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? 


  1. You should pitch this post to a magazine or something. It's excellent and so utterly sensible and true. I struggle with being mindful but I'm slowly getting better at it. Baby steps.

  2. I call my husband and ask him when he will be home :) Breathing is an excellent suggestion, especially in the heat of it all. Surrender has been one of the biggest keys for me, especially when he was a newborn, but now too. Not fighting it frees up a lot of energy.

  3. @Sarah, Your feedback is so encouraging and I really appreciate it. I'm so happy you found this post useful. Knowing I have reached at least one person is an honor and a huge motivator for me! I'd love to find a mag to publish it...

  4. @taragill, Yes, surrender is a great one I'd forgotten about. Thanks!

  5. so true! I find the hardest part is just keeping a handle on my own reactions, especially when I'm tired. But your suggestions are all really helpful!

  6. When I am about to fly off the handle, I tell my kids, "I'm not as patient today. It has nothing to do with you. I love you very much. Mommy's growing and sometimes it hurts. Please allow me some space to be with myself." My 10, 7 and 4 year olds will then go off on their own and give me space.

  7. @Min Yi Su, I really like the language you use to ask for some space from the kids. I typically say something similar, but I think I'll give your words a try. I especially like "I'm not as patient today" and "Mommy's growing and sometimes it hurts". So honest and to the point! I think even my 2YO could understand that.

  8. A very important step is repairing the relationship when we lose it, because even small children can appreciate an apology for unfair behavior because we're stressed out. My son has even hugged me (at 14 months at the time) after I apologized for being impatient because I was preoccupied with stressful thoughts that were making me grumpy, which was not his fault. Children forgive very easily and it shows them that when they make a mistake like that, making reparations is a healthy way to deal with it afterwards. Great tips!

  9. @FabulousMamaChronicles, yes I totally agree, relationship repair is so crucial. Our kids can't expect us (or anyone) to always be perfectly modulated, but they should be able to expect us to apologize and own up to it.