Teaching Children and Their Parents to Practice Mindfulness for Happiness
Picture this situation, parents: You’ve had a hard day. Your child is misbehaving—sending you over the edge. You threaten to take all their toys away. You yell. Maybe you announce a ridiculous punishment—so over the top that you know you won’t (and shouldn’t) follow through. You’re caught back in the loop of reacting from negative emotions instead of in the way you know you’ll be most effective. And once it’s over, you beat yourself up for not being a “good” parent.
It happens to the best of us. We’re programmed to freak out when the stress is high, right? And it takes a lot of practice to reprogram our brains, break the habit loop, and overcome the emotional rollercoaster of parenting.
So what’s a really great way to create a happier home?
Mindfulness in action.
How Teaching Children to Practice Mindfulness Works
According to a new study from researchers at the University of Washington, teaching parents and children to practice mindfulness can have remarkable results and benefits. The study reports parents who practice mindfulness have better control of their emotions, which helps them to apply consistency and encourage their children.
Children showed improvements in social skills and a decrease in negative behaviors when interacting with others.
What’s effective, Liliana Lengua and her team report in a new research study, is practicing mindfulness by staying calm, seeing a situation from other perspectives, and responding in an intentional way.
Through a parenting program that UW researchers created and offered at two early childhood centers, participants learned strategies and techniques that helped them manage their own emotions and behaviors while supporting their child’s development.
“Our goal was to support parents engaging in practices that we know build up their children’s social and emotional well-being. And in a pretty brief program, parents showed improvement in their own feelings of emotional control and demonstrated more of those parenting behaviors that support children,” said Lengua, Director of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at UW.
“Our data show that when parents improve, kids improve.”
For this study, published in the journal Mindfulness, 50 parents of preschoolers participated in programs at two sites—one a kindergarten socialization class at a suburban elementary school with a high population of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch, the other a Head Start program at a community college.
Over six weeks, researchers guided parents through a series of lessons on mindfulness and parenting strategies:
- being present: noticing, listening, and engaging with what’s happening right now;being warm: paying attention to the child’s
- emotions and giving the child opportunities to initiate interactions;
- being consistent: setting limits and developmentally appropriate expectations, praising the good things they do; and
- guiding without directing (otherwise known as “scaffolding”)—offering help when needed but encouraging independence and commenting on a child’s accomplishments.
In addition to lessons geared toward parents as a group, researchers observed parents interacting with their children and surveyed the parents—before the program started, at its end, and three months afterward—about both their own behavior and their child’s.
One of the biggest improvements, Lengua said, was in the parents’ ability to manage their emotions, which helped them apply consistency, guide and encourage more often, and reduce negativity.
Children, meanwhile, showed improvements in their social skills, and also displayed fewer negative behaviors when they were observed interacting with each other.
While the study was relatively small, Lengua said, the results are promising, not only because of the reported and demonstrated behavior changes among adults and children, but also due to the ability to provide such lessons in existing early learning settings.
In other words, there’s potential to reach people of a variety of backgrounds—not just those participants who might be familiar with mindfulness concepts—and arm them with positive parenting tools.
“Mindful parenting” has become something of a buzzword, Lengua added. “People talk about ‘mindful parenting’ as a thing. It’s really just recognizing your child, in that moment, as having their own experience, and being attentive and intentional in that moment,” she said.
“We view these strategies as skills that we can teach discreetly, and they provide regulation practices that we can use for any purpose.”
Researchers now are implementing the program at additional sites, mostly via community organizations that serve a diverse range of families, to see if the results will be replicated.
(SOURCE: “Emotion Socialization and Young Adult Internalizing Symptoms: The Roles of Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation,” published in the journal, Mindfulness, January 2019.)
Further, young adults raised by parents who are supportive of them expressing their emotions tend to be more emotionally healthy. And according to a study and led by a Georgia State psychology researcher, they report lower levels of depression and anxiety.
Laura G. McKee, an assistant professor of positive psychology and lead author of the study says when parents respond to their children’s emotions in supportive ways that suggest acceptance and non-judgment, their children tend to be more accepting and non-judgmental of their own experiences.
Researchers found that those who were raised by parents who were interested in their children’s emotions and encouraged them to share their feelings had better skills for coping.
McKee says that while decades of research have substantiated the impact of emotionally supportive parenting, few studies have focused on the specific variables and processes—including mindfulness—that connect parenting styles to the mental health of their children.
Mindfulness, she explained, is characterized as paying attention to the present moment without judgment, regulated attention and an attitude of curiosity, acceptance, and openness.
(It’s an active, moving meditation—like a sacred dance.)
In the study, McKee and research collaborators asked 256 college and graduate school students to answer questions about how their mothers and fathers reacted to their emotions during childhood.
Survey questions focused on parental responses to both positive emotions such as happiness and interest, and negative emotions, such as sadness, anger, and fear. The researchers asked questions such as “When you were sad as a child, what did your mother and father do?”
Participants indicated how typical it was for parents to respond, for example, by listening, providing comfort, and problem-solving with them.
“Previous studies have shown that emotionally supportive parents tend to be more mindful themselves, but we don’t know of any previous work that shows that emotionally supportive parents raise children who are mindful,” McKee said.
“This is an exciting new area of research that is an important next step, particularly to guide family-centered prevention and intervention programs.”
(SOURCE: “Preliminary Evaluation of an Innovative, Brief Parenting Program Designed to Promote Self-Regulation in Parents and Children” by Liliana J. Lengua, Erika J. Ruberry, Corina McEntire, Melanie Klein, and Brinn Jones in Mindfulness. Published August 31, 2018.)
How to Raise Emotionally Fit and Mentally Strong Kids
Parents and teachers are key to helping children live more fulfilled, happier, and less stressful lives. We should be teaching children to practice mindfulness, right?
It seems, in today’s world, the cards are stacked against our kids. Many haven’t been given tools to build emotional health and well-being. Entire industries are built around hijacking their dopamine for financial gain.
So, where can parents and educators go for strategies to help their children break the stress cycle and build emotional health?
To find the answers, join Harvesting Happiness Talk Radio host, Lisa Cypers Kamen as she speaks with two purveyors of positive psychology, Dr. Stuart Shanker and Dr. Maureen Healy. During the episode they’ll talk about their books, Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage With Life and The Emotionally Healthy Child: Helping Children Calm, Center, and Make Smarter Choices.
In this podcast episode, you learn how to:
- build mental health and emotional intelligence in children;
- recognize the difference between stress behavior and misbehavior;
- help children integrate right & left brain decisions; and
- handle dopamine hijackers.
Want more mindfulness? Listen to the Harvesting Happiness positive psychology podcast episode below.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Cypers Kamen is a lifestyle management consultant who explores the art and science of happiness in her work as a speaker, author, and happiness expert. Through her globally syndicated positive psychology podcast, books, media appearances, and documentary film, Kamen has impacted millions of people around the world.