Keeping your cool: techniques to reduce parenting stress

Mother and daughter

Simply put, parenting can be an incredibly challenging ordeal. More often than most parents would like to admit, it’s common to resort to reacting to a child’s tantrum or poor behaviour, rather than observing and then responding. So how can parents learn to keep their cool in exceptionally difficult situations? And is it even possible – regardless of what the endless articles on mindfulness and meditation may say – to always have the presence of mind to respond to your children in admirable way?

Reaction versus response

A toddler is having a tantrum in the middle of a busy grocery store. A flung open bathroom door leads to a scene where a grade-school child has given themselves a haircut with safety scissors. In these fraught situations, it’s understandable to react immediately. Reacting is an immediate response that often occurs without taking the time to pause and reflect. As such, a flood of feelings and emotions lead to a reaction. This flood occurs due to a perceived safety issue, or as a result of some deeper hot spots or triggers that have gone unresolved in our own minds.

Responding, on the other hand, is a comparably more empowering approach. The act of responding invites us to take a step back, pause, evaluate the situation and then decide on the most meaningful and mutually-beneficial way to proceed. Remember the toddler having a tantrum? Perhaps it’s because the overstimulation in the grocery store feels overwhelming. And the haircut? There was that story about a school bully who had a rather unkind word to say.

What causes us to react?

Aside from exhaustion and the other stressors inherent in daily parental life, your child’s behaviour may cause a heightened reaction for a variety of reasons. Your child may behave in a way that:

  • challenges your beliefs
  • evokes a childhood memory
  • evoke a traumatic event – especially where threat or danger is perceived
  • activates your own fears and desires (e.g. your child cries after you have three sleepless nights)

What to keep in mind

  • No parent is perfect. Regardless of how high your stack of parenting books or how many well-design parenting articles you may have bookmarked, it’s important to recognize that there may be moments where you feel overwhelmed.
  • Therefore, like any other skillset, parenting can be refined with practice. Exercising non-judgemental awareness, or the ability to observe your mental state without passing judgement, can be the key to achieving more mindful parenting.

Know the tenets of mindful parenting

Mindful parenting is the ability to stay rooted to what is happening in the present, rather than be drawn in by the emotions, past memories and other thoughts passing through one’s mind at any given moment. What’s brilliant about this approach is that it means letting go of shame, guilt and other emotions that might not be helpful in the moment – and emphasizing the importance of what is in front of you.

Mindfulness is often incorrectly considered to be a religious practice, a way of controlling or ignoring one’s own needs, thoughts and feelings or about positive thinking. On the contrary, people of all backgrounds unknowingly engage in mindfulness practices – regardless of their personal beliefs. In addition, the practice of mindfulness is about acknowledging your emotions and observing them without passing judgement or trying to make them feel more positive. This means simply recognizing that you’re frightened, stressed or anxious.

The fundamental tenets of mindful parenting are:

  • Making space to just be everyday, even if it’s only for five minutes. This involves finding 5-30 minutes of quiet, everyday, to bring your awareness back to the breath. There are several podcasts and apps that can assist with useful guided meditations. In the absence of those, know that silence is free! There is power in noticing every time you inhale and exhale, and doing this for a few minutes to renew yourself.
  • Using the STOP method. STOP is an acronym for “Stop”, “Take a breath”, “Observe” and “Proceed.” Next time you notice a situation getting out of hand, pause; bring your awareness back to your breath; observe what is happening in the moment, but ideally, without passing judgment on what is good and what is bad (i.e. non-judgemental awareness); and then decide how to proceed.
  • Accepting that there is no such thing as perfection. Instead, try to embrace the concept of the “good enough” parent. Know that children need room to make mistakes and fail – and that this is a fundamental part of growth, learning and development.
  • To an extent, honouring your child’s agency. Children are separate beings from their parents – and their need for us to see, acknowledge and respect this fact is an important part of growing up. We need to establish healthy boundaries between ourselves and our children. This means that it’s important – within reason and after considering a child’s safety – to consider whether our stress arises from our own triggers or hotspots, instead of an issue .
  • Practicing kindness and compassion. Parenting can be an incredibly challenging. It’s not only important to recognize this fact

The benefits of mindful parenting

Research indicates that parents who reported more mindful parenting engaged in more effective parenting strategies, rather than negative ones. In turn, their children were more likely to demonstrate more positive behaviours.

Exercising mindful parenting may have several benefits, including:

  • increased awareness of your thoughts and feelings
  • increased awareness of your child’s needs, thoughts and feelings
  • increased ability to regulate your own emotions
  • less criticism and judgement of your own parenting, or your child’s emotions
  • increased ability to stand back and provide an overall appraisal of a situation
  • a better, overall relationship with your child