Behavioral(PMT), which teaches parents concrete skills to increase their attention to positive behavior and to plan for their response to undesired behavior, has abundant evidence for success for many challenging child behaviors. But sometimes parents have a hard time managing their own emotional responses in the often highly triggering situation of family conflict. Mindfulness has the potential to provide a complement to the PMT skills. Studies are beginning to explore these possibilities.
Zoe is a bright 5-year-old who has been “strong willed” and shown intense emotional responses since early in life. The usual 2-year-old temper tantrums increased over time. She has outbursts of yelling, kicking, and hitting, especially with transitions. Her parents tried behavioral parent training, but found it frustrating. If Zoe has been yelling and hitting earlier in the day, her mother feels hurt and angry and can’t bring herself to pay warm attention when Zoe is doing better. When Zoe refuses to pick up her room, her father is flooded with thoughts about his own father hitting him for the slightest disrespect. He thinks that he is a bad, weak father, and sometimes “sees red” and ends up yelling at Zoe instead of putting into place a calm consequence.
Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” A central feature of mindfulness is strengthening the ability to focus our attention. We learn to pay attention to aspects of the present moment, be that breathing, the sensations in our body, or the experiences of our senses. Often the first skill in behavioral training methods is getting parents to pay attention to their children by participating in child-led play or spending attentive time with older children. This means attending to what the child is doing or talking about rather than jumping in and taking over with suggestions, instructions, or judgments. This meshes very well with this central aspect of mindfulness.
As we practice paying attention, we observe that the mind naturally jumps around from what we mean to be attending to, to a host of distractions, worries, plans, memories, thoughts, and emotions. Mindfulness encourages practitioners to notice these thoughts, to avoid criticizing or judging oneself for becoming involved with these, but instead gently lead the mind back to what you had intended to focus on. This observation of the mind’s activity gives the mindfulness practitioner a bit of space from the thought or emotion itself. We are encouraged to name the thought or emotional processes we notice: “I am worrying, I am planning, I am remembering.”
In the heat of a difficult moment with the child, parents often are flooded with intense emotions (such as anger, fear, anxiety, panic, despair) and thoughts (such as “If my child keeps acting this way he is going to go to jail when he grows up,” “I am a terrible parent,” “Why is my child doing this to me?” or “He is just like his father”). These emotions and thoughts can drive intense, impulsive responses from the parents. As they practice mindfulness, they can gain the ability to observe themselves having these thoughts; observe harsh judgments of themselves or their children or their partners; have some space from them; and realize they may change in a few minutes or realize they may be painful but don’t necessarily have to spur impulsive action. In that moment, parents can give themselves time and space to think through possible actions, and then choose one.
From a behavioral parenting standpoint, we know that parents and humans often react intensely to negative behaviors and inadvertently make them worse with intense emotional reactivity. We want parents to have a plan about how they will respond, to remain calm in the moment, and then put the plan in place. Mindfulness may enhance parents’ ability to notice their own responses and have the space to remember what the plan was and then put it into place. It also can give them space to consider what the child might be experiencing and respond in light of this awareness. This ability does require a significant amount of mindfulness practice.
The combination of mindfulness and parenting is just beginning to be studied in research trials using a range of study designs. Some of these programs have looked at the effect of mindfulness courses, especiallywithout any specific parenting content or indices of parent stress and child behavior. Others have looked at programs which add mindfulness to standard behavioral parenting programs, and still others are specific mindfulness/parenting programs. So far, many of these studies are quasi-experimental in nature. A recent systematic review by Townshend et al. found seven randomized controlled trials of low to moderate quality with some suggestion of ability to decrease parental stress and ADHD symptoms ( ). There is a clear need for randomized controlled trials with larger sample sizes.
While we may not have specific, highly evidence-based mindful parenting programs available, individuals with experience in yoga, meditation, mindfulness, dialectical behavioral therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy can be encouraged to bring these skills to bear as parents.
Zoe’s parents had pursued outside mindfulness programs. Mindfulness concepts were brought into a standard parenting program. Her parents were encouraged to engage in child-led play with Zoe in a mindful way, fully attending to her actions and experience. Zoe’s parents also were encouraged to observe their own emotional reactions and thoughts in stressful moments and to take a breathing space before taking action.
Dr. Hall is assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, Burlington. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at.
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