When I found out I was pregnant two weeks after I was accepted to graduate school, I wasn’t sure I should accept my spot. I wondered how I would figure out this mom stuff while studying counseling. As I embarked on my studies, I realized this had all come at a perfect time. My new baby was my child development books come to life. I was learning all about the stages of growth and what I should be doing at each stage to help her along.
As she’s grown in to toddlerhood, my classes have helped me come in to my parenting style. I am able to see what works for my clients while finding what works for us. Toddlerhood is fun, but it’s also rough. Sometimes I feel like I’m floating through a stormy sea with a tiny person as the captain of our ship. Said ship feels like it’s sinking as I’m holding up the sail with my own two hands.
In all the chaos of life as a parent, it’s hard to remember to breathe. There are a million things we are balancing; from transport, to early mornings, to keeping tiny people away from hot and sharp kitchen items. Of course we all have different styles of parenting. All children are different which means no parent has exactly the same parenting style; t’s trial and error with some success and many fails.
Through my studies and my own trial and error, I’ve found my groove in mindful parenting. This parenting style has grown in popularity over the past few years as new developments in brain science have emerged. I won’t get in to those developments (though it’s fascinating if you’re in to that kind of thing), but let’s talk about the basics.
What’s the Brain Got to Do With It?
Everything! Our children are learning something new every single day. In fact, the brain doesn’t stop developing until the age of 26. At 20 months, my daughter is repeating everything I say–I mean everything. Like, after I slipped up I tried to reframe the ‘F’ word as duck.
Here’s a quick brain lesson so we can get in the mindfulness frame. Brain Scientist and psychologist, Dan Siegel, speaks about the upstairs brain and downstairs brain. The downstairs brain controls our basic functions like breathing, automatic emotional reactions, and automatic body reactions such as freezing or fighting when we fear danger. The upstairs brain controls complex thinking and is the area that parents need to assist in developing. Play, imagination, critical thinking, empathy, and problem solving are all controlled by the upstairs brain. Understanding this is where mindfulness begins.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about being present and enjoying the moment you are in. Becoming practiced in mindfulness can be aided with meditation but if you’re not in to that kind of thing or you don’t have time, you can do it any moment of the day, that is the beauty of mindfulness. Weaving this in to your parenting is easy too. Pick one part of the day where you can be completely with your child; no phone, no distractions, just presence.
It sounds simple, it sounds like something we do on a daily basis. Sometimes in all the rush of life, we forget to be present and actually enjoy life. I’ve certainly fallen victim to the rush.
My 20 month old hasn’t taken much to television even though she loves Elmo. This is great because we don’t want to be a screen time family, but trying to plop her in front of the screen for 30 minutes so I can make dinner would be great. Instead, she runs in to the kitchen where sharp knives and a hot stove seem like really cool things that she doesn’t get to play with. She has also declared cooking time as snuggle time. I’ve tried letting her know the kitchen is hot and “mama mama” can’t pick her up right now because she’s cutting veggies with sharp “ouch knives.” It breaks my heart to pick her up out of the kitchen as she cries because dinner is on a schedule and if it’s not on her highchair by 5:30 it will likely be on the floor at 6.
I realized what was more important was scheduling time to be present with her before I step away to cook the dinner. Getting our uninterrupted snuggles in or working on an art project together before I have to step away to try to cook a dinner that will live up to her beloved snacks, allows us time to decompress and show that mama is there.
Mindfulness and Development
As our kids grow and change on a daily basis by discovering something new, and collecting stories and memories about their life, us parents can help them shape and understand these thoughts and discoveries. Babies are literally flailing through the world, discovering their hands or feet and that they can make them move. They discover if they make certain sounds their parents do things for them. Moving in to the second year of life kids start to test us. Our little uses crocodile tears when we tell her pacifiers aren’t allowed at the dinner table.
Things happen in baby and toddlerhood. They fall off the couch or accidentally touch the cactus you didn’t realize was in reach. These events are huge in the life of a tiny person that hasn’t lived very long. These events begin to develop in to memories. As parents, we can help shape these memories by going over them as stories. A fall off the couch or prick of a cactus can cause a child to fear these things in the future, by telling them stories about what happened we can help shape the event in to something less scary.
A month ago, our 20 month old was at the zoo with her grandma. As I’ve been told, a peacock came out of nowhere. Our curious, animal loving girl, reached out to the peacock and it pecked her finger. The peck didn’t make her bleed but it was scary. Since the event, she’s been showing us her finger and saying “cacock” (that’s “peacock” in toddler). Now, every time she gets hurt or scared, she says “cacock.”
When we took her to see an animal show, the animal keeper brought out a macaw. As he put his fingers close to her beak to feed her an almond, our girl started shouting “no! no! no!” terrified the bird would bite his fingers. This is the first event that has really stuck with her. Seriously, I hear about that peacock every day. I don’t want my kiddo to be traumatized and fear birds her whole life. Each day, we talk about what happened at the zoo. I ask her about the peacock and what she did to her finger. I ask her if it hurt and acknowledge how scary it must have been. Slowly, we’ve been coming to terms with the great peacock fiasco of 2016, and each day her bird anxiety diminishes little by little.
Since she is 20 months, I tell the story to her and help her label the emotions she might have been feeling. For older kids, you can help by asking about the scary event that happened, asking them to label their feelings surrounding it. You can then ask what might diminish their fear or change their bad feelings surrounding the event. You can also help to reframe the story, acknowledging their bravery.
All the Feelings
Everyone always commented on what a good baby we had. After a plane ride at 6 months old, a fellow passenger commented “wow I didn’t even know there was a baby on the plane.” Then, the toddler phase began. I don’t remember what her first tantrum was about but I distinctly remember standing there with a blank face thinking, I don’t know what to do, as she screamed. My immediate reaction was to pick her up but seriously, how do toddlers turn their bodies in to Gumby-like form and slip out of your arms?
I knew from the beginning that kids do not cry over nothing. When they’re babies they want food or a clean diaper, when they’re toddlers they want to keep petting the dog they were not being gentle with, and when they get to 5 and up they might be crying because someone hurt their feelings. Many of us experienced parents who said “you’re okay” when we skinned our knees or “sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt me.”
Skinned knees do hurt and so do names (I still remember being called buck tooth bubba at camp). Not acknowledging the feelings that come along with these events can cause the events to weigh on kids more than we realize. Not acknowledging the feelings that are happening during a tantrum, no matter how many times you told your kid they could not pick anything from the front of the grocery store, makes it harder for them to calm themselves.
This one is tough because it’s one we have to teach ourselves to practice too, to sit in our feelings, and help our kids to sit in their’s. Telling your kid they’re okay when they’re feeling scared that they fell off the monkey bars does not make them feel less afraid. Telling ourselves we are okay when when we’ve just had an awful day and someone mom-shamed us at the playground does not make us okay.
Instead of saying “you’re okay,” you can help your child label their feelings, asking them how they felt over the incident, or if they’re younger, telling them “I know that was scary.” When we acknowledge our children’s feelings, it helps them to know we understand. It helps them feel okay in what they feel, and in the end, can help the child feel more secure.
This can be a tough one with toddler tantrums, I know, I’m in it myself, this is going to sound like crazy talk! Ride it out a bit, rub their back, do what you can to calm them, try to hold them if they don’t go Gumby on you. As hard as it is because tantrums can be over the most ridiculous things ever, tell your toddler you understand. You know they really wanted the Cookie Monster cookies they spotted in Target but cookies are a special treat that we don’t get to bring home every time we’re at the store.
If you’re interested in learning more about mindful parenting, here are some books that are a great start:
“The Whole Brain Child: 12-Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Mind,” Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
“No Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind,” Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
“How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk,” Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
“Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, More Secure Kids,” Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross