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What is mindful parenting and is it right for me?

Have you heard other parents talk about mindful parenting? Wondering what it is? Here we explore the theory and practice to help you to decide whether this style (or elements of it) might be right for you.

If you haven’t yet practised mindfulness, chances are you’ve heard of it. Judging by the amount of coverage, available apps and celebrity advocates, mindfulness has become increasingly popular over the last decade (Waters, 2016)

So what exactly is it?

Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003) defines mindfulness as the awareness that comes from ‘paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.’ Unsurprisingly, mindful parenting takes those principles and applies them to how you parent (Duncan at al, 2009).

The benefits of mindful parenting

A quick look at some of the positive outcomes of being a mindful parent soon show this style has piles of potential.

Mindful parenting can help with understanding 

A big part of mindfulness is being aware of what’s happening moment-to-moment, and giving the here and now your full attention. If you can do this while remaining open and non-judgmental, this could help you to stay calm as a parent. A bonus is that it might also help with those pesky disagreements and stresses with your partner too (Bögels et al, 2010).

Mindful parenting can improve respect

Mindful parenting might even make you more likely to engage, talk things through, and give you and your child more time and space for expression (Williams and Wahler, 2009). The result? You might be less likely to view your child as difficult.

The knock-on effect of this style of parenting is that it can lead to better and more open communication throughout the relationship (Lippold et al, 2014). So when your toddler grows up into a bolshie pre-teen, they might be more willing to share their thoughts and feelings with you. You’ve both established a relationship of respect. We can’t guarantee a complete absence of slammed doors and shouting matches but mindful parenting just might help.

Mindful parenting lets you parent how you really want to

This style can include mindful listening, emotional awareness, compassion and non-judgmental acceptance (Duncan et al, 2009). So that’s how they can help bring moment-to-moment awareness to the parent–child relationship. And help parents get closer to parenting in the way they always wanted (Duncan et al, 2015). It can help parents pay closer attention to their children and be more aware of their own emotions.

By being more in the moment with your child, you have more of a chance to choose how you behave, rather than defaulting to old habits (Duncan et al, 2015).

Mindful parenting diffuses stress

Of course, you know you need to give your child love and emotional support (Eshel et al, 2006). But you might not know how being in the moment and accepting of your child and their behaviour (within reason) can be so positive.

When you’re coping well and feeling good, you’re probably more caring and affectionate. This improves your child’s wellbeing, adjustment and behaviour (Coleman and Karraker, 2003). But beware, it’s the direct opposite when you get stressed. Stress makes parents become colder, more controlling, more rejecting and more reactive towards their children (Belsky, 1984; Webster-Stratton, 1990).

Becoming more aware of your emotions in the moment gives you a chance to press the pause button rather than automatically getting angry and frustrated. This more child-centred approach (i.e. it’s not all about you and how you feel) is better at meeting children’s needs (Dix, 1991).

Mindful parenting lets you focus on the positive, not just the negative

In the early years of life, what gets a parent’s attention more? A well-executed gurgle or a blood-curdling scream? We all know a yowl of fear, pain or frustration will always get our attention. But if we only listen out for the negative, there’s a possibility we’ll never experience the positive. 

By being fully attentive, and not just watching out for signs of distress or discomfort, children feel safer and more protected by their parents (Fonagy and Target 1997; Siegel 2001).

Mindful parenting can be more compassionate

Mindful parenting makes active compassion towards yourself and your child extra important. It’s natural to want to meet the needs of your baby and comfort them through any distress. Mindful parenting focuses that compassion so children may feel more affection and support.

This sense of compassion applies to you and your partner too, so you take a less harsh and more forgiving view of your parenting efforts. Rather than getting frustrated and giving up, giving yourself a break lets you regroup and try again. Self-compassion avoids the blame game and can stop you feeling judged as a parent. This might just reduce the stress levels next time darling toddler decides to rearrange the shelves in your local Tesco.

When you constantly mark yourself out of ten, this can make a big difference to how you behave around your child and parent them (Teti and Gelfand, 1991). Parents who believe they are doing OK at this parenting lark have been seen to interact with their kids in a way that helps their development (Coleman and Karraker, 2003).

It’s worth remembering that no-one is judging you as harshly as you are judging yourself. A mindful approach could help you focus on what you achieve as a parent, rather than defaulting to harsh critic mode.

In his book about ‘good enough’ parenting, Bruno Bettelheim warns us not to strive for perfection. And he’s not just talking about us as parents but our children too. It is all about respect for the child and a focus on the present, rather than constant stressing about the future. He suggests we focus on empathy and reflection, rather than slavishly following what experts say. Like we say, no-one knows your baby like you do (Bettelheim, 1987).

So is it right for me?

Mindfulness can flex to fit most lifestyles and parenting approaches. You don’t have to become a Buddhist monk to be in the moment either.

It might not be for everyone but if you feel like you’re never getting on top of things and missing out on what matters, mindful parenting is worth exploring. There’s a boatload of books, programmes, podcasts, apps and courses out there that cover mindfulness. Just ask your nearest search engine.  

This page was last reviewed in March 2019

Further information

Read further articles on parenting styles in our dedicated section.

For more advice and ideas when it comes to all aspects of parenting, see our other articles on parenting styles, such as our one on the most popular styles and how to identify yours, through to how to raise my child to be happy, confident and considerate.

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