Being a parent loads you with so many responsibilities that it may surprise you to hear that after keeping your child physically safe and cared for, your top responsibility is mindfulness. But how else will you keep from lashing out at your child when life gets overwhelming?
What does mindfulness mean, in the context of parenting? It means that you bring your conscious attention to what’s happening, instead of getting hijacked by your emotions. That allows you to CHOOSE your response to your child.
And since that’s essential if we want to be the patient, emotionally generous parents that every child needs, I think that cultivating mindfulness, so we can regulate our own emotions, is our #1 responsibility as parents.
Your child is fairly certain to act like a child, which means someone who is still learning, has different priorities than you do, and can’t always manage her feelings or actions. Her childish behavior is guaranteed, at times, to push your buttons. The problem is when we begin acting like a child, too. Someone has to act like a grown-up, if we want our child to learn how! If, instead, we can stay mindful—meaning we notice our emotions and let them pass without acting on them—we model emotional regulation, and our children learn from watching us.
There’s a reason the airlines tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first. Kids can’t reach those masks or be relied on to use them properly. If we lose function, our kids can’t save us, or themselves. So even if we would sacrifice ourselves to save our kids, it’s our responsibility to put on our own masks first.
Kids can’t manage their own rage by themselves, either. They can’t find their way through the tangle of jealousy that pushes them to whack their little sister. They need our help to handle the fear that we don’t love them because they somehow just aren’t quite good enough. They know that if they were good enough, they wouldn’t want to hit their sister, or sneak that piece of candy, or throw themselves down on the floor and scream. But they can’t help themselves, however hard they try not to. (Sort of like when we eat that extra piece of cake.)
So just as with the oxygen mask, it’s your job to help your child with his emotions, which is what helps him with his behavior. Unfortunately, when you’re stressed out, exhausted, and running on empty, you can’t be there constructively for your child, any more than if you black out on the plane.
That’s why your first responsibility in parenting is always being mindful of your own inner state. Mindfulness is the opposite of “losing” your temper. Don’t get me wrong — mindfulness doesn’t mean you don’t feel anger. Being mindful means that you pay attention to what you’re feeling, but don’t act on it. Anger is part of all relationships. It’s acting on it mindlessly, with words or actions, that compromises our parenting (and other partnerships).
Emotions are useful, like indicator lights on a dashboard. If you saw a blinking red light in your car, you wouldn’t cover it up or tear out the wiring that caused it, right? You would listen to the information and act on it, for instance, by taking your car in for an oil change. The challenge with human emotions is that so often we’re confused about what to do when we feel them. We’re hard-wired to respond to all “negative” emotion (those blinking red lights in your psyche that light up throughout your day) in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.
Those strategies work well in most emergencies. But parenting—despite our fears—is not usually an emergency. Usually, in parenting and in life, the best response to upsetting emotions is not to take action while we’re triggered.
You can count on finding yourself triggered at times, but if you can train yourself to notice when you start to lose it, you have the choice to return yourself back to a state of equilibrium. That peaceful place inside insures that our actions are wise and loving.
How can you stay centered? The truth is, you probably can’t! What you CAN do is keep returning yourself to center.
1. Notice when you’re not feeling centered, whether that means you’re getting anxious, annoyed, frustrated or tired.
2. Stop, Drop and Breathe. That means you stop what you’re doing. You drop your agenda, just for the moment. (Yes, he has to take a bath. But for this moment, drop your agenda and step away from the fight.) Then, take a deep breath to calm yourself. That stops your slide down the slippery slope toward losing it and lets you choose a better way.
3. Shift your state toward love. Consciously choose a thought or action that will make you feel more calm and emotionally generous. It might be as simple as taking a few minutes alone and breathing deeply. But even if you realize you need a big change, take a small action now to nurture yourself and move toward a better future.
Every choice, deep down, is between love and fear. Choose love.
The bad news is that it takes practice even to notice when you start that downhill slide. Even harder, it takes courage and self-discipline to give up your upset in that moment. It’s always easier to have our own tantrum. This is tough work, and invisible — no one even sees what it costs you. But would you rather be right, or at peace with yourself and your child?
And the good news is that the work may seem invisible, but the results will blow you away. With practice, you’ll find yourself calmer all the time. Your child will be more cooperative, just because you’re different. And when you’re in a more peaceful state, you’ll find that some of the challenges with your child simply melt away.
Because this work of choosing love over and over stretches your heart. Connects with your child’s heart. And gives you both a bigger future.