavors. Do they change from the first bite to the fifth bite (and so on)?
  • Facilitate a conversation about texture. What does your child enjoy or dislike about the food they are eating?
  • Rate how grateful you are for the meal you just consumed.

Bedtime Body Scan – Listen to a guided imagery body scan with your child at bedtime. By taking part in the scan, your child will learn its value. Check out these examples:

Guided Meditation – Engage in a guided meditation with your child when they are having a stressful moment. This conveys your empathy while modeling healthy coping skills. We recommend the following:

Are you the parent of a child with social, emotional, or behavioral needs? Our licensed educational psychologists (LEPs) and board certified behavioral analysts (BCBAs) are here to help. Call or click today for a complimentary consultation!