Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of "Parenting in the Present Moment," shares what mindfulness is and how parents can apply it in messy real life situations.
In one sentence, what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is choosing to pay attention to the present moment, with kindness and curiousity.
Why do so many parents find that so hard to do?
It’s challenging because our brains are wired to be always thinking, planning, worrying. They’re just not good at being in the present moment. In addition, exhaustion and anxiety—the constant companions of many parents—can trigger your frontal lobe to shut down. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that lets us connect future consequences to our actions, make skillful decisions, and take a step back to get a little perspective so we can make a better choice. When we’re overwhelmed, that part of our brain goes offline, and we’re more likely to yell or freak out in reaction to difficult moments.
If parents do only one thing to live more in the moment, what should it be?
Practice being aware of your breathing. Just notice your breathing, and try to pay attention to three breaths in a row. Breathing translates most directly to being less on edge.
Can you do that without taking a class?
Absolutely. Take one or two daily routines, like riding the train to work, waiting for soccer practice to end, or sitting in the drive-thru line. During those routines, for 5 or 10 minutes, pay attention only to your breathing. When your mind wanders, as it will, bring it back to your breathing. When you do that, you are practicing slowing down and making a conscious choice about what you want to focus on. If you’re able to do it when you’re calm, it’s much more likely you’ll do it when you’re not calm. It can become an automatic habit, but only with practice.
What are warning signs that you’re about to lose it?
You’ll notice quite a few if you pay attention. Perhaps your muscles get tense; your eyebrows furrow; you feel agitated; you haven’t been sleeping well. Compulsive smartphone checking is another common signal for me. A big one is more snippiness with your kids, though not a blowout…yet. Those are all signs that you’re about to have a meltdown, and just being able to stop and take a few deep breaths can actually make a big difference.
Any tricks to head off a yelling fit if you see the signs?
Lower your expectations—for yourself, the house, your kids. Move more slowly through your daily routine. And get some sleep.
How can you know you’re making progress toward living more mindfully?
Can you take three or four deep breaths before you lose it? If so, you are aware of the fact that you will soon lose it. That’s a major step. On my best days, I react to my children’s annoyances with kind and accepting gestures, or humor. Or both.
Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker, mother, and author of Parenting in the Present Moment.