Learn to be present with your children

Reduced stress levels, a calmer home, less anxious children — does that sound like a parenting dream? Martina O’Donoghue chats to a Cork woman who is running courses on Mindful Parenting
Learn to be present with your children

FEELING FRAZZLED: BEdtime routines can be more gruelling than a military boot camp sometimes.

HAS the house you have just spent two hours cleaning been wrecked in the space of ten minutes by your darling offspring? Are mealtimes a head-wreck, trying to get young mouths to gobble up what you’ve spent another hour cooking? And is the bedtime routine more gruelling than a military boot-camp, when the precious little ones are evidently not as tired as you are?

All parents will surely nod their heads to at least one of those scenarios, if not all three — and admit that it is very hard to exercise virtuous patience when pushed to the limit.

Anne Healy, a parent advisor and play therapist, with more than 30 years professional practice, suggests that parents try the trick of pausing to restore a sense of calm.

She’s all too familiar with parents seeking help in dealing with stressful situations. Like the bedtime battle.

“Some children are anxious and fearful and when night-time comes around their defences are down.

If children have worries from the day, suddenly these tensions pop up. Maybe they’ll be asking for another drink or they’re not settling.

“The parents need to get back downstairs, get the lunches ready and tidy up, so they can get irritable — and understandably so. And the child picks up on that.

“So instead of chasing upstairs telling the child to go to bed for the 40th time, often in a reactive state, just STOP”, she says, before explaining her acronym. “S is for Stop, T is for Take a Breath, O is for Observe (your own state of mind in a scale from one to ten) and P is for Proceed.

“Now you’re calm and your calmness often helps them to calm down. You’ll speak in a more calm voice. They’ll feel more regulated and you can be more compassionate.”

She is inspired by Dr Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry who offers a technique he calls ‘Name it to Tame it’, which aims to get children to put a name on what they are feeling. The very act of naming their feeling will in turn calm and regulate their system.

Anne has been practicing mindfulness for the past 20 years and is encouraging parents to learn the skills in order to enhance the job of parenting.

In addition to her private practice in Ballincollig, she runs six-week courses on Mindful Parenting, the next one to take place from May 7, promising reduced stress levels, a calmer home environment and more resilient, less anxious children.

When asked for a definition of what Mindful Parenting is, she points me in the direction of a book called Everyday Blessings, The Inner Work Of Mindful Parenting, by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, in which they state: “Mindful parenting involves keeping in mind what is truly important as we go about the activities of daily living with our children.”

Anne grew up in Buttevant and worked as a civil servant for a few years, but while in her early 20s she knew she wanted to work with children. Soon she quit her job in pursuit of that aim and her first role was at a children’s home in Killarney.

She also trained as a childcare worker in Kilkenny and went to York to train as a play therapist, subsequently lecturing for the University of York for two years when they ran the course in Cork.

In recent times she was living happily in West Kerry but constant travel to Cork for work took its toll and so she relocated to Coachford a year ago.

Often working with vulnerable children and those with extra needs, Anne has seen it all — and at one point in 2005 she took a step back to recharge her own batteries, taking up a film course and working in community radio in Dublin. It must be difficult to not get affected by the job?

Anne Healy.
Anne Healy.

“You have to have good supervision and self-care. If I’d had the mindfulness skills then that I have now, I’d have taken better care of myself”, she says.

Whatever the stresses and strains experienced in a household, Anne is adamant that it isn’t anyone’s fault and parents shouldn’t blame themselves.

“Parents are wonderful. I have great respect for parents. The work they do isn’t seen in our culture. Most of them are double jobbing and it’s very demanding. Parents are selfless people. It’s hard work and it’s the most important job in the world but it’s undervalued.”

With the hectic pace of life a modern problem, Anne saw the benefit of the recent ‘Beast from the East’.

“Parents were glad of the snow days. They had to stop. These days we don’t find time to stop, we are constantly on the treadmill of life. We live most of our life in a trance, flipping into the future and the past. We shower, brush our teeth, get in the car — we’re on automatic pilot. How many moments were we really present?”

Anne advises that we try to live moment to moment in a non-judgmental way, quoting psychologist and author, Dr Rick Hanson, in saying: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”

She elaborates: “We have this inner dialogue or critic with which we beat ourselves up. We say to ourselves ‘don’t be complaining’ or we tell ourselves we’re not good enough. We’re living in a culture where everything has to be perfect; we must get everything right. We’ve got this high bar we’re all looking at and it’s not even real. We need to come back to our own hearts. We can start all over again every day, every minute.

“The main thing is to not beat ourselves up and give ourselves a hard time. Instead we should give ourselves a pat on the back and say ‘well done’.”

Our own childhood memories and experiences surely feed into how we proceed to parent our own children. But are there cycles that need breaking — and can we break them?

“We all have our own stories and bring memories from our own childhood. Some people are lucky and come from caring, loving families. Others will have experienced being judged or put down. How we were parented can have a huge impact.

“If we were not parented well it can be difficult to parent a child. But every parent can say ‘I can change the story I’ve had and make it better for my children’. If we hold on to blame then we get stuck in our own story. We’ve got to come out of that mind-set and be kind to ourselves. Instead of offering a judging voice to ourselves, offer a voice of compassion.

“We can be very harsh judges of ourselves — and others — but the more we catch ourselves from judgement, that’s the moment we change the script from that of the internal judge.”

Despite Anne’s extensive knowledge and experience, she feels uncomfortable with the tag of ‘expert’.

“I don’t like the word expert as it puts me in a different league.

We are all our own experts actually. Nobody knows their child like a parent. We need to empower ourselves by trusting our own wisdom and judgement. Children are still my greatest teachers. They’ve humbled me.”

Anne continues to build on what she has already learned and is now in her second year of a US-based course, mentored by Jack Kornfield, one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West; and Tara Brach, a psychologist and proponent of Buddhist meditation.

Anne is gaining what she calls “a good grounding”, while being “exposed to great teaching and skills”. As always, she is ready to pass what she learns onto others. For example, what is the best thing we can give our kids? “The greatest gift is your presence”, she says.

“To be emotionally available, to see and hear them and understand them. They’re the memories children bring into adulthood. We’re living in a culture where there’s growing anxiety for children, so they need to be offered calmness and kindness and to learn mindfulness skills themselves.

“Parents need the grounding first; parents need to be the models — and then they can teach the skills. What I’d like most is that children develop Emotional Intelligence and learn to label their feelings. In order to do that, parents need to be aware of their own feelings and how to label them.”

Anne will give her next six-week course — An Introduction to Mindfulness for Parents/Carers — at the MAPP Centre, Unit Six, Great Island Enterprise Centre, Ballincollig (behind Lidl) from May 7. After the six weeks there will also be a day to explore issues such as staying calm, supporting your child to be calm, and introducing mindfulness at home. Meanwhile, the third part of the training will be a morning for parents accompanied by their children to promote mindfulness between them.

See www.mindfulparentingadvice.ie, e-mail: info@mindfulparentingadvice.ie or phone: 087- 2486421.

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