A recent piece of mine discussed-- with much more of a firestorm than I intended -- that when it comes to parenting, you can't ever get any time back. So does a parent make the most of that time? How, when your phone is buzzing, your kids are arguing and your chicken burning, can you focus on living in the moment? Mindfulness -- truly paying attention to your thoughts and emotions in the present and how they're related to what's going on around you -- is the answer.
Mindfulness has gotten a lot of research attention and publicity recently, and its physical and mental health benefits are astounding, from managing food cravings to immune system function, from improving memory to helping asthma. It can be especially helpful for parents who want to feel like we're making the most of the short time we have in our children's lives. But it can also be so, so hard. We all know we should do it. But how do we, really?
I spoke with Dr. Steve Silvestro, a Bethesda, MD, pediatrician who teaches mindfulness courses for parents and mind-body medicine at Georgetown University. A Dad himself, he recognizes how just tough it is:
"What makes it difficult for parents to practice mindfulness is the fact that they can't just pay attention to their own lives," says Dr. Silvestro. Parents have to concentrate on their children's health and well-being at all times -- this leaves little time for us to pay attention to our own needs, which are important, too. While we can't be a good parent if we're wholly engrossed in ourselves, completely neglecting our own well-being doesn't really benefit our kids either. We need to strike a balance, and that's really difficult for many parents."
Q: So for someone just beginning to try to be more mindful, how can we start?
A: Learning to take a step back from our usual way of multitasking and constantly doing, and instead focusing on one emotion, task, or thought at a time, can be the first step. Taking a moment to check in with yourself to assess how you feel, why you feel that way, and what you want to do about it, really can take just a moment.
Q: When you're running around with your kids, frazzled, over the course of the day, it can be so hard to bring ourselves to this place. Any simple interventions we can do?
A: When the kids are driving us crazy, my wife and I will often look each other in the eye and take three slow, deep breaths together. This simple, 10-second breather gives us the opportunity to reset and recharge, allowing us to bring more patience, humor and love to interacting with our kids than we would have had we not stepped down off the cliff of frustration. And this benefits our kids as well, not only from you not flipping your lid, but they'll also indirectly learn a technique, through your modeling, to steady themselves in the face of stress. A final benefit for parents is burnout prevention. Studies have shown that physicians who report symptoms of burnout feel much more satisfied and dedicated after learning how to practice mindfulness. As parents, we all can use some burnout prevention at times!
Q: What about all the other distractions -- like (ahem!) wanting to lose ourselves in our phones to take the edge off and get an escape?
A: Recognize that whatever you're checking on the phone will still be there later (Read: The Facebook conversation you're obsessing over will still be there in 10 or 20 minutes, let alone an hour. In fact, waiting a little longer means more responses to read!). 2). Planning to allow yourself a set number of phone checks per morning or afternoon can take some of the guilt away when you're on the phone. On one hand, we all need a mental break here and there, especially if we're having a day in which the kids are driving us crazy. So, checking Facebook or email on your phone can potentially provide a much-needed moment of respite. On the other hand, checking in on your phone can sometimes do little more than feed the addiction, keeping you feeling wound up and anxious even when you're done. So, the important thing to do is to take a moment and assess how you feel after you're done on the phone. If those few moments help you feel mentally recharged and better able to focus on your kids, then you could say it was worth it. But if you're left still feeling drained, wound up or tense, then that time may have been better spent playing with your kids.
Q: That makes so much sense. Finally, what about when we fail? When we know we've spent the day being less than stellar in our mindfulness, does feeling guilty about it do any good?
A: If you can view feeling guilty about something as a wake-up call to make a change, then it can be a good thing. Feeling that pang of guilt -- whether it's when you first whip out your iPhone or when you've scrolled through half of Twitter -- can be your signal to draw your attention back to your kids. One trick would be to put down your phone, close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths. Not only does this simple activity get you off the phone, it can also give you the mental recharge you're looking for in less than a minute.
Want to learn more about mindfulness? Check out Dr. Steve Silvestro's website at www.drstevesilvestro.com.
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix. She also writes the long-time mental health advice column Baggage Check in the Washington Post Express.