Can mindfulness practices strengthen your parenting skills?

Emerging research shows ways parents can strengthen their parenting practices through mindfulness.

Parenting adolescents can be challenging due to the rapid changes happening for young people cognitively, emotionally, physically and socially. Intense emotions for both child and parent are common during this stage of life — and research shows that parental practices and adult mental health play important roles in how young people learn to navigate emotions and develop overall mental health and wellbeing.

One approach to strengthening parenting practices and promoting positive youth development is the development of skills in mindfulness. Mindfulness is commonly defined as paying attention in the present moment with openness, curiosity, flexibility and kindness for self and others. It is about becoming more able, more often to notice without judgment our internal experiences including our feelings, thoughts, state of mind, mood, breath and other sensations in our bodies.

According to Pennsylvania State University parenting education researchers, teaching parents to be mindful in their daily interactions with their kids may be one way to improve the quality of parent-adolescent relationships and improve youth psychological development. Coupled with evidence-based parenting education programs, the researchers are integrating mindfulness practices with the goal of increasing parents’ attention to their parenting—as well as helping parents focus on their intention of parenting. Parents learn to understand their emotional “triggers” and shift away from automatic patterns of reaction that may not be serving them or their children well.

In an article titled The Mindfulness-enhanced Strengthening Families Program: Integrating brief mindfulness activities and parent training within an evidence-based prevention program published in the journal New Directions for Youth Development, researchers share promising practices for integrating mindfulness into parenting education, including:

Breath awareness: A common practice of mindfulness is awareness and connection to our breathing. Breath awareness can help parents focus their attention on the present moment and reduce feelings of stress in the body. Focusing our attention on our breathing can help us feel calmer, more centered and more ready to respond, rather than react to challenging situations. To be reminded to slow down and connect to their breath, parents in one parenting education program get a magnet to take home that says “Stop, Be Calm, Be Present.”

Emotions of parenting: Parenting can be difficult and emotional work. Research shows that adults can improve their parenting skills by acknowledging their triggers and emotional patterns. Part of mindfulness practice is becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. The mindfulness practice of noticing and naming our emotions has been shown to increase emotional regulation skills and the capacity for responding well when the going gets rough. The trick is to be able to accept all of our emotions—even when they’re uncomfortable—and to learn to make conscious, intentional decisions rather than reacting when we’re stressed and overwhelmed. Responding when we’re stressed, triggered and overwhelmed can make difficult situations worse and can harm relationships. The more we practice mindfulness, the more likely we are to be able to pause, reflect and see options for moving forward in ways that reflect our values and intentions as parents.

Compassion for self and child: Parenting practices and relationships are strengthened when adults treat their children with empathy and compassion. Equally important is the capacity that parents have to be compassionate for themselves rather than falling into the destructive pattern of self-blame, shame and judgment. Mindful parenting includes being kind to ourselves and to our children, noticing the things we and our children do well—and offering compassion for our mistakes and missteps as we navigate this challenging stage of family life.

During adolescence, parents and youth often feel increasingly disconnected from one another. Emerging research shows promise for the ways mindfulness practices can foster emotional resiliency, stronger parent-child relationships, whole-hearted parenting and positive youth development.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources, workshops and programs to help parents, adults and youth develop social and emotional skills and practice everyday mindfulness through programs like Stress Less with Mindfulness and Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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