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How to Parent in the Present Moment

How to Parent in the Present Moment

When Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., realized she needed to stop yelling at her children, she decided to tame the mommy monster by meditating and being mindful by 'parenting in the present moment.'

Are you listening to me? Are you listening to me?! NO. MORE. TALKING!!!”

I wanted to think of myself as a good mother, but I was also losing my temper at my daughters more often than I cared to admit. My shoulders would tense, my jaw would tighten, and loud, angry words would come spilling out of my mouth with a force that often took both the girls and me by surprise. Sometimes they would silently comply with my requests, but other days they would look at me in fear or sadness and start crying.

Those were the worst days.

Whatever they were doing wasn’t the actual cause of my outbursts. The problem was me—my stress, my fatigue, my impatience, my frustration, all of which welled up until I exploded.

I had rarely yelled before I became a mom—certainly never at work and rarely with family or friends. I was able to stay calm in the most frustrating interactions, but somehow, in the face of two little girls—the last people I wanted to hurt—I was unable to manage my emotions. What had happened to the old me—and more importantly, how could I get her back?

“I wish you wouldn’t yell at me, Mommy. It makes me feel so sad.”

Knife to the heart. There are only so many times I can say I’m sorry. At some point they’re just not going to believe me or respect me anymore.           

I knew my behavior had to change. I Googled “ways to stop yelling,” and found many ideas: Whisper instead. Go into the bathroom and count to ten. Recite a mantra. Jump up and down. Take deep breaths until the moment passes. These were all doable, and I was determined to implement them.

Within a day, I was yelling again. By the time I remembered to whisper or count or breathe, I had already yelled. I had come up against the fundamental problem with many self-help suggestions: They rarely tell us how to sustain changes. Just do it, we are told. Gee, thanks. If I could, don’t you think I would have already done it?

Nearly everything I read made some mention of mindfulness and meditation. That sounded too hippie for me, but I knew I was drowning and needed to try something new. So, reluctantly, I signed up for a mindfulness-based stress reduction class.

I remember the first time I attempted to practice mindfulness. I wasn’t able to stop my yelling before it started, but I did something different after. I went into the kitchen, put my hands on the counter and took a few deep breaths. Almost immediately, the guilt dam burst: “I’m a terrible mother. The poor girls looked so scared, and I just kept yelling. I’m the adult here; I should be able to control my temper.…”

And then, I remembered what my instructor had said: Our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not reality, and we don’t have to treat them as though they are.

“Okay,” I thought to myself. “You yelled again. It’s over. You’re working on it. What was that about? What do you need? What do they need? What can you do differently now?”

I don’t remember how I answered myself—maybe I was hungry or stressed or the girls were overtired or getting sick. Maybe I offered to read to them or let them watch a show so I could have a break.

What I do remember is how I felt. Before, when I would freak out, I just couldn’t get myself into a better headspace no matter how I tried. Then, more often than not, I would unleash that crappy mood on the girls all over again. This time, I tried to pay attention to how I was feeling and, interested in what happened, I felt like I could breathe. I felt like I could get some clarity on the situation. I felt like I could go back to my daughters with a willingness to reconnect with them, rather than an angry urge to yell at them.

And I did.

I had experienced for the first time what noted meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg describes as the magic moment: The moment that we realize our attention has wandered. That’s when we have the chance to be really different. Instead of condemning ourselves, we can be gentle with ourselves.

I decided it was time to take the meditation part of the course seriously. As it turns out, it’s about learning to notice your thoughts—whatever they may be—and letting them go, over and over again. We were practicing a basic breathing meditation, which involves paying attention to your breathing. The goal is to notice every time your mind wanders (which is about every 2 seconds for me), and to make the choice to come back to your breath. It’s about having the magic moment over and over again, so we can get really good at noticing when we’ve gone off on a rant and come back.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy, because our brains aren’t designed to focus on something as boring as our breath. Our brains were designed to think, and then think some more, all the time. Evolutionarily, we survived because we were constantly scanning the environment for threats. Our brain’s default mode is to bounce around like a monkey. When we throw in kids and the demands of modern life (and technology), it’s as if we fed that monkey a sleeve of Oreos and a handful of Ecstasy.

But the monkey is not reality. The more we indulge it, the stronger and louder he gets. But if we accept that the monkey is there, say hello, and then go on with our business, we get a little distance from him. We’re able to choose how—or even if—we want to follow our thoughts.

Much to my surprise, I started meditating. A few times a week, I would sit in a chair or on a cushion, and just breathe. Some days it felt effortless and invigorating. Other days I was unable to sit for the whole time. But I kept doing it. And I kept making it a point to practice mindfulness, to choose a few moments each day, often when I was out for a walk or reading to my daughters, to just focus and be present. Of course, my mind would wander, and I would make the choice to come back to the present moment with whatever curiosity and compassion I could find.

I can’t tell you that I am now consistently calm, kind, and empathic no matter what parenting dilemma crosses my path. Far from it. I still yell at times, but it’s far less often than it was, and I am able to bounce back much more quickly. And I’m getting clarity on a number of ways in which I had strayed from what really matters in parenting: my connection with my daughters, as they truly are and as I truly am, right here, right now, in this present moment, which is where the real work of parenting happens.

Adapted from Parenting in the Present Moment by Carla Naumburg, Ph.D. 2014 Parallax Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


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Author: Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker, mother, and writer. She most recently wrote "Parenting in the Present Moment." See More

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