Written By: Erica Moltz, MA, NCC, Clinical Director
This is another in the series about using mindful parenting practices to create and maintain a more peaceful and calm family life. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, for my family of four, occur at the same time as our birthdays. In anticipation of one of these special gatherings with our two adult children, I came to the realization that my images and expectations of what family life “should” have looked like interfered with our celebrations. Although sometimes my images and expectations were helpful because they provided me with a road map for what I wanted to cultivate and grow in our family, at other times they were a set up for disappointment when the reality collided with the ideal. Holding onto some perfect image of what these celebrations “should” have looked like often kept me from being mindful and delighting in the present moment.
Perhaps you have also had those moments that do not live up to the way you think they are supposed to play out. Do the following scenarios sound familiar? You take your teen shopping to the mall, eat lunch out, spend money on several articles of clothing and have a very enjoyable day together. During the car ride home you expect that she will be appreciative and cooperative. Instead, she begins to speak to you disrespectfully when you set a limit about her going out that night. You yell at her and tell her she is ungrateful. By the time you arrive at home, you are furious with each other and not talking. Or, perhaps you have had the experience of taking the day off from your very demanding job and volunteering to go on a school field trip with your nine year old son’s class. He is a very well behaved child in school, and you are looking forward to a special day with him. During the field trip, he and five of his class mates are in your group. None of them acts up except your son who either totally ignores you or doesn’t listen when you “call him out” on his disruptive behaviors. It was an embarrassing and exhausting day and you wish you had gone to work instead.
Although it is a normal part of parenthood to have these expectations and images of how things are supposed to be with our kids, we often get disappointed and angry when things don’t turn out the way we envisioned. When we react with upset and dysregulation at these times, it keeps us from mindfully thinking about what might be really going on with our child. We get in our own way so that it is difficult to shift our awareness to observe ourselves and achieve enough emotional distance to be curious about what is behind our child’s behaviors. Dr. Placone, in her book Mindful Parent, Happy Child, suggests that in order to stay emotionally regulated, it is helpful to imagine standing on the viewing deck of the Empire State Building in wintertime, getting a totally different perspective on all that is below. From this vantage point, it is easier to notice many things from up high that you would be unable to experience while walking along the noisy, bustling and sometimes overwhelmingly crowded city streets below. Although things may seem a bit unsettling from this point of view, the important thing is that you can hang onto the railing and open yourself up to what the sights have to teach you. Using this example as a metaphor, when you step outside the customary flow of immediate experience and strengthen your skills of self-observation through being mindful, the possibilities exist for you to shift your perspective more fluidly.
From this place of observation, you are more likely to practice the mindful techniques of Stopping (the thoughts, images and expectations), Dropping (going inside to a calm place by following your breath) and then Rolling (out with a more thoughtful and less reactive response). Once we move to the “observation deck” and practice Stop, Drop and Roll our curiosity and empathy are much more likely to kick in. When we give ourselves the mental space to compassionately be aware of our own unrealistic images, then we are more likely to consider what it is that our child is actually communicating to us. The teen who is not acting appreciative may be in the process of normal adolescent separation from her mother and feels threatened by the closeness of being together all day, so has to push her mother away again. The boy on the field trip may be acting out because he is confused about how to behave when his father is around and may have some difficulty sharing him with a group of other children.
Being mindful about our own images and expectations will help us better regulate our emotional states and deliberately respond to our children rather than react unconsciously. It allows us to be more available to our children when we are mindful and regulating our emotions more effectively. Being mindful and nonreactive promote good feelings and deepen the parent-child relationship.