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

Excessive Control is Problematic

IMG_2950A degree of control in our lives can create a sense of security. We also require it in healthy dosages in order to be the autonomous healthy people we strive to be. A degree of control in our parenting is necessary when creating structure, routine, and boundaries in our home and with our children. However, control can also wreck havoc on our interpersonal relationships if it becomes excessive. Before going in to detail, I would like to share a story…

In October 2003, while I was residing in Mississauga Ontario, a beautiful 9 year old girl named Cecilia Zhang was abducted from her home during the night – out of her own bedroom window while she and her family slept. I did not know her, and I did not know her family… but I was forever changed by her. At the time, I was pregnant with my first child. Cecilia’s story was covered on all the news channels, and her picture was plastered in every store window in my community. It is a disturbing story that chills me and brings tears to my eyes even now, 9 years later. As my own precious child was growing inside me, completely safe and protected, I desperately longed for Cecilia to be found and returned home. To her parents heartbreaking dismay, she was not.  As I watched Cecilia’s investigation unfold, the remaining beliefs I held about the world as a safe place began to crumble.

I have worked hard to keep my fears in-check since that moment, so as not to pass them on to my children. But the fears are always there, just beneath the surface. I keep the windows locked at night. I use a home alarm system. I try to get to know parents prior to my children having play-dates. I research daycare providers prior to employing them… But every now and then, when I have had a stressful day at work or some sort of crisis is underfoot, my need for control kicks in to overdrive. I catch myself wanting to tell my kids (and my husband!) what to do. I even start planning it in the car on the way home! And then I realize what I am doing, and I realize that my day has affected me adversely… and I take a deep breath to release it….

I believe that many parents want to have the illusion of control. That illusion helps us feel safe and enables us to believe we possess the capacity to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Trauma researchers Follette and Pistorello (2007) state that when our lives feel out of control, we strive to exert control over our thoughts, feelings, and environment (including the people in our environment!). That control we feel we must exert in order to escape feelings of uncertainty and fear sever only to become the problem!

Too much control is detrimental to our relationships – especially to our children. As parents, we need to successfully navigate the delicate balance between keeping our kids safe and street smart while not passing our own issues on to them.

Are there times when you have noticed a sudden excessive need for control or order within or around you? Have you ever caught yourself attempting to control those around you with threats or coercion? Have you ever caught yourself attempting to control what those around you are doing, even when it has no impact on you? If so, it might be time to check in on how you are doing.

Keeping our kids safe is one of the most important jobs of being a parent. Honouring what is going on for ourselves as parents, is an important step in that process. How can you nurture your need for security, for stability, for a degree of control and so forth, without alienating your children and loved ones?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Recognize your triggers (what thoughts, emotions, or situations bring up strong feelings or kick on a need for excessive control?)
  2. Become aware of your own internal distress(what is your body’s distress signal? For example, holding your breath or taking shallow breaths, clenching muscles or your jaw, pacing or becoming rigid, and so forth)
  3. When you catch your self calling out directions and demanding compliance, take a moment to tune inwards and notice what is going on for you  (Notice what you are thinking, what you are feeling emotionally, and what changes you notice within your body)
  4. Withhold the judgment  (towards yourself, and those around you)
  5. Reassure yourself that you are a normal human being responding to a tough situation – and that you can get through it

(Please also feel free to leave your own suggestions as comments to this post!)

References:
Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems, by Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello (2007)

This article was originally posted on October 20, 2010, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge

Mindful Parenting

Notice the Intention, then Address the Behaviour

“Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.” — Wayne Dyer

Holding DaisiesChildren have beautiful intentions. As adults, it can be very easy to lose sight of these intentions. We can get caught up in our day at work, in our household chores, in bills that need to be paid, in family issues, and in our own (sometimes unresolved) experiences. When we are “stuck in our heads” we lose sight of the present moment. For example, we interpret our children as being messy when they are actually being creative, or as getting in our way when they are trying to be helpful.

A very poignant example of this very notion was shared with me recently while working with a 66 year old woman (I will refer to her as Jen in order to protect her privacy). Jen described to me a story of when she was young – just 6 years old. She told me that her mother had the most beautiful flowers growing in the garden. Jen would love to sit among the flowers, most of which were taller than she was when she sat. As she sat by the flowers, she would imagine herself living in a field all of flowers. The image was calming and safe for her, and she would spend hours sitting among the flowers. One summer day, Jen’s mother had been cleaning the house and Jen had wanted to help. She saw her mother working hard and noticed how beautiful the house was becoming.  Jen described offering to help her mother, but that her mother had been too busy to attend her. Still full of admiration for her mother and wanting to help, Jen went out into the garden, and selected a few of her favorite flowers – thinking of how lovely they would look on the kitchen table. Jen pulled the flowers and brought them into the house. She found a vase and began filling it with water. At that moment, Jen’s mother entered the room: her mother noticed only the plucked flowers, root and all, and a clump of dirt muddying her freshly washed floor. Jen was in trouble and the flowers were thrown in the trash. Jen’s beautiful intention to help her mother went unnoticed. What an impact this mother’s actions had on her young daughter – so much so in fact, that at age 66 Jen recalls every detail of the experience and it still brings tears to her eyes.

Our children have beautiful intentions. Depending on their age, they might not know fully how to help. For example, Jen did not know she needed to cut the flowers and leave the root in the ground – her intention was solely to help.

Consider the intentions behind your children’s action – and attend to the intention. Then teach the appropriate behaviour. Grasp hold of the teachable moment and use it to bolster your child’s self-esteem.

Use the comments to share any of your examples of when you been successful at noticing the intention in your children’s behaviour.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them”
–Mother Teresa

This article was originally posted on July 31 2012, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge