March 17th, 2019

A Mindfull or a Mind-Full Parent?

Guest blog by Daisy Seale-Barnes of 'Raise and Shine'. Daisy teaches parents in SE London and is a licensee of The Parent Practice

'Mindfulness’ is a term bandied around everywhere these days and, unless you have been living on another planet, it is unlikely to have passed you by. Yet I appreciate that for us modern parents, who often find ourselves living with epic ‘to-do lists’ mindfulness might sound ‘all well and good’, but like a totally unrealistic prospect in the context of the busyness of real life and simply like yet another thing to feel guilty about not doing.

But, as a parent who has been practicing mindfulness myself for 6 years now, I can confirm that not only is it entirely feasible, I would go as far as to say that you don’t have time not to practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness creates the emotional state that you need to effectively deploy positive parenting skills, and this means that you can deal with problems early as opposed to letting them swell into painful situations that take a long time to resolve and clear up. Invest now and reap the rewards later!

Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not actually about sitting in the lotus position for hours, nor do you have to try to ‘clear your mind’ (quite frankly, mine rarely shuts up!) and you don’t even have to become that irritating person who floats around talking in an ethereal monotone about how much meditation they do ‘man’! In reality, mindfulness is about mental training and it’s for everyone, just like you and me i.e. exhausted, time-poor parents!

The brain consists of an elaborate system of neural circuitry. Without mindfulness we are prone to spending too much time in the more primitive part of our brain that produces powerful stress responses, including the flight or fight responses. These evolved to help protect us from threats to our survival but don’t serve us as well in modern life. That’s because the same strong responses that helped protect us from predators are triggered when a child flicks a pea across the room!

Mindfulness is about training the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher order functions such as attention, emotion regulation, planning, abstract reasoning and complex problem solving. That’s the part of the brain that can help us be the kind of parents we want to be.

Mindfulness training works because, just like the body, which is strengthened and kept healthy through physical exercise, the brain is a dynamic organ that can be strengthened via mental exercise. Meditation is just strength training for the brain. Who wouldn’t want a strong, relaxed brain that can override the rigid, anxious, autopilot mode that often dominates when we are put under the stress that is part of being a modern parent?

Whilst meditation is very effective (and these days there are a whole variety of excellent apps for guided meditations including some designed specifically for parents) it can be considered the ‘gym’ for the mindfulness heavyweights. Since we parents sometimes even find it hard to find time to go to the loo let alone the gym(!) when time is short there are other more feasible ways we can approach mindfulness practice.

One example is a simple technique I teach called ‘The Parent Pause’. Next time you feel triggered by something your child has done (note the fast breathing, jaw-clenching eye-widening, muscle-tensing, anger-rushing), try to ‘catch’ yourself before you react. Then apply The Parent Pause by focusing your attention on a single thing (this can be your breath, your hands, an object in the room, anything really). Hold this attention for just a few seconds and take a deep deliberate breath with a slow exhale. You will just have created a little thinking space in which you can now apply a relevant positive parenting technique.

Central to this technique and all the others that I teach, is the ability to pay attention. That’s because studies show that for the neural networks and brain structures to benefit you have to bring to your full and undivided attention to the practice. In whatever form you are doing it, noticing is the practice and is what will work the ‘magic’ that grows this part of the brain. Quoting Google’s Chade Meng Tan, each time we notice our minds have wandered and we bring it back to the task it is like doing ‘a bicep curl for the brain!’ As with physical exercise though, it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ so it is vital to keep practicing. But the good news is that neuroscience shows that practice produces almost immediate benefits.

It is this improved ‘staying power’ and ability to keep being aware that mindfulness training provides us with, which complements positive parenting so well. It is no use learning all the parenting skills in the world if, when we care for our children our minds are in five other places. Mindfulness keeps us present and helps us remember the skills we have learned when we really need them. In fact, mindfulness puts you in the perfect place to implement positive parenting skills.

Mindfulness is in essence all about noticing in a friendly, non-judgemental way. Descriptive praise, one of the fundamental skills of positive parenting, is about noticing the good things our children do. Likewise, emotion coaching, another core positive parenting skill involves really listening to our children in a non-judgmental and focussed way – and what is that if not ‘mindful listening’? And importantly, mindfulness helps us stay calm in those trickier situations when we are being challenged so we can respond rather than react wildly.

But please don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim mindfulness offers some kind of panacea. We’re all human: we make mistakes. What’s more, we are parents and our children are in a unique position to push our buttons! Yet, when we do lose it mindfulness allows us to embrace our imperfect selves and frees us to ‘hit the refresh button’ and respond to our lives with clarity and balance once again.

Posted in: Mindfullness





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