Being a parent can be trying on a good day, crazy-making on a bad one. Even the wisest, most emotionally mature, fully actualized Zen master armed with every possible warm nurturing instinct can at some point drop the mantle of infinite calm and morph into the Incredible Hulk when dealing with rambunctious kids or surly teens. But for parents in recovery, the challenge is sometimes greater.
Enter mindfulness, a meditation-based strategy that focuses on calming the mind by staying in the present, and withholding judgment and acting with intention. It is an evidence-based process used in the treatment of anxiety, depression and a host of other mental and physical conditions. Mindfulness techniques have become increasingly popular in recent years, making their way into parenting classes, recovery programs, and, in some cases, both.
“Mindfulness principles and techniques can be enormously helpful for parents in recovery,” says Christie Bates, MA, who has been supporting men and women in recovery for more than two decades. Bates currently leads “mindful parenting” groups at The Ranch, in Nunnelly, Tennessee. “All parents face stress, but parents in recovery have additional challenges,” she says. “They are trying to stay sober while sorting through deeply personal issues — coming to terms with old childhood hurts and trying to unlearn parenting strategies that might have rolled down through the generations in their own family.” Some are also struggling to repair the damage already done to their relationship with their children, and to learn to forgive themselves for past mistakes. “Mindfulness is about more than just stress reduction,” she says. “It’s about self-acceptance, breaking with the past and nurturing a feeling of well-being.”
Bates’ classes are generally small, from four to 10 participants, and gender-separate. Her own experiences as a parent and as a therapist and the things she has learned from clients over the years have provided a rich source of ideas and inspiration that she passes along to clients. Here are just a few of her mindfulness tips for parents in recovery:
Create Breathing Room
A core tenet of mindfulness is simply paying attention to the here and now. As a parent, staying in the moment enables you to really observe your children and enjoy their company, which in turn sends a message that you are there for them. But staying in the moment is hard to do when you’ve got a busy schedule that needs your full attention. To train yourself to pay attention, Bates recommends setting aside a specific time in the day to practice experiencing the here and now. It can be as elementary as staying in the present and focusing on bodily sensations when performing a daily task, such as brushing your teeth.
Create a Space for Mindfulness
When you’re stressed, a mindfulness break can be as simple as stepping back and taking a few breaths while you calm down. Bates suggests designating a room or area in the house where you and other family members can go and take 10 breaths. Mindfulness can also be as simple as establishing a regular group hug. After a stressful morning getting the children ready, Bates recommends a family ritual of gathering, taking three breaths together and parting with a hug, so that everyone leaves the house feeling connected instead of out of sorts or guilty the rest of the day.
Be Mindful of Your Reaction
Parents can be powerful role models in how to handle stress, says Bates, and there’s no shame in showing that you have a strategy for handling stress and other emotional challenges. “It’s OK to say to a younger child that mommy is upset and she’s going to take a timeout,” says Bates. “Children who observe their parents regulating their emotions and who have an opportunity to see how effective that is, are far better equipped to one day apply those skills in their own roles as parents.”
Rate Your Stress
For many parents in recovery, becoming mindful requires developing a better understanding of one’s own stress level and having a plan to manage it. One way to do this is to create an internal rating scale of 1-10 for stress, with one being low-level stress and 10 being pull-your-hair-out stress. When you find yourself getting stressed, take a moment to rate it. If you’re nearing the high end, it’s time to step back and fall back on a predetermined stress reduction plan, which might be taking a walk, calling a friend or even petting the dog. Keep in mind, however, that if you exit the conversation, you need make it clear to the children that you just need a moment and will resume the conversation later. “It’s OK to step away as long as you make a commitment to try again,” says Bates.
Address Your Missteps
Even the most well-intentioned parent can slip up and lash out in unconstructive ways. When this happens, says Bates, it’s important to recognize it and address it as soon as possible. Children are resilient and are less likely to be traumatized by your behavior, or even remember it years later, if you acknowledge that you overreacted and apologize. “Just that recognition — acknowledging your mistake and treating them with respect — can make a big difference in how your child will remember the exchange and be impacted by it, both in the short term and in the future,” says Bates.
Bates is amazed at all the ways that mindfulness has improved the lives of her clients. “When people first start taking mindfulness classes, they are usually worried about how their behavior has impacted their kids, and they want to do better,” she says. “Mindfulness can make us better parents, but more important, it can also help our kids become better parents themselves one day.”
For background reading on mindfulness, Bates recommends Giving the Love that Heals, by Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD; Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, by Robert Firestone, PhD and Lisa Firestone, PhD, and Positive Discipline for Parents in Recovery, by Jane Nelsen, EdD, Riki Intner and Lynn Lott.