As a perfectionist and a people pleaser, I’ve spent much of my life punishing myself for specific mistakes and generally not being enough. So it makes sense that upon becoming a parent I would do the same to my kids. Thankfully, mindful parenting has helped me to stop using punishment to control my children's behavior.
I’ve made a powerful shift from shaming, lecturing, micromanaging and endless timeouts to using connection strategies to encourage helpful behaviors. Because of this, my kids are great problem-solvers, and I’m able to stay calm when the big emotions come on fast. Was it easy? No, I will not lie: Along the way, I had to re-parent the child inside me who learned perfection was something valuable to strive for in the first place. This work took a lot of time, energy and money (therapy is expensive), and it inspired me to create mindful parenting programs that could help other parents learn these skills quickly and with greater ease.
If you’re looking for some ways to make parenting easier and a whole lot more fun, here are three impactful places for you to start.
Reduce Tantrums by Creating More Safety
When I yelled, slammed doors, counted to three and threatened my kids, I created fear in them. Some days I handled parenting challenges in stride, and other days I blew my top without any warning. At the slightest hint of anger or sadness from them I would often say something like, “Ohhhh, no! Do NOT start with that. We need to be in the car at our appointment in three minutes!” They never quite knew what kind of reaction to expect from me, so they began testing a whole lot more to gauge my mood (and their level of safety). Their constant, underlying insecurity of how their mom would react led to unwanted behaviors and button-pushing, but combined with tiredness or hunger, it could lead to epic 45-minute meltdowns where everyone’s nervous system was in fight or flight. And no one was in the car headed to an appointment.
Try this: During a tantrum, stay calm and kind. Get down on their level and offer a hug. Once they have calmed down, ask if they need some help to solve their problem. Staying calm helps provide a sense of safety so that they can calm down quickly.
It might look like: “Wow, you are yelling and lying on the floor and throwing anything you can get your hands on. I can tell you are mad.” Silently sit on the floor across the room, and when they start to calm down, open your arms for a hug. “I love you. Is there some way I can help you solve your problem?” This might take one to five minutes, but it’s a lot less intense than 45 minutes of battling a naked headstrong toddler to get in the car.
Increase Cooperation by Giving Them Control
When I first tell my coaching clients that their child has an intrinsic desire to be cooperative, they are highly skeptical. “Not my kid. They don’t cooperate with anything, and won’t do the simplest task, even though I know they are probably old enough.” When parents express these doubts, I tell them their main job is to start making a few small changes and notice what happens with regard to cooperation over the next few weeks and months.
Try this: Give your child more control during certain parts of your daily routine. Identify something in your morning, mid-day and during your bedtime routine they can do by themselves each day.
It might sound like: “You are growing so fast and getting so capable. I know you want to do more for yourself. So, let me remind you of all the things you can do for yourself today if you’d like: You can now climb up into the car seat and try to buckle in all by yourself. You can now pick your snack out of this drawer. You can now take off all your clothes and put them in this basket right here. You can choose your toothpaste flavor every night. If you ever need any help with these tasks, you can always say, ‘Will you help me?’ and I’ll be right here to help you.”
Prioritize Meaningful Connection to Stop Power Struggles
When I first started practicing mindful parenting, I balked at all the talk of “connection.” I secretly worried that in order to be a “good” parent I might need to quit work to just focus all my time on new connection strategies that promised to save my relationship with my kids. Would we go from mindful breakfast to mindful teeth brushing, on to mindful dressing and mindful buckling of seat belts every day? Just thinking about it made me tired. Additionally, I didn’t really like connecting in all the ways my girls wanted me to. They often asked me to build with them, do chalk art or enter into detailed dramatic play with their dolls. I pretended to like it, but I couldn’t stand these activities, and instead of bringing us closer, I felt irritated and short-tempered.
My worries eased once I realized that when it comes to connection, it’s all about quality over quantity. I also discovered ways of connecting that seemed to give my children and me new energy and helped us feel closer. After a few months, power struggles and button-pushing were almost nonexistent. And whenever I saw trouble brewing, I had tools to stop and pull us into a mindful moment that would bring my child back to a kind and helpful place without shame or punishment.
Try this: Find three times during your daily routine where you can add in two to five minutes of mindful connection, where you put away all distractions, look each other in the eye, snuggle and share.
It might look like: Mindful snuggle in the morning where you lie or sit together and talk about what you’re looking forward to in the day. Mindful goodbye when you drop them at child care or they go off to play with a friend at the park. Mindful hello when you reconnect after some time apart. Sharing a gratitude practice at dinnertime or as part of the bedtime routine.
My early attempts at mindful parenting were thwarted by my limiting belief that if I couldn’t do it perfectly, it was a waste of my time. Do not let this lie trick you into continuing a parenting paradigm that feels hard, is based in fear and pits you and your child against each other throughout the day. You can start wherever you are, take small steps that feel good to you and notice how your days evolve with fewer challenges and a lot more fun.
Petterson lives in Moscow with her husband and their two children. She left public education to become a yoga instructor, sleep specialist and mindful parenting educator. If you’re wondering how you might take the first steps in parenting more mindfully, you can reach out via her website at kristinepetterson.com. It’s never too late.
Basics: Mindful Parenting Revolution
eight-week online and group coaching program
Where: Zoom and Facebook
When: Wednesdays at 6 p.m. from April 6-May 18
For parents of kids aged 2-12 years who want to transform tantrums and triggers into calm, ease and connection.