The skill that can help mums and dads to calm down and reconnect

Being a parent can be stressful, but mindfulness can help create more pockets of calm and connection.
Being a parent can be stressful, but mindfulness can help create more pockets of calm and connection. Photo: Stocksy

Before getting out of bed each morning, Erica's mind was already racing, thinking about the day ahead. She would notice the tension in her face and shoulders and how her breath felt shallow. As she took her daughter, Ella to creche she was aware of her own impatience. 'Tense', 'worried', 'weary': She would silently name her emotions and the sensations in her body. After a busy work day where she felt stressed and tight in her chest, she would pick Ella up, giving her just a brief hug before rushing home for the evening routine.

Having children leads many parents to a greater sense of wellbeing and purpose, but it also leads to greater stress and a sense of having less time.

Unsurprisingly, many children mirror what their parents are feeling, with about 40 per cent of Australian school kids saying they feel stressed.

In her 20 years as a psychiatrist, Dr Diana Korevaar says she has witnessed how "intense" life has become for young families.

"Mums and dads these days are frantically busy often trying to maintain two careers just to cover costs," Korevaar says. "Lives of children are often very busy, much more than it was a couple of decades ago."

Such stress "makes the mind very busy and takes them out of an emotionally intimate relationship with the people in their home and out of step with their intuition", she says.

It also makes it hard to enjoy "really precious" time with those we're closest to.

Korevaar says that, in her experience, every parent can learn the simple skills to help them find more calm, reconnect and enjoy the ride.

It all comes down to an oft misunderstood technique: mindfulness.

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Mindfulness, she explains, doesn't have to involve meditation (although meditation is great) and it certainly doesn't mean we stop or even try to change our thoughts.

"It's learning to engage instead in the present moment," says Korevaar.

How does this help parents and their children?

When people are in a state of stress it's hard to feel connected with their partners and children and it also means they're likely to be more reactive to those around them and more self-critical of themselves.

Korevaar says, for instance, that it's common for parents to judge themselves and feel like they're not doing a good enough job.

"Judgment is a behaviour of the mind that is automatic," she says. "Beneath conscious awareness is the amygdala and it is constantly scanning the environment and it's threat-based, so whatever is going on in our lives that is important – like trying to be a good parent – it's going to be working out 'how am I measuring up?' So the more we can notice what it's doing – 'I like this, I don't like that, she's good at that, I'm not good at this' – we're observing patterns of the mind."

Using mindfulness as a way of observing these patterns can help them to shift out of negative thinking and into a calmer, more compassionate, place.

In her new book, Mindfulness for Mums and Dads: Proven Strategies for Calming Down and Connecting, she offers multiple methods for mindfulness. They all have a "very scientific basis to them" and none is better than the other, it's simply a matter of finding one that works for you.

  • There is the body-scan technique, for example.

"Emotions – the feelings of stress or anger or joy are physical sensations that are arising in the body, so when we learn in a body scan to let go of tension, to pay attention to the sensations in the body, that, at a nerve-cell level, is actually helping build recognition of emotion and capacity to shift from stressful emotional states," Korevaar explains.

"That's how yoga works in a lot of ways – when people learn to bring the principles of that into the rest of their lives then yoga can be an incredibly helpful mindfulness practice."

  • There is also the "incredibly powerful" breath practice.

"Research will show now that every emotion we have is actually a different pattern of breathing," she says. "That's quite simple – just slow, steady breathing, slightly longer on the out-breath than on the in-breath and the more we practise that when we're not tense, the more likely it is that we'll get to recognise when we're holding our breath because we're tense or angry and we can take the torchlight of attention in being caught up in thoughts and stabilise ourselves and change the patterns of breathing and changing the hormones and perhaps changing the emotions."

Such techniques can help parents to "create pockets of time", Korevaar says, "where they're really just observing and savouring things and really paying attention to the wonder of this little child who is growing up and trying to make sense of the world. They can shift the meaning of the day and instead of it being just so task-focused, they can start to actually relate at a very different level."

Erica began using these techniques, practising a couple of minutes of soothing rhythm breath (closing her eyes and silently counting to five on each inhalation and exhalation) as well as noticing her posture and softening the tension in her face and body. She also practised self-compassion instead of judgement, telling herself: "It's been such a busy day. It's understandable I feel tired. All I need to do is simply be here, in this moment."

Slowly, this softening and opening in herself extended to her interactions with Ella and her husband.

"Erica found that if she spent even fifteen minutes when she first arrived home to connect with her children and husband, it often made a big difference to how the whole evening went," Korevaar explains in the book. "Having used mindfulness to settle herself, Erica focused on being really present in her initial interactions with everybody. If her husband was tense... she found that catching his eye, asking quietly how he was, then listening carefully to what he had to say seemed to ease his tension."

With her children, she also noticed that giving them her full attention, even just for a few moments, and softening her tone of voice and facial expression "made a big difference".

Erica was learning, Korevaar says, that family life can be more meaningful and enjoyable when she learned how to dive beneath the surface of her own reactivity, tuning into herself and the moment that lay before her.

"These are skills we innately have," she says. "We all have the capacity to be wise. We've all got the capacity for intuition and to be more wise about our lives. Our minds can become our ally if we learn how to do it and practise it."

Mindfulness for Mums and Dads: Proven Strategies for Calming Down and Connecting is out now through Murdoch Books

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