As thousands of Australian children nervously prepare to go back to school, new research reveals that mindful parenting significantly reduces children’s stress levels.
While mindfulness – a present-focused, open and non-judgmental state of attention – is becoming a mainstream stress management technique, evidence of its impact on children to date has been sparse.
A new study by the University of Melbourne’s Director of Positive Psychology and Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology, Professor Lea Waters, is the first of its kind and explores how parents’ mindfulness can help ease child stress.
Professor Waters explains that past research shows when a child is stressed they draw on their parents for support, and parents have the power to diminish or increase their children’s stress levels.
“We now have strong evidence that children directly benefit when their parents are more mindful of their emotions, and pause before they react with anger, stress or frustration,” she says.
“Most parents intuitively value and give love and emotional support to their children. Mindfulness can further this emotional support by calming parents and helping them regulate their own attention and emotions.”
Rising child stress
Child stress has been amplified in recent years by the rise of technology and social media, more working parents, less free time and more aggressive marketing.
31 per cent of Australian children report feeling ‘very stressed,’ 40 per cent believe they worry too much, and 40 per cent also feel they have difficulty staying calm.
This stress and tension often leads to psychosomatic symptoms, which are physical conditions caused by internal conflict.
“Worryingly, many children are so stressed they experience headaches, abdominal pain and have difficulty sleeping,” says Professor Waters.
How to become mindful
Anyone can learn how to become more mindful through the calming practice of being present and giving each task your full attention.
“Mindfulness is more than just a ‘buzzword’,” says Professor Waters.
“It’s about being fully aware of what you are doing while you are doing it. That sounds simple, but when we are doing something like getting the kids ready for school, forty per cent of the time our mind is not in the moment and aware of what we are doing.
“We are much calmer when we are in the moment because we are not thinking about an unresolved past issue or something we need to do in the future that we haven’t done yet.
“Taking the time to really listen and understand your child’s feelings promotes trust and emotional connection, which leads to a richer and more authentic relationship,” explains Professor Waters.
“It also teaches children how to be open and aware of the whole situation, including their thoughts, feelings and sensations, which in turn makes them less stressed.
“Emotional awareness is especially important during stressful school transition periods when children have a raft of mixed emotions. They might be happy to see their school friends, but nervous about how much homework they will have.”
Six tips to bring mindfulness into your daily routine:
2.Eat your lunch mindfully by considering the smells, tastes and texture.
3.Manage your stress by stopping to take a breath, acknowledging and observing what is happening and letting it go.
4.Walk to work and between appointments. Don’t email or text, but rather take in the ground and air, and maybe even say hello to colleagues or neighbours that you pass!
5.Set mindfulness reminders to prompt you to pause, breathe and consider what’s happening in your head. You can use a smartphone app to set random mindful bells that remind you to be present.
6.Role model mindfulness techniques with your children. Practice breath awareness together when they brush their teeth, pack their school bag or put their socks on. This helps to interrupt children’s autopilot and connect them with what they’re thinking and feeling.
Some useful mindfulness books for parents:
Buddhism for Mothers of School Children by Sarah Napthali
Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindful Parenting by Kristin Race
Mindful Parenting by Susan Bogels and Kathleen Restifo
Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartznell
Zen and the Path of Mindful Parenting by Clea Danaan
There are also books focussed on increasing mindfulness in children, such as:
Peaceful Piggy Meditation by Kerry Lea MacLean
Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Lea MacLean
The Mindful Child by Susan Greenland
Banner image: Back to School by Leland Francisco, via Flickr