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The 12 Steps and Mindful Parenting: Steps 1-3

A framework for new ways of relating to thoughts and emotions.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of recognizing and celebrating beauty in broken things. Broken ceramics (bowls, cups, vases) are put back together with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. Rather than trying to hide it, practitioners visibly incorporate the repair into the object’s restoration, honoring and revering the damage rather than using it as an excuse to discard and replace the object. The process frequently results in something more extraordinary and precious than the original.

The process of twelve-step recovery has much in common with Kintsugi in both intent and effect. Drawing on the words of Ernest Hemingway, twelve-step recovery helps people who dedicate themselves to the process become strong in the places where they were broken. The Twelve Steps create a framework for practicing new ways of relating to thoughts and emotions; generate healthier behaviors; support the application of spiritual principles such as acceptance, tolerance, open-mindedness, perseverance, humility, and gratitude; and prompt additional opportunities for conscious contact with that which is beyond oneself—of belonging to a greater whole, of connection to others, as well as to the world. All these benefits have spillover benefits for the quality of one’s parenting.

Spiritual Not Religious

Spirituality is not the same as religion. However, spirituality does not preclude religion. Spirituality for some closely connects to organized religion and belief in a specific conception of God. For others, spirituality has absolutely nothing to do with organized religion and/or a belief in God; they draw from different belief systems to create their own version of spirituality.

The twelve-step programs of recovery are, therefore, spiritual not religious. This notwithstanding, the use of the term God in several of the Twelve Steps puts off some people. If you fall into this group and you’ve been engaged in twelve-step recovery for a while, you’ve probably worked through this issue. If your participation is new(er) and the G-word is difficult for you, it can be helpful to think of the term “God” more as a form of shorthand to simplify understanding and communication among program members than as any sort of requirement or religious reference.

Step One

We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Understanding and applying Step One is analogous to laying the foundation in the process of building a house. If the foundation isn’t solid and level, it’s susceptible to problems. And problems that start with the foundation frequently lead to problems with other aspects of the construction and can have serious adverse effects on the house’s overall structural integrity. Moreover, if the foundation fails, everything built on top of it, no matter how beautiful and well-constructed, will also likely fail.

Step One is about finding ways to come to terms with and accept what is. Acceptance allows us to stop investing our precious time, energy, and emotion in denying and fighting against reality. As parents, we need to recognize and accept our kids for who and what they are, including the reality of their individual differences, needs, and strengths.

Importantly, the powerlessness described in this step does not mean helplessness. Step One for parents includes the need to apply the Serenity Prayer to differentiate between providing necessary structure, healthy limit setting, and enforcement, and supportive guidance and giving your kids appropriate space and autonomy. The second part of Step One as it relates to parenting is understanding that attempts to change or control what we shouldn’t or realistically can’t about your kids creates unmanageability and suffering in our lives as well as theirs.

Step Two

We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The Second Step is about the process of coming to the realization that we don’t know everything and can benefit from assistance from resources beyond ourselves. The belief that we don’t or shouldn’t need help—that “I got this”—is pervasive in US culture.

Historically, asking for help has been associated with weakness—more so for men but for women as well. Fortunately, over the last few decades seeking help when it’s needed has progressively been reframed as a sign of self-awareness and an indicator of strength. In terms of establishing a connection with a power greater than yourself, that is a strictly individual choice and the options are limitless.

Many parents cling to a restricted frame of reference and a limited and rigid skill set, even in the face of serious difficulties with their children. As a result, such difficulties usually either remain the same or get worse. A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over yet expecting the results to be different this time.

Step Two can restore “sanity” by helping parents open their minds and hearts to expanded knowledge and options that lead to more attuned and skillful parenting. This includes a willingness to begin to view and do things differently with your kids.

Step Three

We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Faith without follow-up is of limited value. The core of Step Three is to let go of the need to manipulate and control people and situations in order to get the results you desire. This necessitates relinquishing your attachment to specific outcomes. Emotional attachment to outcomes is clear whenever you really want, demand, feel entitled to, have to have, or believe you deserve a particular result.

Emotional attachment sets you up for disappointment, resentment, and anger if things don’t work out the way you want. If you’re attached to an outcome pertaining to your kids, you can’t be fully present with them. And whenever you aren’t fully present with and emotionally available to your kids, your ability to be skillful with them is compromised.

Attempts to manipulate and control take many different forms, from the indirect and subtle to the direct and aggressive. Inherent in all of them are anxiety, fear, impatience, mistrust, and stress. Giving up the need to control unlocks the door to freedom from these painful emotional states. Consider the amount of time and energy you’ve spent trying to control and manipulate people and situations to get what you wanted: How much extra stress and unnecessary suffering did that create for you, your family members, and others in your life?

The idea of turning your “will and life” over to anything can cause discomfort for many people. Again, the key component is really to turn over your need to control people and situations and allow events to unfold on their own—to flow with the current of the river of life rather than attempting to swim against it. You’re not turning over your parental responsibility to provide structure and guidance; you’re building upon Step Two’s willingness to view and begin to do things differently with your kids, including bringing mindfulness practices to bear in your interactions with them.

Upcoming posts will feature in order: Steps 4 & 5, Steps 6 & 7, Steps 8 & 9, and Steps 10-12.

Copyright 2019 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain.