Mindful Parenting

The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel & Tina Bryson

canoe3I have so much praise for The Whole-Brain Child, written by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson. The book explains brain growth and brain functioning in children, and ways parents can interact during difficult moments based on understanding neurobiology. There is minimal psychological jargon, and even includes strategies for parents to teach their children about their growing brains!

Something that stood out for me near the beginning of the book, was Siegel’s explanation of mental wellness and unwellness. Please note:  my overview pales in comparison to the explanation provided by Siegel – this book is worth the read!

In order to explain these concepts, Siegel uses the analogy of paddling down a river in a canoe. Imagine, just paddling down the river in a canoe. As you stay in the center of the river, the waters are calm. However, toward each river bank, the waters become choppy.  To one side of the river, the river bank represents chaos. To the other, rigidity. Floating down the center of the river represents mental wellness. Yet, in everyone’s life, there are times when our canoe floats towards the river banks. If your canoe were to float to close to chaos, you would feel out of control, confused, and in constant chaos and turmoil. If you float too close to rigidity, you would begin to impose control on everything and everyone around you. On the bank of rigidity, people become unwilling to adapt, unwilling to compromise, and unwilling to negotiate. Our thinking can be flexible and adaptable, and our emotions accurate for the situation when we are in center of the river. Siegel goes on to describe the analogy in much more detail, explaining how all mental illnesses can fit into either the bank of chaos or the bank or rigidity.

Imagine how you could use the canoe analogy in your life. For example, after a hard day of work, likely feeling emotionally drained and stressed out – start noticing which shore your canoe is veering toward. Do you tend to float more toward chaos, or rigidity? When under stress, if you veer more toward chaos, you might experience a sense of losing control, or helplessness. You might experience yourself cycling through many strong emotions, such as anger, sadness, and anxiety. You may even catch yourself yelling, whining, or on the brink of tears. When under stress, if your canoe floats more toward rigidity, you might experiencing yourself as the task master, acting in a demanding manner and trying to control everything and everyone around you. When they don’t comply, the resulting behaviour might be anger, or anxiety.

Using the image of the canoe, noticing that your canoe is getting off track and visualize steering yourself back to centre. Be gentle with yourself and use positive words to self, such as  “I choose to keep my canoe in the center”. And when it starts to go sideways (as things often do!), take a break: try taking a moment to breathe, and to visualize your canoe moving back to center. It’s a powerful image – and I am grateful once again to Daniel Siegel for his powerful contributions to brain-based parenting.

Reference:
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind. By Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson.

This article was originally posted on September 7, 2013, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge

Mindful Parenting

Swapping out Trigger Thoughts for Coping Thoughts

polar bear and cubThis morning I was running late for work. Last night, rather than tidying and preparing lunches for school, I was tired. I decided to put my feet up: I watched tv, and I chatted with my husband. Shirking the evening household responsibilities felt great! But as a result, this morning I was running late. My morning agenda read: get ready, get kids ready, get lunches ready, drive kids to school, drive self to work. However, my six year old daughter had a different agenda. Despite the many times I informed her that I was running late and that we needed to get out the door, she dawdled.

The reality is, I was frustrated with myself for not being prepared for the morning – and sadly I found myself directing this frustration at my daughter. As I saw myself nagging ineffectively, I noticed my inner dialog also changing: “Why can’t she just help me with this? She is so disrespectful…”. Funny thing about such negative, labeling comments – they seem to always intensify angry feelings.

Researchers McKay and Fanning (1996), call these ‘trigger thoughts’ because the thoughts tend to trigger in us negative emotions. When parents are stressed, thinking thoughts that serve to magnifylabel, and assume intent distort the situation – these thoughts make the situation seem worse than it is, and make your child’s behaviour seem deliberate and bad.

Trigger thoughts lead parents to forget the real reasons behind their child’s behaviour (such as developmental level, reinforcement history, needs, temperament, and so forth). And, as the trigger thoughts spiral us into anger, we are left feeling helpless. Once we cool down and the situation is over, we are still left with an unresolved issue and have now lost an opportunity to problem solve with our child(ren).

Trigger thoughts also have a negative impact on our kids. When our anger prevents us from seeing a situation clearly and acknowledging  underlying causes of behaviour, we send negative messages to our children. These messages can lead kids to see themselves as bad, to grow less cooperative with us, and to become alienated from us and angry. The impact of chronic anger on our children sure is worth our attention in changing our patterns when under stress!

McKay and Fanning, in their 1996 research study, found that parents with low levels of anger tended to use more positive coping statements (in place of trigger thoughts). The seven coping thoughts that seemed most effective were as follows:

  1. It’s just a stage. Kids have to go through these stages
  2. This is natural for his/her age
  3. Don’t take it seriously/personally. Keep a sense of humour
  4. This is just natural (age-appropriate) impulsiveness
  5. He/She isn’t really trying to do this to me. It’s just how he/she is coping right now
  6. He/She can’t help (crying, being angry, interrupting, needing attention, etc.)
  7. Just get through it. You can cope. You don’t have to get angry

These are such fantastic coping statements and parents so often forget to use them. If you need assistance in remembering to use the positive coping statements, you could post them on your wall, or use the sticky dot technique! If these coping strategies don’t fit for your situation, spend some time creating your own. The more the coping statements are unique to your life, the more likely you are to remember to think them in the pace of trigger thoughts.

Most importantly, start becoming aware of how you feel anger in your body. Then, when you feel that sensation, check in with what is going on for you at that moment. What are you saying to yourself about the situation? Are you labeling your child in a detrimental way? Is that problem suddenly feeling magnified? Are you assuming some unruly motive to your child? If so, you are most likely using a triggering thought. Swap it out with a coping statement– and believe the coping statement.

Our children really aren’t out to get us! They are just navigating their way through some significant developmental milestones and often feeling helpless, powerless, frustrated, anger, etc. at the process!

Reference:
McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (1996). When anger hurts your kids: A parent’s guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

This article was originally posted on January 24, 2011, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge

Mindful Parenting

Oh… How Easily we Become Distracted!

messy-roomA friend and I were chatting over coffee recently – a mix of giggles and moans as we gushed on the amusements and perplexities of life with kids. My friend had been expressing frustration about trying to get her children to clean their bedrooms. She shared with me that she would ask them to tidy their rooms, even provide specific directions as to what needed to be tidied, and yet return later only to find them playing in their rooms with no amount of tidying completed! My friend expressed exasperation and admitted to being unsure of how to proceed. As I had sat listening to my friend describe her dilemma, a sudden rush of self-awareness swept over me. I too have experienced frustration when my children were requested to tidy their rooms and instead found themselves distracted in the process. I too have found myself curiously wondering how on earth I can motivate them. I too have berated myself for cutting to the chase and cleaning their rooms myself. Despite these acknowledgements, the realization I had was more powerful: it had to do with the way I carry out my own chores and obligations.

All too often when it is time to prepare dinner, I wander into the kitchen and see dirty dishes in the sink. Well, I can not start dinner with dirty dishes hanging around – so I wash them. As I am washing them, I realize that the dish towel is dirty. I walk to the laundry room with it so that I will remember to put it in with the next load. As I am there, I realize that my cat is laying in the window, bathing in the sun. I take a moment just to stare at him – so peaceful, so comfortable. Then, I walk over to him and pet his soft fur. As I am petting him, I realize that I should probably feed him. So, I go get the can of food, and scoop some into his dish. Then I think I should feed the dog, too. I grab the dog’s bag of food, and feed her. My dog happily lops over to me, and I sit on the step to scratch her behind the ears. I smile as I contemplate how loving my pets are. Then suddenly I remember that I was going to prepare dinner! I quickly walk to the kitchen and start taking items from the fridge. As I am doing so, I see a few leftovers that have remained a little too long in the fridge. Of course they must be thrown out. I start pulling them out of the fridge, and  dump some of the leftovers into the compost bucket. Ahhh… it is almost full. I should take it out. I am about to put my shoes on, when I remember that I am actually in the middle of making dinner… !

So I have to ask: how often are we guilty of the very same behaviours we are scolding our children for?

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
– Carl Jung

What I needed in my moment of distraction wasn’t someone yelling at me. I needed to gently remind myself to get back on track. I even smiled at myself, giggling at how easily I was getting everything else accomplished aside from the task at hand! That too is how I need to approach my children. Not with frustration, not with exasperation – but with gentle encouragement.

Depending on the developmental level of our children, they are likely struggling with their own impulsivity.  I read once that our ability to control our impulses isn’t fully developed until age 24 (sorry, I don’t have a reference for this, it is simply something I read once that stuck with me). And, because our impulses are related to root drives, we tend to experience heighten impulsivity when we feel hungry, tired, hurt, and anxious. If that is the case, shouldn’t we be even gentler on ourselves and our children?

Additional ways to encourage and motivate children with their chores:

  • Acknowledge how tough the task can be. Normalize it instead of sending a message of shame: “I know, it is super hard to stay focused with all these neat things in your room…”
  • Use encouragement to assist your child in getting started: “How about I come back to check in a few minutes, I bet you can get this one thing done before I return!”
  • Notice what was done instead of what wasn’t done: “Wow, you’re half through putting your books back on the shelf – and with all these cool toys around tempting to distract you! How did you manage to stay on-track?!”
  • Sometimes, we also need to ask what is beneath all this? Is there something more going on, (such as feeling tired, hungry, and so forth)?

This article was originally posted on March 11 2013, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge