Mindfulness and Child Rearing

May 3, 2013
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By Teresa Liccardi, M.D.

Parenting is not an easy task.

“Disciplining” children when they are behaving poorly leads to conflict and emotional distress for parents and children. Our children often perceive and react to situations differently than our expectations leading to conflict in our parent-child relationships.

Mindfulness meditation is being explored as a behavioral technique to help in personal and interpersonal situations. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an original researcher in mindfulness, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” This quote embodies the three core principals of mindfulness:

• Being aware – living in the moment;

• Intention to be present with purposefulness;

• An attitude toward the awareness that is nonjudgmental, receptive and accepting.

The practice of mindfulness brings a sense of well-being and positive effects toward oneself. Mindfulness interventions have been used successfully in stress reduction, cognitive therapy and acceptance and commitment relationships.

In difficult parenting situations, our predisposition to a situation, and personal emotions leads to reactions of power assertion demanding behaviors to fit our own personal goals for our children. This is not to say our intentions are bad or that we are intentionally being selfish or mean. Our methods do not always consider our children’s perspective when we are caught up in the moment. Our emotions may influence our reaction to the situation. Mindfulness brings deeper perception to what is occurring in the present, with a thoughtful reactivity taking into consideration our long-term goals to have a warm, compassionate and trusting relationship with our children.

Mindfulness parenting incorporates five skills as described by Larissa G. Duncan of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine: “(a) listening with full attention; (b) nonjudgmental acceptance of self and child; (c) emotional awareness of self and child; (d) self-regulation in the parenting relationship; and (e) compassion for self and child.”

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Listening with full attention involves using all senses to focus on what our child is saying including conversation, tone and body language, allowing consideration of how our child perceives the situation. Full active attention may promote trust and more self-disclosure.

Nonjudgmental acceptance of self means understanding our role as a parent and that decisions are not always easy. Nonjudgmental acceptance of our child means understanding their position and perceptions. Nonjudgmental acceptance conveys understanding of our child’s position at a social and developmental level while providing clear standards and expectations of behavior at this level.

When in an excited emotional state acting punitively with our children, our actions may be perceived as a power play upon them. With awareness and control we can redirect the consequences nonjudgmentally, as a loss of a privilege or freedom caused by our child’s own choices in behavior not us dictating to them. Conceptually the locus of control is within the child rather than we the parents imposing control over the situation, even though the consequence is the same from either perspective.

Strong emotions have the ability to set off automatic reflexive responses without thinking when interacting with our children. Emotional awareness allows parents to identify theirs and their child’s emotions. When we are able to describe to ourselves our child’s emotional state and ours in the moment, we can direct our reactions based on conscious decisions rather than instinctual responses.

The parent-child relationship is a sea of strong emotions that make us highly reactive. Self–regulation is not the denial of these emotions, but rather the understanding of them in the moment, being able to describe them to ourselves and choosing how to react. Low reactivity teaches our children how to regulate emotions and keeps us from feeding into a negative emotional situation.

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Compassion is empathy for the suffering of others, a desire to alleviate suffering. When we are able to give compassion during these difficult moments to our children, they have a sense of positive affection and that we do not want them to suffer. Compassion does not imply enabling. Compassion tempers our expectations for our child’s behavior guidelines with our heartfelt recognition of their pain and frustration. The other side to this is self-compassion that avoids self-blame for not meeting our parenting goals or a child that is not achieving our expectations.

The application of mindfulness principals fosters positive, stronger and deeper bonds in interpersonal relationships. Mindfulness has shown promise in reducing stress, anxiety, and reducing substance abuse.

By introducing the concept of mindfulness to our parenting, we may find a method of developing quality time with our children in these difficult moments that helps us nurture our love and compassion for our children moment to moment.


Dr. Teresa Liccardi, who is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology, maintains a clinic for hypertension and chronic kidney disease at the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank.

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