What is 'mindful parenting'? Experts say it's about 'responding intentionally' instead of 'reacting' to kids' behavior

Parenting can be emotional, but some moms and dads are embracing
Parenting can be emotional, but some moms and dads are embracing "mindful parenting" as a way to disconnect from their own emotional responses and focus on their kids. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Parenting can be emotional. And when it comes to facing the challenges that accompany raising kids, it can be difficult for parents to separate their own feelings from the current issue at hand. When a kid exhibits negative emotions or a child's behavior is somehow lacking, it's sometimes all a mom or dad can do to bring out the deep breathing exercises and stay in the present moment without losing their cool.

No parent is perfect but there are ways for parents of kids to better communicate, especially when children do something that's against the rules or fail to pay attention to their parents' instructions. In the face of the most frustrating moments of parenthood when negative emotions are running high, parents may be left thinking there has to be a better way ... and some parents and experts say there is.

What is mindful parenting?

You might have heard of "mindful parenting," but what exactly is it? Yahoo Life spoke with parenting experts and parents who put this mindfulness practice into place to ask what being a mindful parent looks like and how moms and dads can work on incorporating this method of emotional regulation into their parenting style.

"Mindful parenting is about accepting what's happening in each moment and not being concerned with what happened in the past or what may happen in the future, because the present is all that really exists," says Michelle Felder a social worker and play therapist who founded Parenting Pathfinders, an organization that offers parenting consultations, online therapy and other forms of support to families. "This is an approach to parenting that allows us to tune in to our own emotions and become more aware of them so these emotions don't drive our actions and we can then respond intentionally instead of reacting to our children's behavior or choices."

Why is mindful parenting important?

Courtney Porter, mom of two 6-year-old boys, describes mindful parenting as responding instead of reacting. As a result, she feels her kids aren't riddled with anxiety about being yelled at and can instead learn from an experience.

Courtney Porter with her husband, Mark, and two children, Neyland and Peyton. (Photo: Courtney Porter)
Courtney Porter with her husband, Mark, and two children, Neyland and Peyton. (Photo: Courtney Porter)

"My son Peyton accidentally drew on the wall with marker and instead of yelling at him," Porter offers as an example. "I told him it was a beautiful piece of art, but I'd rather him draw it on paper so I can frame it for everyone to see."

This form of emotional regulation helps parents better understand their children's thoughts and feelings and can also teach kids a few lessons about negative emotions and ways to pay attention to the present moment.

"Children learn how to regulate their emotions by witnessing how we regulate our own," says Felder. "So when children see us pausing before we speak, deep breathing, being thoughtful about our actions or being deliberate about speaking in a certain volume, they're able to develop and strengthen these skills within themselves too."

How do I know if I should try mindful parenting?

Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician and CEO of Happiest Baby, says when kids' behaviors are explosive or happen over and over again, it's wise to revisit what's working and what's not working with your current parenting style.

"Remember, it's always possible to change your parenting method," says Karp. "If that seems too overwhelming, know that you can hone in on one area at a time and work from there."

Not sure if your current parenting style is working for your family? Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of For What It's Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0 – 2, shares some signs that it may be time to switch things up:

  • Your child is upset more than they are content or happy.

  • You are unable to soothe your child.

  • Your child is fearful of you.

  • Your child exhibits serious symptoms of anxiety or depression that hinder their developmental growth.

  • You feel like your child doesn't respect you without fear tactics.

How to parent mindfully?

Interested in learning more about how to incorporate mindful parenting into your life? Pediatricians, therapists and practicing mindful parents share their best tips for parenting mindfully with Yahoo Life.

Speak "toddler-ese"

Karp says it's important to talk to toddlers in a way they can understand.

"One of my favorite ways to engage in mindful parenting with young tots — kids between 8 months and 6 years old — is using a little The Happiest Toddler on the Block talking tip called 'toddler-ese,'" Karp explains. "Most of the time we speak with our toddlers with our normal caring adult language. But, when a child is upset or emotional, they have a hard time hearing our words"

Michelle Felder with her daughters, Zoë and Noa. (Photo: Michelle Felder)
Michelle Felder with her daughters, Zoë and Noa. (Photo: Michelle Felder)

With toddler-ese, says Karp, it's easy to help a child understand what you're trying to communicate.

"You can translate anything you want to say into your child's 'natural language' by using three simple steps: short phrases, repetition and mirroring about a third of your child's emotional level in your tone of voice and body and face gestures," Karp says.

Recognize what you need as a parent

It's easy for parents to put their needs on the backburner to keep their kids content. However, this can cause a plethora of problems and even lead one to lash out at their child when they actually didn't mean to.

"For me, parenting mindfully looks like pausing before I respond to something that's going on," says Felder. "If there's a challenging or emotionally-charged situation happening, I'll check in with myself about how I'm feeling — am I tired, hungry or being emotionally triggered? Then I'll take three deep breaths before I say anything and be deliberate about my words, tone and volume."

Are there cons to mindful parenting? Since not everyone believes in the basics of mindful parenting, Cook points out that living with a relative who doesn't share the same views can make things tricky.

"It's difficult to parent mindfully if your spouse or extended family doesn't wish to parent this way," says Cook. "It can create conflict within the family system, so the con isn't necessarily about mindful parenting, but it's about the struggles one potentially has if there isn't consistency in the approach."

Invest time in understanding your child

Instead of immediately trying to rectify a problem, take the time to understand your child's needs.

"I always take the time to get to the cause of the issue: What's upset him? Is he frightened? Is he over-stimulated? Is something hurting him?" says Jodie Keith, a mom of two and founder of the blog Jodetopia.com. "It doesn't matter if I'm late to an appointment, if I'm embarrassed or if he's made a mess or broken something. We work through any problems as a team, respecting one another."

Jodie Keith with her kids, Arthur and Ada. (Photo: Jodie Keith)
Jodie Keith with her kids, Arthur and Ada. (Photo: Jodie Keith)

"My son knows that he is loved, safe and respected and that I will always listen to him and abide by his needs," she adds. "We are a team. I guide him, mindfully, to the best of my ability with the information I have at the time."

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