Many years ago, I attended a talk by Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist renowned for her parenting blog based on child-development research. I came out of that talk with a mantra “stop, drop, and breathe.” This meant that whenever I began to have strong emotions, I would stop what I was doing, drop my agenda, and take a deep breath to calm myself down.1 For a while, these actions felt unnatural and contrived. However, I kept the mantra in my parenting toolkit because I knew that if I let my emotions run high, I would risk exploding at my children and feeling really bad about it afterward.
A few years ago, I started practicing mindfulness more regularly through observing my breath, bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they passed through my mind. I started to become more aware of the shift in my emotions. In the beginning, when I felt triggered, I would pinpoint my children’s unruly behavior as the emotional trigger. I would try to stay calm, often by taking long deep breaths. Later on, as awareness about my emotional shift became clearer, I realized that the culprit for my difficult emotions was not my children’s unruly behavior, but rather my unruly restless mind. The unruly mind from a long busy day at work, plus a lack of rest and sleep, caused me to lose my cool as soon as my children behaved differently from what I had expected. According to Dr. Dan Siegal’s hand model of the brain, I “flipped the lid”, losing the state of integration.2 The insight into understanding my restless mind improved my relationship with my children. Whenever I noticed that I was feeling tired from a long day, I verbalized to my children that I could be quick to short-circuit, and needed to take a break so that I could be a peaceful mom.
In some ways, I began perceiving a mindfulness practice as playing a game with the mind. As I continued to get more familiar with watching my mind, and saw an improvement in my relationship with my family, I felt encouraged to be more mindful. At some point, a deeper insight started to appear. I noticed a pattern of my emotional reactivity when I “flipped the lid.” According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR), open-mindedness and curiosity are the attitudes to cultivate in mindfulness practice.3 With a beginner’s mind, and an interest in parenting and psychology, I came to realize that my emotional triggers were habitual reactions to my own unmet needs in the past. A self-inquiry into these unmet needs helped me identify the soft-spots that often triggered an emotional upset. With the attitudes of non-judgment and acceptance, which are cultivated in the mindfulness practice, I gradually became more accepting of my habitual tendencies that led to upset and worry. This does not mean that I made an excuse for my anger, but mindful awareness gave me space to notice the trigger and to show compassion to myself. As Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In between my emotional triggers and my reactions, I can make a better choice.
You may ask what a mindfulness practice has to do with parenting, besides not yelling at our children. I believe it has everything to do with the social-emotional development of our children. The Polyvagal theory, proposed by neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges, explains co-regulation in mammals when parenting their young.4 The theory focuses on the evolutionary adaptive mechanism of the vagal pathways, which are the primary component of our autonomic nervous system – parasympathetic and sympathetic response. Utilizing the mammalian ventral vagal pathways, children detect social cues from their parents’ physiological states in order to distinguish safety from threats. These social cues include head and hand gestures, breathing patterns, facial expressions, and vocal intonations. The detection process called neuroception is a reflex, without cognition. When children perceive a sense of safety, they can play, learn, and grow. The sympathetic nervous system involved in a fight-flight response, which may be triggered when we raise our voice or yell at our kids, is down-regulated. The theory highlights the co-regulation between parents and children as the foundation for the children’s emotional self-regulation. When children lose their calm or have a tantrum, they are telling us that they need our help to co-regulate. In the midst of the chaos, parents can help their children co-regulate by embodying mindful awareness of their own feelings and emotions (hint: stop, drop, and breathe), thus indirectly teaching children how to self-regulate, and develop emotional resilience.
Not only do we co-regulate with our children, but we also are their role models, quite literally. Neuroscientists tell us that mirror neurons found in human brains play an active part in the acquisition of social skills, and the ability to empathize with the feelings of others. Mirror neurons are the neurons that fire both when a person performs an action, and when the person witnesses the same action performed by someone else; hence the name “mirror.5
At Casa di Mir, students learn, from preschool age, the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). They practice mindful awareness by learning to recognize their own feelings and needs, as well as those of others. They learn to express themselves and make requests for their needs while respecting the needs of others. This process fosters connection and understanding. As parents, we can teach children empathy by practicing mindfulness ourselves. The ways children develop empathy for others are twofold. First, through mindful awareness of their own feelings and needs, the awareness extends outward towards the feelings and needs of others. This is the NVC practice. Second, through empathic mirroring of their parents, when parents are mindful of their own feelings and needs, when parents show care and concern for their children, and acknowledge the children’s needs, the children mirror the same prosocial behaviors, strengthening their empathy for others.
Imagine the ripple effect of empathy in ourselves spreading through our children, their friends and families, and the community. How amazing it is that we can create a better world for ourselves and for our children through practicing mindfulness!
Current Casa Parent
Casa di Mir Montessori
References “Are you using this essential parenting tool?” , 25 Aug. 2020, https://www.ahaparenting.com/blog/are-you-using-this-essential-parenting-tool.  Siegel, D., Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole brain child. New York: Bantam.  Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe living. New York: Bantam.  Porges, S. W. (2015). Making the world safe for our children: down-regulating defence and up-regulating social engagement to optimise the human experience. Children Australia, 40, 2, 114-123.  Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi L., Gallese, V. (2006). Mirrors in the mind.Scientific American, Nov. 2006, 295 (5), 54-61.