As the world starts whirling faster, it’s more important than ever to build the strength of presence within ourselves and in our families. This yearning to be grounded and tethered to the moment is making its way into our homes as many of us search for experiences to slow down. It’s possible to weave the tenet of mindfulness into the fold of the family. Teaching kids to imbibe mindfulness at an early age can help to mould their attention, self-regulation and curiosity. It can help them cultivate a sense of empathy.
Research shows that if parents learn the skills of mindfulness, their relationship with their teens is set to be healthier. It is also positively correlated with the psychological development of adolescents going through cognitive and emotional changes. (1) Mindfulness refers to nonjudgmental attention to one’s experiences in the present moment.
Teaching parents to be mindful in their daily interactions with their adolescents may be one way to improve the quality of parent-youth relationships and positively affect youth psychological development.
We’ve distilled a list of seven things that mindful families do differently. The common denominator of these attributes is the quality of our presence with one another.
No matter how many books we read or how much we learn, we will never be “perfect” parents. Since we are both psychologists and mindfulness teachers, it is often assumed that we must be “perfect” parents at all times and honestly, it’s not the reality. We still get triggered, overreact, and say and do things that we wished we hadn’t. While we have gotten better about this over time, the most important thing we have learned is to accept our imperfections as parents.
Let’s be clear – you are going to make mistakes, you are going to hurt your children’s feelings, and you are not going to be able to show up in all the ways you want to or the ways your children want you to but NONE of that makes you a bad parent – it only makes you a human. When you can move into a place of acceptance, you are able to shift into a state of greater ease and grace within yourself. When we beat ourselves up over our flaws, we create more pain, fear, and disconnection.
When we practice radical self-compassion, we are transformed. We are teaching our children to do the same for themselves by setting an example.
PRACTICE: Take a moment to think about some way your mind is telling you that you’re deficient as a partner or a parent. Maybe you think you don’t pack the perfect Instagram-worthy lunches every day or that you secretly don’t like playing the same game over and over again with your child.
Now, notice the feeling that belief brings up as you think about it. Be aware of any places of discomfort and extend a soothing gesture to yourself, just like you would to your child if they were upset or feeling shame. You can place your hands in a comforting way on your body – on your heart or your belly. Cup your face or even give yourself a hug and say to yourself, “My mind is telling me I’m falling short, but the truth is, I’m doing the best that I can. I love my child(ren) with all my heart and give them what I can in so many other beautiful ways.” Let these words linger. Repeat this or any other comforting words of wisdom as many times as you need to feel your body soften.
Listen with curiosity
There are so many things, as parents, that we’re juggling moment-to-moment in our lives that it has become a rare experience to stop and truly listen to one another. We are often distracted. We are trying to do too many things at once like being engrossed in our phone with a false sense of urgency or making snap judgments, leading us to lose our cool with our kids or our partner, creating disconnection and misunderstandings.
As we pause and listen to each other more often, we can engage with our familial experiences with a growth mindset. We can see the struggles and triumphs as opportunities for learning and evolution. Instead of judging each other, we can get better at recognizing the moments in which we don’t understand where the other person is coming from. Lean in with curiosity and say, “tell me more.” We could step into their shoes to understand their perspective by asking ourselves, “why might they be acting this way?”
Listening with curiosity opens up more possibilities for healthy dialogue, fewer misunderstandings, more clarity and greater connection (not to mention better outcomes).
PRACTICE: If you could glimpse into most family homes you would hear the familiar echoes of “You aren’t listening to me!” When we get triggered, our armour goes up and it’s hard to listen and really hear each other. This week, see if you can catch yourself in a moment where you are planning a brilliant counter-argument while not letting someone finish their sentences. This is a sign that you’re not listening.
Stop, take a deep breath, feel your feet, notice if emotions are rising within you and be gentle with yourself. And then proceed by choosing to be fully present and listening. You don’t have to have an answer in the moment, an awesome retort or even give them what they want. You will probably be surprised by the reframing power of mindful listening with an open heart.
Let’s be honest, being vulnerable is hard and at times even scary, which is why we sometimes find ourselves avoiding tough conversations. While in the moment it might feel easier to sidestep talking about something painful or uncomfortable. What is left unspoken and unresolved can turn into a kind of slow poison. Over time this builds resentments and distrust. The truth is, being clear and honest with each other about what you need and how you feel is ultimately an act of kindness that creates trust and connection.
This means showing up with our partners and kids with an open mind. Often the core issues in our relationships don’t stem from the content of the fights or disagreements but rather from what is not being spoken and not being healed. We cannot overemphasize the importance of making repairs after a rupture. This means that even when it feels hard and scary, we come back together once our nervous system comes out of the state of overwhelm and both people have the opportunity to feel understood and cared about. This leads to soothing feelings of safety and reconnection.
In this process of communicating wholeheartedly, you may not always be able to give your kids or partner what they are asking for, but you are giving them something far greater – you are teaching them that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
PRACTICE: Check in with yourself for something that’s been bothering you but you have not shared. Take a few moments to get to the heart of the issue. What actually happened and how are you feeling? Maybe there’s an underlying feeling of frustration, sadness or fear. Now go a bit deeper and explore your need(s) that are not being met like respect, understanding, space or communication. Now, with this preparation, see if you feel ready to approach your family member with openness and curiosity as you disclose the needs you have uncovered.
Here’s an example, “When I heard you demand that I take you to your friend’s house, I got irritated (feeling). I’d like to be seen and appreciated for the ways I support you (need). Next time it would mean a lot to me if you asked in a kinder way and could say, “thank you” when I do nice things for you.”
Practice appreciation and gratitude
Being a parent is one of the most thankless jobs and it’s not uncommon for family members to take each other for granted. Small acts of kindness can go unacknowledged. Here’s where small shifts can go a long way.
While words of affirmation may or may not be your primary love language, we all want to be seen and appreciated. There’s a surprisingly simple way of doing this. It can have immense benefits – intentionally practising being appreciative and expressing gratitude to one another.
There are so many small opportunities for being appreciative of one another, like acknowledging our kids or our partner for emptying the dishwasher or being ready on time. Small acts of appreciation can shift the culture of the house from ‘demanding and disheartened’ to ‘cooperative and grateful’. While it may seem silly or even annoying to thank someone for being ready on time – if this has been an issue for the concerned person, it feels good to be recognised, when things are going well. In our house, we make it a practice to thank whoever prepared dinner. This creates a small pause of gratitude for the family and sets a much kinder tone for a shared meal.
PRACTICE: As you go through the next week, see if you can show your appreciation more intentionally. It’s often contagious and you may just start being appreciated more as well. It’s often easier to start small, so choose something that you naturally feel grateful for and express it in a moment where you might not usually say anything. Maybe it’s when someone brings you water or a cup of coffee, straightens the living room, gives you a hug unexpectedly, or picks up the kids and takes them to their activities. Be on the lookout for your expectations when doing this (are you waiting for them to appreciate your appreciation?). If you notice it rearing its head, see if you can make a note of them and then let them go. Allow this to be a playful exploration of giving and receiving.
Forgive yourself and each other
Lily Tomlin once said, “forgiveness means letting go of any hope for a better past.” Every family has its hard moments. There are times when we don’t feel listened to or appreciated and there are other times when people are cranky or “hangry” and say things they don’t mean or wish they could take back. If you’re in a family (which is just about all of us at one time or another), we know you can relate to these less than stellar moments.
In practising mindfulness, we come to understand that our mistakes aren’t signs of failing at being humans. Instead, they are opportunities for learning about the inevitable pitfalls of life and understanding the optimal route to get back into a space of balance and connection.
The simple phrase “forgive, investigate and invite” can be enormously helpful. If we have transgressed, we can set the intention to “forgive” ourselves for this wrongdoing, understanding that we can’t change the past, remembering that we aren’t perfect, and realizing that we often make mistakes out of ignorance, confusion or a sense of disquiet. We then investigate where we went off track, what impact it made and how we would respond differently next time to learn from it. After that, we can “invite” ourselves to make repairs.
PRACTICE: There are often many opportunities for forgiveness in a family. There is always someone who doesn’t follow through, meet our hidden expectations or who steps on another’s toes. Be on the lookout for these moments and recognise them as opportunities to practice forgiveness. Some are trivial and worth letting go, while others deserve to be investigated with an invitation for communication.
Saying in your mind, “In whatever way you have harmed me, out of your own ignorance, confusion or upset feelings, we all make mistakes, I am inclining toward forgiveness.” Then get curious about what really happened. It may be skilful to include the practices of “listening with curiosity” and “communicating courageously.” Remember, it’s an opportunity for us to learn and grow.
Practice support and generosity
One of the core values of mindfulness is generosity. The spirit of generosity means giving and sharing things of value that can be reflected in money, time, love or possessions. Our kids look to us to see how to show up in the world. Practising generosity is rewarding because our acts not only have a positive impact on ourselves and the recipient but also have ripple effects for generations to come. It holds possibilities for making the world a kinder place.
Of course, it starts with us tapping into our own generosity which can assume many forms. This can include donating money to a cause you support, bringing a meal to a sick friend, or giving a hug or smile to someone who needs it. Our kids are always watching us and modelling our behaviours. So, it’s important that we model this way of being in the world and include them in these acts as often as possible. Want some ideas? You can consider getting involved in service projects at a local school or organization. You can encourage your kids to make cards for their grandparents or someone who is ill. You can have a rule where a certain percentage of money from a lemonade stand goes to a charity chosen by your kids. You can even make a game out of it. In our family, we encourage kindness by putting “kind bucks” (play money) in a jar when we catch them performing a kind or generous act. Eventually, these “kind bucks” can be turned in for various rewards.
Generosity and compassion can be healing agents within the family system, our culture, and the world. Ultimately, connection is the cornerstone of well-being and it starts in the family.
PRACTICE: Have an informal family meeting to talk about why generosity and compassion are important and the ways you want to weave them into your family. You will be pleasantly surprised by the creative and fun ideas your kids have! We have found that when they are involved in the planning and have a more personal connection to the experience, they are much more engaged and it ultimately carries much more meaning for them. And remember to make it fun – it will keep them engaged and they would want to do it again. You could invite other families and friends to join you in the practice.
Don’t forget to play and have fun!
We tend to get stuck in the day-to-day grind, managing a barrage of stressors. It seems silly to say that any of us would forget to have fun and enjoy each other but it’s more common than you think. The pressure of raising good humans can be weighty, so much so that we can fall into a pattern of taking things too seriously and being overly focused on tasks (chores, homework, activities etc.) that we lose sight of the joy of togetherness.
With the exception of planned trips (we all know they aren’t “vacations”) we often don’t intentionally plan to embed the idea of ‘fun’ in our days. Why not? Why not be more purposeful when planning out the week to make sure to include play? When the family plays together, it often ushers more laughter, connection and healing. These moments are often the ones remembered for years to come.
PRACTICE: Dr John Gottman, internationally renowned relationship expert, has found that in order to have healthy, stable relationships our ratio of positive interactions should be five times greater than our negative interactions with each other. Consider this ratio and think of your family interactions in the past week or month. Does the ratio feel out of balance? Spend some time looking at how you can cultivate more positive experiences in the family.
Get together to explore an activity that everyone finds fun and interesting. This can range from big things like surprising the kids by making them skip school and taking them out for a drive to smaller things like getting them ice cream after school on a weekday for no particular reason. You can experiment with having a weekly game night, having an impromptu water balloon fight or even spending a few minutes watching funny animal videos together. We all have different definitions of fun, so find ways for your interests to intersect! Families stray off track all the time and like practising mindfulness, once we realize this we can always begin again.
Many people ask the question: “How do you start?”
The 15th-century poet Kabir said, “Wherever you are, that’s the entry point.” So, we play with starting where we are, pausing, relaxing our shoulders and asking ourselves, “What or who do I really want to focus on right now?” Sometimes the most meaningful moments occur when we slow down and tune into mundane things at home. This not only benefits you, but your partner (if you have one), and your children too.
Remember, whatever way you choose to do, you will not be perfect. When you stray from your intention, forgive yourself. In that moment you can discover something vital: you can always choose to begin again. Begin wherever you are.
Teaching kids the skills of mindfulness can help inculcate the values of attention, self-regulation, curiosity and compassion. There are many ways in which mindfulness can be weaved into the fabric of family life. No matter how evolved or educated you are, you will still get triggered, overreact, and say things that you wished you hadn’t. Embrace your imperfections and turn them into learnings. When we pause and listen to each other more often, we can engage with our familial experiences with a growth mindset. Vulnerability is a brave stance. It can pave the way for difficult conversations. Practise “forgive, investigate and invite” repeatedly. It can work as an incredible vehicle for connection in the family. One of the core values of mindfulness is generosity. Mindful families are generous units. Last but not the least, the families that play together heal together.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.