Thanks to the 40+ parents who joined us for our first lunch and learn and to Scott Morgan, Mindfulness Coach, who gave us practical tools to use to help us become less reactive with our children, and ourselves. This is a two-part series covering how and why we can be less reactive (Part I) and some tools (Part II) we can use along the way.
Have you have ever spent time thinking “If I can only get my child to do x,y,z” or “I wish they were just more..?”
I spent many years feeling like I needed to “fix” my son (or his behaviors) in one way or another. The big “ah ha” moment came when I realized that it was ME that needed to do the changing. I realized that if I could work on being less reactive and judgmental (even in the context of me caring so much and only wanting what was best for him), he would feel less broken, more at peace and just more loved by us. Scott’s opening remarks were a great reminder that NO ONE needs fixing, especially our children.
Many of us avoid the topic because we think it means we are sitting like stones, desperately trying to clear our brains with our eyes closed, while chanting “Ohmmmmm.”
My hope for you is that you dispel yourself of that misconception and think of mindfulness as a way to stay grounded, “in the present”, and as a way to expand your arsenal of tools beyond the typical reactions we reach for when we are stressed. When it comes to your kids, the payoff is huge, because it means that we can move beyond nagging, yelling and judging and in to focusing on what is happening right now. If we can be less reactive when our kids are having melt-downs, fits, or refusals to do work, we will avoid fanning the flames of their already ‘out-of-control’ emotions by feeding the fire with our own fears and reactiveness.
So how does mindfulness help us be less reactive and what exactly is it? Let’s start by saying what it’s not. It’s not a destination or an exercise in mind control (aka going blank). This is not the goal. And with mindfulness, there actually is no goal. It’s about awareness and accepting 1) while we have thoughts, we are NOT our thoughts and 2) while we have emotions, we are NOT our emotions.
What that means in practical terms is that while we may have thoughts about our child’s current melt-down, talk-back or “not-up-to-our-standards” behavior, we can recognize these feelings (judgmental, angry, disappointed), but we don’t have to let our reactions be triggered by that. None of our children woke up this morning saying “I sure hope I forget my homework today” and … does it really help them if we show our anger when they are already feeling badly about it themselves?”
Per Scott, there are three major components of mindfulness:
1. “Being Present-Oriented”
If you live in the world of “would-of”, “could-of”, “should-of”, you are constantly looking backwards and are more prone to be depressed. If you live in the future always worrying about what might happen, you are more prone to anxiety. When we are right here and right now, we avoid that fate. If my son doesn’t do his homework tonight, it doesn’t mean he will fail the class, never develop good study skills and or get in to a great college. Thoughts have hooks and can take us on perilous journeys. If we are ‘future-worrying’ (i.e. unfinished homework leads to no college degree), we are bound to be reactive. Being absolutely “here” vs. taking that journey to a different time zone will contribute greatly to our happiness (and that of our child’s).
2. “Being Less Reactive”
The truth is, we can access a greater repertoire of responses than we typically do every day. I don’t always have to scream at my son or get frustrated when he is late in the mornings. What would happen if I just accepted the “now-certain-lateness”? Would it mean I’m accepting that behavior as ok? No. But with nothing to be done about it in the moment, isn’t it better for him to be late, but go to school happy, vs. be late and then require an hour recovery from me yelling at him? Having a bigger picture perspective (“Let’s look at morning strategies again later today”), and just radically accepting what is true (aka he is late) with less emotions puts new tools in my tool box. Asking ourselves, “what is the worst thing that might happen here and is that really so bad?” is a tool we can use more often vs. letting our emotions lead the way.
3. “Being Nonjudgmental”
We always hear about being less judgmental and we often translate that to mean that we should judge others less. But the person we are the harshest on is ourselves. The things we say about and to ourselves are things that we would never say to anyone else. The greatest gift we can give to ourselves is to change that inner-dialogue about how we ‘should have, would have, could have’. If we yell at our kids, we can accept it vs. judge ourselves. We can say “ok, I did that and I can say I’m sorry to him” and just do my best to notice when I feel those same triggers and not do it again. And treating ourselves with greater kindness and empathy will help us do the same for others (like our kids).
If we want to be less reactive, we need to put these 3 principles to work. We need to try to stay in the present vs. becoming triggered by what they’ve done in the past (“this is the 10th time I’ve told you not to…”), or what this means for their future (“you are going to fail this class!”) and try some new tools for how we react. If every time they melt, we melt, we are giving them attention they crave, and training them to continue that behavior. In other words, our reaction is actually perpetuating the continuance of the behaviors. As my son’s therapist says, it’s like giving them “cookies”. They melt down over homework, we freak out. Cookies. They get a bad grade at school, we freak out. More cookies. They forget their homework at home or forget to turn it in. We freak out. So how do we stop being so reactive (giving them cookies) when they trigger us? We don’t buy in to our own emotion. We stay present, stay calm and radically accept the truth of where they (and we) are today. It may not feel like it will work but try it and let me know. I promise it will.
p.s please share your comments, experiences or ideas below…we really do want to hear from you!