Friday, June 24, 2011

When Stress Interferes With Mindful Parenting

As part of my journey towards mindful mothering, I've been working on living consciously in spite of stress in my adult life. When things are going well, mindfulness comes naturally. It's easy to let go of thoughts beyond the now as I watch the creative antics of a very silly toddler. But enter turmoil, conflict, "problems" and my thoughts follow those events, trying to catch them, get an answer, find resolution, solve the problem. And peace...well, peace eludes me ever more when I don't give myself a chance to experience it just when I need it most.

The challenge to be mindful  through stress is even harder when I don't have the luxury of time away from my son. Yet that is precisely when I most need to focus on staying present. Absorbing thoughts make me less patient, less attentive, and certainly less fun to be around. My son, like many other kids, picks up on this and will test every limit I set to see if I'm paying attention. This begins the cycle of him acting out and me getting even more flustered and attached to my negative thoughts .

After 18 months, I'm still getting used to this balancing act, but I have a few tools to help me stay present through stressful days. 

Here are some of the things I remind myself to do when stressful thoughts interfere with mindful parenting:

Take a break to just breathe. Sometimes a bit of space is all that's needed to get back to the here and now. Say something to your child like "I need a moment", then go sit down in a comfortable place to do some deep breathing.  After this exercise, be sure to reconnect with your child through a hug, eye contact, or kind words. Repeat as needed!

S--l--o--w    d--o--w--n. Do one thing at a time, paying close attention to your actions, thoughts, words, and feelings.  Avoid judging or evaluating yourself, just notice your own experience.   

Look your child in the eyes when you talk to him. Eye contact and that special look from your little one can be more powerful than any other remedy.

Let go of guilt. If you've been less than your idea of a good parent because you're stressed out, don't succumb to the ubiquitous mommy guilt. It will only prevent you from making lasting, positive changes. Forgive yourself, apologize to your child, decide on changes to make, commit to them, and move on.  

Get some rest. Join your little one when he goes down for a nap. If a nap isn't possible, at least lay down and close your eyes for a few minutes (often just 5 minutes will do). Surprisingly effective...even with a toddler climbing on top!

Get out of the house. Fresh air and a change of scenery can help jar you back to the present moment. Vigorous exercise is also great for dealing with stress. (I love my BOB!)

Chat with a friend. Sometimes sharing with someone else helps "get it off your chest", at least enough that you can put it aside to be truly present with your child. Beware of long conversations, however, that will have the opposite effect!

Put the thoughts on the shelf, along with other items not appropriate for children. Stressful thoughts are a lot like persistent toddlers: they repeat themselves over and over again. To stay present with your child, create boundaries around those thoughts (e.g. "I'll think about this after she goes to bed"). You can even try using the same strategies/phrases you use with your children for boundary setting! 

Give yourself space to feel angry, sad, etc.  It's unhealthy to leave thoughts on the shelf indefinitely. In some cases it may be actually be healthy to share feelings with your child ("I'm feeling sad today") . Just be sure to take the child's own emotional development and needs into account and avoid using a child for emotional support. For adult size thoughts and feelings, you may need time and space away from your child. Find a way to process your emotions through writing, meditation, talking to someone, crying in the shower, screaming in the car (without a child and while parked, of course), whatever. Validate your feelings and honor your experience. This goes a long way toward freeing yourself from invasive thoughts during precious time with your child.

Like I said, these take practice.  Sometimes they work wonders, and other days....I just keep practicing.

For a short, printable version of these tips, check out my Fridge Lists

What works for you? What do you do to stay present with your child when you're feeling stressed? 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Even a Toddler Can Compromise

I had a breath-through "aha!" moment with Munchkin.  It was particularly encouraging because it happened on one those days of incessant whining, clinging and the repetitive "Mamamamamamama!"

I was trying to cook dinner, an often frustrating endeavor that occurs during the toddler witching hour. Munchkin was fed but still uninterested in occupying himself. Babywearing while cooking had been useless for over a year. Screen time didn't work (yes, I finally gave in to the dreaded screen). Parallel play with his own cookware, no dice.  No, he needed me. NOW. I felt my muscles tighten and my jaw clenched shut. We'd been through this so many times before.  I took a deep breath and fought back the familiar frustration. Can't I do anything for just 5 minutes?!

At one point, he put his hand on my leg. Usually, that makes me nervous when I'm cooking because I'm afraid I'll knock him over when I turn around or reach for something.  Instead of anxiety, however, I got a surprise visit from the gentle acceptance idea fairy.

"Here, come over here and hug my leg," I said as I stirred my saute. Munchkin quickly embraced my thigh and rested his head against the side of my leg. He squeezed me.  I continued stirring with one hand, then reached down with the other to caress his head. The fog-horn wail subsided into a hum. My shoulders loosened and I felt my nerves let go just a bit. We stood that way for a few minutes while I listened to the sizzling garlic and Munchkin's meek drone.  When the saute was done, I turned off the burner and picked him up before he had to ask again.

Yes, my son, we can compromise.

What are your special moments of learning to compromise with your child?