Mum dad and young girl walking through bushland into the sunset from behind
19 Dec

Mindful parenting

Mindfulness is a hot topic at the moment.  There are a lot of news stories about increasing mindfulness and the benefits it can provide.  You might have heard about it through work, your children’s school, or maybe seen one of the many phone apps that are available.  But what is mindfulness actually? And how might it help you with parenting a child/children with autism?

What is mindfulness?

There is no single definition of mindfulness, but it is often described as the act of directing your attention to the present moment, without judgment of the experience (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).

A lot of our lives are spent on ‘automatic pilot’, doing things out of habit or by rote.  This is actually useful a lot of the time.  However, when we spend time being physically present while our minds are distracted, we can miss out on what is going on right in front of us.   If you have ever eaten a packet of chips and absent-mindedly reached for another handful only to find the packet is empty, that’s an example of being on ‘automatic pilot’.  Or if you’ve driven somewhere and can’t recall sections of the journey when you reach your destination, that’s ‘automatic pilot’ in action.

Being mindful is about deliberately paying attention to day-to-day experiences, rather than rushing through them or avoiding them.  When developing your mindfulness skills, you learn to pay more attention to the present moment, and to approach your current experience with curiosity in order to explore what is going on in the body and the mind.  Another key element is reducing the tendency to judge your experience as either good or bad.  Bringing a sense of curiosity to your experience helps reduce the tendency to judge.  By focusing like this for short periods of time, it is possible to increase the ability to be aware of thoughts, feelings and what’s happening in the body in response to events.

A key point to remember is that contrary to what some people think, the aim of mindfulness is NOT to ‘quiet the mind’ or stop your thoughts.  The purpose is simply to be more aware of what you are feeling and thinking in different situations and then make a choice how to respond.

In addition to this, it’s important to know that your mind will wander many times when you practice being more aware.  This happens to everyone and is not an indication of failure.  If you’ve noticed your mind wandering, congratulations! You have just practiced being mindfully aware of distraction.  Each time you are distracted it is an opportunity to re-focus your attention on what you are doing.

Once you are more aware of your thoughts, emotions and physical experiences in different situations and how you react to them, there is an opportunity for you to decide how to respond.  Having a choice of responses rather than reacting automatically (and sometimes unhelpfully) can lead to increased resilience, better coping skills and improved quality of life.

Why would you want to be more mindful as a parent?

Everyone knows that life is busy for parents.  As parents of a child/children with autism, life can be extra busy and challenging at times.  Research has consistently found the stresses of raising a child with ASD are generally higher compared with parenting a child with other developmental conditions (Cachia, Anderson & Moore, 2016).  Parental stress is a key factor in the success of parent-led interventions for children on the spectrum (Strauss et al., 2012).  It is important to take care of yourself as well as your child so you are better able to support them, but also in order to ensure your physical and mental wellbeing are as good as they can be.

What is mindful parenting?

Mindful parenting is a way of interacting with your child/children in which you are fully present in your interaction with them.  This means you are able to give full attention to your child, be aware of the details of what is happening, and to do this without judging (as best you can) the situation as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’; but simply ‘what is’.

This approach makes it possible for you to choose to respond in a deliberate way to your child, rather than reacting automatically, which is especially useful in times of high stress.  The invitation of mindfulness is to work towards taking a more accepting and less reactive approach to your child.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to passively accept everything that your child does.  By being more mindful in challenging situations with your child/children, you have a choice about how you respond, rather than just reacting in habitual and often unhelpful ways.

Another benefit about parenting mindfully is that you are more able to notice and pay attention to the positive events, the fun interactions you have together, and what your child does well.  Often there is a focus on the child’s challenges and difficulties, and what ‘needs’ to be changed.  Increasing mindfulness allows you to be more aware of your child’s strengths and their achievements.  By reducing your tendency to judge your (and your child’s) current experience, you are more able to let go of the need for things to be different in some way and to be more compassionate to your child and yourself.

How do we know parent mindfulness training works?

A review (Cachia et al., 2016) of mindfulness training for parents of children with neurodevelopmental conditions (autism, ADHD & developmental disabilities) identified studies that found:

  • Mindfulness training was effective in reducing stress and distress in parents of children with neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Parents reported increased general well-being after participating in mindfulness training
  • Improvements in parent well-being continued or increased over time (up to 3-month follow-up period)
  • Parents reported increased satisfaction with parenting
  • In two longer-term studies (up to 12 months), parents reported that despite the children not being trained in mindfulness, the parent’s training seemed to have indirect effects on their children, including decreased aggressive behaviours and increased compliance.
  • The importance of regular home practice was demonstrated with participant satisfaction with their parenting skills and communication with their children reported to increase with more frequent home practice. Participant satisfaction was reported to be highest when parents used formal mindfulness practices on a daily basis.  This suggests that regular mindfulness practice is related to better outcomes.

A more recent study (Potharst, Baartmans & Bogels, 2018) reported that following mindful parent training, participants reported improvements in their stress levels, over reactivity, well-being, and they also described their children’s behaviour as improved (even though the children did not participate in the training).

How do I develop my mindful parenting skills?

Mindfulness skills can be developed through both informal and formal practice.

Informal opportunities to practice mindful parenting could include:

  • Listening with full attention if your child reads to you. When your mind wanders away to other thoughts, the task is simply to notice distraction, gently bring your attention back and refocus on the sound of your child’s voice.
  • Joint play. Find opportunities to join your child in an activity and remember to put down your phone so you can be fully present.  It’s fine to set a time limit, you don’t need to do this for an extended period.  This might mean learning a video game, listening to their music or whatever their interest involves.  You may be bored – this is ok, just notice the thought “I’m bored”.  The task is still to pay attention to the activity and noticing your reactions.
  • For a short period of time, watch your child. Look at them with curiosity, noticing all the fine details of their facial features, observe their actions, listen to the sounds they make (if any).
  • If your child wants a hug, bring your attention to the physical sensations of touch and pressure, how they smell, and your response to these things.

These are just a few suggestions; you can find many more opportunities.  A good guide is thinking about how you can use your five senses to be aware of your child.

Formal mindfulness practice involves intentionally putting aside time and participating in guided activities.  There are formal mindfulness courses that are available in person or on-line.  Courses are usually eight weeks duration, with each session approximately two hours in length.  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR is a commonly offered course, but it does not specifically focus on parenting.  However, it may be a useful introduction to formal practice.  Mindful Parenting courses are less common.  If you are interested in finding out more information about formal Mindful Parenting courses, you can contact the author.

Key points to remember:

The aim of mindfulness is to practice being more aware of your present moment, with less judgement of your experience or yourself. Mindfulness is not about emptying the mind of thoughts.

Mindfulness is a skill that can be learned.  The emphasis is on on-going skill development, rather than reaching a specific end-point.

Minds wander.  This is what they do, and distraction during mindfulness practice is not failure.  It’s an opportunity to notice distraction and to re-focus.

Katherine Watson
Diverse Minds Psychology Clinic
Registered Psychologist/Clinical Psychology Registrar
Mindfulness Teacher

Cachia, R. L., Anderson, A., & Moore, D. W. (2016). Mindfulness, stress and well-being in parents of children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(1), 1-14.  DOI 10.1007/s10826-015-0193-8
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Full Catastrophe Living (15th ed.). New York. Bantam Dell
Potharst, E. S., Baartmans, J. M., & Bögels, S. M. (2018). Mindful parenting training in a clinical versus non-clinical setting: an explorative study. Mindfulness, 1-15. DOI 10.1007/s12671-018-1021-1
Strauss, K., Vicari, S., Valeri, G., D’Elia, L., Arima, S., & Fava, L. (2012). Parent inclusion in early intensive behavioral intervention: The influence of parental stress, parent treatment fidelity and parent-mediated generalization of behavior targets on child outcomes. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33(2), 688-703 DOI: 10.1016/j.ridd.2011.11.008

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