Last month, The New Century School hosted the latest workshop in Head of School Alicia Danyali’s parent enrichment series. This helpful, enlightening presentation on Mindful Parenting was given by Dr. Carisa Perry-Parrish, a developmental clinical psychologist and faculty member at Johns Hopkins Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry—and a TNCS mom herself! The workshop was very well attended, but many who expressed interest were unable to be there. This synopsis of the event includes lots of Dr. Perry-Parrish’s published research, with her permission.
“Dr. Perry-Parrish specializes in improving emotion regulation in children and adolescents. Her clinical interests emphasize practicing and promoting evidence-based care, including acceptance and mindfulness-based interventions to improve self-regulation, parent management training for childhood noncompliance and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and cognitive-behavioral therapy for youth anxiety/depression.” For this particular presentation, she shared mindfulness practices to help children and parents alike cope with life stressors and improve their interactions, thereby decreasing the stress in the whole family’s life. Although she does focus clinically on emotional disorders, these positive parenting techniques are applicable and promise enormous benefits to everyone along the continuum of emotional experience.
For a bit of background, “mindfulness training is becoming increasingly popular in the United States as a way to reduce stress, improve attention, and cope with challenges,” said Dr. Perry-Parrish. “This form of awareness training is being taught to adults, parents, and youth with promising results.”
So let’s get to it, right?
The presentation began with an eye-opener right off the bat, which is that emotions are not simply arbitrary reactions to catalysts or reflections of our inner states but serve real functions. We evolved to be emotional beings, after all. So when our kids display emotion, they really are telling us something about their current needs. In a nutshell, we consciously and unconsciously use our emotions to fulfill particular goals. Emotions are social cues. Kids face a lot of stress—academically, socially, recreationally—but that stress, and the emotions it elicits, can be positive in some ways. “Every day is full of emotional challenges and opportunities for emotional growth,” said Dr. Perry-Parrish. Here she drew a parallel between TNCS’s emphasis on child self-advocacy and independence, noting that mindfulness is certainly a very complementary practice.
When emotions are not regulated, or cognitive disruptions lead to intense emotional states, these disorders not only present tremendous challenges for the child, but the parent also, who is, for example, trying to get the child out the door to school on time.
Even in the absence of a so-called “problem,” parenting is stressful for any number of reasons, including that on-time-to-school bugbear. Dr. Perry-Parrish next described three parenting styles we commonly adopt in such situations: Dismissive (“Get over it!”), Disapproving (“You shouldn’t feel that way.”), and Laissez-Faire (“Anything goes.”). The message implicit in the first two examples is that the child’s feelings are not valid; however, recall that emotions serve very important functions. What underlies the emotion is what is important here (for example, “I don’t want to do what you’re asking me to do.”). In the third approach, no limits are set for misbehavior, which does not help the child sort out his or her feelings.
A fourth style, called “Emotion Coaching,” validates and accepts kids’ feelings while balancing the need for limits. This philosophy is backed up by decades of research and testing by psychologist John Gottman (among others), who found that children who were emotion coached were more successful as adults in peer friendships, gainful employment, and academic performance than were children parented in ways that focused on misbehavior without taking the emotions and why they were happening into account. A parent using emotion coaching is empathetic without condoning negative behavior.
Inherent in the concept of emotion coaching, as the word “coaching” gives away, is that regulating our emotions is a skill we can be guided in and cultivate. Heard of Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Study? In it, kids who were able to delay the gratification of eating a gooey, delicious marshmallow for a period of 14 minutes, grew up to be socially and professionally well adjusted, have a lower body mass index and greater psychological well-being, and be less likely to misuse substances.
“Children were most successful when they tried to occupy their attention with something else—make up a song, say, or turn their back on the marshmallow—or transformed the object of desire in their mind, perhaps by imagining it as a piece of cotton or pretending it was smelly or dirty. How children were paying attention could mean the difference between an automatic response and a delayed response reflecting self-regulation,” said Dr. Perry-Parrish. “We each have different capacities, but I think there’s a way to optimize what we’re naturally endowed with . . . And that’s where I think mindfulness can play a nice role,” she said.
Mindfulness is, basically, practicing awareness/paying attention with three key components: it’s moment-by-moment, it’s non-judgmental, and it’s intentional. It is in sharp contrast to the mindlessness of automatic responses and assumptions, which is a waste of our already limited resources and energy. To illustrate, she walked us through a brief mindfulness exercise—noticing all of the sensations involved in eating a raisin very slowly and using all of our senses to experience it. This not only helped us see how much of the experience of eating a lowly raisin we were probably usually missing, but also demonstrated how challenging paying attention can be when we are so used to our brains spinning like hamster wheels during the waking hours. “But specific exercises give us opportunities to practice noticing without judging,” said Dr. Perry-Parrish, who was emphatic about not liking raisins or dried fruit in general.
She proceeded to explain a much broader application for this exercise. “There are things I look forward to in my day and things I don’t look forward to, like diaper-changing. Starting to notice that I’m pulled to want to do some things and pulled toward not wanting to do others is very helpful on a primitive level. But if I look at it through the lens of parenting, if I’m overly focusing on how much I don’t want to do x, how does that change the dynamic between me and my child—does it help me to be more effective? Or . . . not?”
“When we are not fully present in the moment, we miss opportunities to discover what works,” she continued, followed by providing the list of mindfulness qualities shown at right, that we can try to cultivate. “Beginner’s mind” is akin to looking at something with “fresh eyes,” but the other terms are self-explanatory (albeit not all that easy to practice regularly!).
From there, she led us to motivation. When we like what we are doing, it’s easy to put forth the effort, but it’s hard to find the motivation when it’s a task we perceive as boring or unpleasant. The same goes for kids, naturally, so how we pay attention to them is the trick—notice and appreciate their efforts while acknowledging that some tasks are just difficult is going to increase their desire to keep trying. But, let’s face it, sometimes we are caught up in our own problems or can’t get off the hamster wheel, and we resort to a more reactionary response, what Dr. Perry-Parrish calls “parenting traps”:
- Repeating commands (How many times do I have to tell you to…!)
- Focusing more on negative behavior than positive
- Praising and punishing the same behavior (Well, it’s about time you cleaned your room!)
- Lack of consistency
- Empty threats
- Unfair or delayed consequences
- Letting stress dictate parenting style
Mindfulness in Parenting
And here’s where it all comes together: interrupting our habitual reactions to stress to communicate in a chosen and more effective mode. “Stress hijacks the moment and cuts us off from our internal sources of wisdom,” she said. “Mindfulness is going to be the best supporting actor for what we already know how to do as parents.” She used yelling as an example. We already know that yelling isn’t effective, so why do we do it? Mindfulness can give us the reset to handle the situation calmly and attentively.
Dr. Perry-Parrish gave some very useful techniques to begin cultivating your mindfulness skills, including starting a “meditation diet,” pausing to attend to your child with all of your senses, putting yourself in your child’s shoes, deep breathing, having 10–15 minutes every day of one-on-one time with your child, and doing yoga together.
She also provided this very helpful reading list:
- Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Everyday Blessings, Myla & Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, Thich Nhat Hanh
- Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and their parents), Eline Snel
- Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman
- Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: Heart of Parenting, John Gottman
Immersed also offers several mindfulness websites and articles under the Resources and Links tab. When parents engage in healthy human interactions, children reap those benefits and then pay it forward. The implications for society are huge. . . and quite wonderful.