Your red-faced three-year-old is standing in the kitchen screaming that his milk isn’t the right temperature.
“It’s too cold,” he wails.
“But it’s the same temperature it always is,” you snap.
For what seems like the 10th time today, you look at him exasperated. He looks at you as if you’ve just thrown his favourite stuffy into the fireplace.
You ask yourself, “what is going on?”
While there are no easy answers to understanding a toddler’s behaviour, parents can benefit from taking a mindful approach to navigate those tough toddler years.
Mindfulness and the Young Mind
According to a brief from the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard, more than one million new neural connections are formed every second in a young child’s brain. This rapid developmental phase enables parents to positively affect their child’s brain development by establishing a sound foundation for learning, health and the behaviour to follow.
As the practice of mindfulness promotes skills controlled by the prefrontal cortex of the brain (like focus and cognitive control), its’ early incorporation can promote self-regulation, judgment and patience in children.
But, what is mindfulness exactly?
Mindfulness is the simple practice of bringing a gentle, accepting (non-judgemental) attitude to the present moment.
People who are mindful pause to recognize how they feel before reacting.
In other words, they’re attentive and that is only one of the benefits of being mindful.
Why Be Mindful
Thousands of studies report that people who practice mindfulness enjoy many benefits including:
• Increased positive emotions, reduced negative emotions and less stress
• Heightened ability to focus
• Increased immunity
• Increased grey matter density in regions of the brain associated with learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy
• Healthier relationship to food, resulting in a decrease in obesity
• Regulated emotions
• Increased relationship satisfaction
• Better ability to deal with adversity
• Positive outlook
When it comes to child-rearing, mindful parents benefit from having a deeper connection with their children and are better equipped to handle stressful parenting situations.
With practice, kids will develop the ability to pause and process their feelings before acting, increasing the chances of them being happier, kinder and more emotionally stable.
When it comes to teaching your children to be mindful, experts agree that the best way is to model it in your behaviour.
The Mindful Parent
Kids look to their parents and caregivers for love and direction. They observe and mimic the behaviour of the adults in their lives while trying to forge their way.
As they enter those key developmental years, kids are eager to assert their independence but are faced with emotional and physical hurdles. Parental distraction only exacerbates these frustrations.
Mindfulness experts and child psychologists agree that the most important thing you can do to model mindfulness is to give your toddler your undivided attention, even if that means putting off sending that email or checking Instagram.
Technology expert Linda Stone agrees and argues that “‘continuous partial attention negatively affects children because it interrupts ancient emotional cueing systems, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning.”
Similarly, the Harvard brief notes that a major ingredient in the developmental process is the “serve and return” relationship between children and other caregivers in the family or community.
“Serve and return” is about responsive interactions and how those interactions help children grow and reach their full potential.
If a child tries to interact with an adult and they struggle to get a response — or if the response is unreliable or inappropriate — it not only makes the child feel unimportant, it frustrates and angers them. Predictably they act out or worse, retreat.
Establishing Mindful Habits
In addition to being present with your child, consider adopting some of these habits:
• Limit screen time and spend time reading, doing crafts and talking.
• Express gratitude by taking a few minutes each day to talk to kids about what you are thankful for, from the big to the small.
• Being kind can be especially hard during the 5th tantrum of the day but displaying kindness is key to fostering the same behaviour in kids.
• Teach your kids about feelings by telling them how you feel, be it happy, sad, frustrated, tired, etc. Young children have trouble expressing how they feel in words but by sharing your feelings with them in basic phrases, they will learn to identify and express their feelings.
S.T.O.P. and Be Mindful
Even if you follow the guidance above, you will inevitably face those moments when you want to scream.
To help parents remain calm and kind in stressful times, cognitive behaviour therapists and mindfulness experts recommend the exercise called S.T.O.P.
Stop. Just take a momentary pause, no matter what you’re doing.
Take a breath. Focus on the sensation of your breathing, which brings you back to the present moment.
Observe. Acknowledge what is happening, for good or bad, inside you or out. Just note it.
Proceed. Having briefly checked in with the present moment, continue with whatever it was you were doing.
This pause will give you a chance to collect yourself instead of immediately reacting based on your emotions. It empowers you to choose how you will respond to the situation. Your child will see this and in time, they will mimic the behaviour when they are faced with stressful situations.
Things to Keep in Mind
Children require time and repetition to learn new concepts; mindfulness will not be any different.
The purpose of being mindful with your children is to help them to recognize how they feel and accept it without judgement. It is not a disciplinary tool; you are empowering them to choose how to feel about their thoughts and emotions.
Take a playful approach, be kind to yourself and stay the course.
Give It a Try
The anecdotal and science-backed evidence indicates that a mindful approach to parenting is beneficial for both caregivers and children.
If it sounds like the right approach for your family, give it a shot. The next time your child is screaming about cold milk or the wrong pair of socks, try to take a moment before reacting. Instead of trying to fix the problem, just be with your child. Respond compassionately and you may just succeed in eliciting a different response than you expect.
And if not, you’ve remained calm and that is a big parenting win.
5 Toddler-Friendly Mindful Activities
The power of breathwork has been touted as life-changing but the thought of getting a three-year-old to sit still and just breathe seems … ambitious? Maybe not with these fun breathing activities from Cosmic Kids.
“Puppy Mind” by Andrew Jordan Nance
In this picture book for children and adults, illustrated by Jim Durk, who is adored by thousands of children for his many Clifford the Big Red Dog and Thomas the Steam Engine books, a young boy discovers his mind is like a puppy, always wandering away, into the past or the future. He sets about learning to train his puppy mind to heel to the present moment.
Give your child an emotional ‘weather report’. For example, “I’m dark and cloudy with raindrop tears coming down. I feel sunny and bright. I feel grey.” Then have them take a turn. Make it fun by holding a toy microphone and pretending to be on TV.
Mealtimes provide a great opportunity to engage your child in mindful practice. Ask them questions based on the five senses. For example, how does the skin of the orange feel? Does the orange smell? Peel the orange — what does the pulp feel like in your fingers?
Nature is a wonderful space to practice mindfulness with your children. Take a walk and listen for the birds chirping or the leaves rustling; ask your children to describe the sounds.
Online Resources for Parents
Blissful Kids — Mindfulness Made Playful and Sustainable
Featured Image: Unsplash