When he was a toddler, my son’s meltdowns would overwhelm my nervous system to the point where neither of us was functional. I knew I needed to be the calm adult in the middle of his storm, but I didn’t know how. To stay mindful during his meltdowns, I needed to take it one step at a time.
Mindfulness for Self-Regulation
The knowledge that as his parent I had a responsibility to be his emotional balance anchor was in the back of my mind somewhere. I knew I needed to stay grounded when he was at his most dysregulated. I just had no idea how to get there.
I was meditating daily. I could close my eyes and breathe and feel better momentarily. I know what a calm heart and mind feel like, and I have tools to reconnect with that feeling. It would stay with me for a while. But I wasn’t using those tools in my day to day life. It felt like all or nothing. I was either freaking out, advocating for my son with a sense of urgency, or I was meditating.
Mindfulness is different. The intention is not to close off to the world for a specified amount of time and then rejoin life, but to integrate awareness into everyday activities, to notice thoughts as they are happening, to know that we have choices each and every moment in how we feel, think and behave.
We still need to dedicate time to practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is one type of meditation. The simplest way to describe it is the difference between eyes closed and eyes open. You can practice with the intention of bringing awareness into your everyday life and your parenting. Mindfulness doesn’t mean stiffness or seriousness. There’s nothing fancy about it. It means drinking in the whole experience that you’re having in this moment, without sorting your experience into good or bad.
Here’s how I practice mindfulness:
I recognize what is right in front of me, without trying to change anything. I accept what is true in the moment, taking it in without judgment. Acceptance is a first step towards change. When I see what’s happening with my eyes open, I can pause, gain insight, and there will still be a chance to respond after pausing.
Have you ever stared out a window without actually seeing the window? Have you ever had a moment where you finally focused on the window? When you noticed a smudge or something distorting your view? What if you didn’t react to the smudge, or wipe it away immediately? What if you simply noticed the effect it had on your view? Would you be able to see a little more clearly? That clarity is an example of mindfulness. It isn’t about escaping our feelings or perfecting or shutting out the world. It happens when we can be with what is, without judgment.
In order to be with my son in his big feelings, I first had to be alright with my own.
To stay mindful during meltdowns, I needed to take it one step at a time. If I couldn’t access my own inner state during the meltdown, how about right after? How about an hour later? How about as I recounted the details in session with my therapist? Starting there, I crept slowly towards staying present and mindful during his storm of emotions.
At first, I would notice my body sensations and emotional reactions only long after his meltdown was over. Then, it was right after. Then, finally, sometimes I could be conscious of my own physical container during his emotional storm. I practiced being present with my own senses, without closing off to his pain.
I said to myself:
“Here’s my feeling. Here’s his. Here’s my body, here’s my breath."
I asked myself:
"When was the last time you took a breath in? Do your shoulders really need to be up by your ears as you listen to him scream? How close can you stay without being in pain? What would it feel like if you unclenched your jaw?"
I gave myself compassion:
"Other families go through this, this meltdown is not your fault. We will ride this out together, and it won’t last forever...”
Neglecting our own needs can lead to being less patient and understanding with our kids.
Calmer, kinder parenting can only happen when we parents care for ourselves. If only we would be as kind to ourselves as we are to our loved ones. Think of a struggle you’re having. What would you say to your best friend if they were struggling with this? Tell yourself something simple, soothing and comforting. For example, “It’s okay.” “I love you.” “We’ve got this.” or “It’s not your fault.” Choose one phrase and repeat it often.
Affirmation: It's Not an Emergency
I listened to an interview with Dr. Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.” Based on what I learned, I wrote “It’s not an emergency” on a bunch of post-it notes and put them all over the apartment, as a reminder for myself.
My son asked about the post-its, and I explained that I needed a reminder to not react, to breathe, and to stay grounded. After that, when I started freaking out about something, he would remind me “Mama, it’s not an emergency!” Now, I am not judging the anxiety that caused me to freak out. Often, I would begin to react before I was even aware of what I was doing. So the reminder wasn't a judgment, it was gentle permission to stop and take stock before responding. The simple affirmation acted as a trigger to pause, even for a second.
Be patient with yourself as you are learning these new skills.
It was a slow process and a huge learning curve to get to the point where I could sometimes remain calm and steady in an emotional moment with my kid. I learned that detachment in parenting is about trust. Trust that my kid can have his experience and feelings, and I can have mine, and they are all allowed. Mindfulness helped me integrate my inner wisdom with my present life experience.
In body-based mindfulness we use awareness of our body sensations to practice being with things just as they are. One of the most effective ways I found to stay present in my body was to feel my feet on the ground.
Ground Your Feet
- Stand up. Spread out your feet a little.
- Wiggle your toes and shift your weight side to side and front to back. Then pause.
- Imagine your tension draining down your body into the soles of your feet and then through your feet into the ground as if you had roots. Feel yourself rooted into the earth and supported by gravity.
- Feel that you are held, while knowing that this moment of suffering will pass. Breathe with it.
- When your mind wanders, take it back down to the soles of your feet. Stay present with whatever else is going on around you, while keeping the connection of your feet to the ground.
- When you feel ready, wiggle your toes and move on with your day.
Being self-regulated as a parent is essential for co-regulating with your child. I still get swept up in my kid's meltdowns. Over time, it happens less and less often. For best results keep the focus on your own emotional balance. Your kids will benefit from your calm, connected state. Trust that your wholehearted presence is enough.
“You helped me find ways to deal with my own anxiety and big feelings so that I can stay grounded for my kids.”
If you'd like four more simple mindfulness practices to help you stay calm and mindful during your child's next meltdown, download my cheat sheet below.
How to Stay Calm When Your Kid Is Having a Meltdown
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