How Everyday Mindfulness Can Make You a Better Parent
You don’t have to sit, chant “om,” or do anything out of the ordinary to achieve a more resilient, healthier brain. Here’s how parents of kids with ADHD can bring mindfulness practices into their everyday lives.
Stress, uncertainty, and being a parent all go hand in hand. This stress affects how you live, how you relate to others, and how effectively you manage your child’s ADHD.
Some amount of stress keeps us motivated and safe. When we feel threatened, our nervous system is wired to produce the physiological reactions known as the stress response, readying us to protect ourselves or flee from danger. These reactions can be lifesaving when we’re in actual danger.
The problem is our response to stress isn’t subtle. The same physiological reactions arise after anything rattles us, including thoughts. Most often, stress starts with a perception, perhaps outside of our conscious awareness, that something isn’t as we think it should be. We’re just running a little late or worried about our to-do list. Yet that same intense stress reaction occurs.
Nothing will ever completely eliminate stress. However, our bodies aren’t wired to withstand overly frequent or intense stress. And because excessive stress undermines both physical and mental health, it affects not just you, but the people around you. Among other things, it can make it hard for you to stay on top of your child’s ADHD care.
But you can elect to cultivate traits that will be helpful in managing stress and whatever life brings your way. That typically starts with devoting more attention to your real-time experience and finding more space between what you observe and what you decide to do next. Setting aside even a few minutes daily for a mindfulness practice, such as the one that follows, will help you build this capacity.
Awareness of the Breath
This practice will help you guide your attention more often to the present, rather than being caught up in your mind. The sensation of breathing is often used only because your breath is with you all the time. The practice isn’t about trying to change how you breathe; your breath simply provides a focus for your attention.
With mindfulness, the only intention is to attend to the moment the best you can. You aren’t striving to transcend anything, get anywhere, or block anything out. The goal isn’t even relaxation. That often happens, but you can’t force yourself into feeling it.
You cannot be good or bad at meditation. You’ll never fix unwavering attention on your breath. On some days, meditation allows you a few moments of peace; on other days your mind will remain busy. If you’re distracted almost the entire time and still come back to one breath, that’s perfect. And if you practice, you’ll find yourself focusing more often on life with less effort.
Below, you’ll find instructions for practicing focused awareness:
- Sit comfortably, finding a stable position you can maintain for a while, either on the floor or in a chair. Set a timer to avoid clock-watching.
- Close your eyes if you like, or leave them open and gaze downward toward the floor.
- Draw attention to the physical sensation of breathing, perhaps noticing the always-present rising and falling of your abdomen or chest, or perhaps the air moving in and out through your nose or mouth. With each breath, bring attention to these sensations. If you like, mentally note, “Breathing in, breathing out.”
- Many times you’ll be distracted by thoughts or feelings. You may feel distracted more often than not. That’s normal. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking or anything else. Without giving yourself a hard time or expecting anything different, when you discover that your attention has wandered, notice whatever has distracted you and then come back to the breath.
- Practice pausing before making any physical adjustments, such as moving your body or scratching an itch. With intention, shift at a moment you choose, allowing space between what you experience and what you choose to do.
- Let go of any sense of trying to make something happen. For these few minutes, create an opportunity to not plan or fix anything, or whatever else is your habit. Exert enough effort to sustain this practice, but without causing yourself mental strain. Seek balance — if you find yourself mostly daydreaming and off in fantasy, devote a little extra effort to maintaining your focus.
- Breathing in and breathing out, return your attention to the breath each time it wanders elsewhere.
- Practice observing without the need to react. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back over and over again without judgment or expectation. It may seem simple, but it’s never easy.
Informal Mindfulness Practice
Practices like the preceding one are generally considered to be formal practices, conducted at scheduled times and usually in a set location. You can also practice mindfulness informally during any activity — folding the laundry, conversing with a coworker, walking to work. Here’s how:
Throughout the day, aim to be more mindful whenever you choose, electing to give full attention, as best you can, to anything you’re doing. If you’re playing catch in the backyard, attend as fully as possible to that experience, instead of throwing the ball while thinking of challenges you may face later, like getting your child through homework. If you’re making dinner, focus on all the sensations involved in preparing the meal, rather than ruminating about your day. Not only will you be cultivating more focused attention within yourself, but you’ll also create a momentary break when you guide your attention out of distracting and unsettling thoughts.
Adapted from Mindful Parenting for ADHD: A Guide to Cultivating Calm, Reducing Stress, and Helping Children Thrive, by MARK BERTIN, M.D. Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2015, by Mark Bertin.