One of the unfortunate ironies of parenting a child with ADHD is that the very thing that makes him (or her) so difficult at times—poor impulse control—often undermines our best intentions as parents. After all, parents are only human; they can only cope with so many challenges before emotions get the better of them.
Not all parents lose their temper after their child has refused to pick up his toys (or go to bed, do his homework, etc.) for what feels like the hundredth time in a row. Most parents do behave reactively in this situation, however. Depending on their individual nature, some will retreat, others will reflexively set new rules or escalate consequences unrealistically. Alternately, thinking it will defuse tension and make things easier, some parents bend the rules or complete outstanding tasks for their child. While these behaviours might not seem as outright damaging as succumbing to anger, they’re still harmful. Any lack of calm, consistent discipline erodes a child’s sense of boundaries and security. For children who have an ADHD diagnosis, this can foster anxiety and make it more difficult to learn self-regulation.
What is Mindful Parenting and How Can it Help?
Mindfulness is, in brief, the ability to recognize an emotion as it’s happening, accept it, and then let it go. This process is sometimes described as being able to “sit with” one’s feelings. Instead of either repressing emotions or allowing them to bubble to the surface, a mindful person observes them in a nonjudgmental way. For example, where a non-mindful parent might push down her feelings of frustration and pick up her child’s toys when he fails to do so, a mindful parent will pause, accept her feelings of frustration, and then calmly but firmly administer appropriate discipline. This moment of pause is essential as it allows the rational areas of the brain to regain control over the impulsive, instinctual areas of the brain.
Kids with ADHD—like all children—learn most of their social and emotional skills from observing their parents. Ergo, demonstrating the skills outlined above is one of the best ways to ensure that your child is provided with the tools he needs to start overcoming his inherent impulsiveness.
Another important aspect of mindfulness is that it requires living in the “now.” A mindful person allows herself to become fully immersed in the present moment while she works through the physical sensations she’s feeling as a result of stress. (Focusing on each area of the body that feels tense, then consciously releasing the muscles in those areas while breathing slowly, is a good example of a mindful activity.) This trains the mind to focus on the present situation and how to resolve it effectively, rather than projecting into the future or the past. Instead of wishing your child would change, for instance, you’ll begin to accept the way he is right now. This in turn will help your child accept himself for who he is. In essence, mindfulness encourages us to see things for how they are and change only what we can, while letting go of the rest.
Taking the steps outlined above can break the “stress cycle” that often defines families where ADHD is present. In this cycle, parents become overwhelmed and overreact to their child’s (often unintentional) behaviours. This stresses the child out, thereby exacerbating his ADHD symptoms. As a result, he acts out even more, and his parents become more overwhelmed. Eventually, the entire household becomes chaotic. Mindfulness can reassert a sense of calm and allow cooler heads to prevail.
Mindfulness has also been shown to increase awareness of one’s surroundings (and therefore improve focus and attention). It teaches children and adults alike how to be responsive without being reactive and improves problem solving skills. Finally, detaching from a self-centered, impulsive point of view allows for greater empathy and compassion. All of these skills are, of course, key areas kids with ADHD need to develop in order to healthily live with their condition.
Mindfulness is free to use, has no harmful side effects, and has a proven record of effectiveness for treating a wide range of emotional and behavioural issues. It’s both a core aspect of Eastern spirituality and philosophy and a frequently employed therapeutic strategy in Western psychology. Numerous studies attest to its profound and broad usefulness. It’s a simple, practical tool that can make everyday life far more manageable while creating positive changes in the structure of the brain.
While many written “guides” to parenting encourage parents to remain calm and avoid reacting to their child, mindfulness actually gives parents the tools they need to do so. Furthermore, because mindfulness has become such a common treatment modality, it’s relatively easy to find a mental health professional who specializes in this form of cognitive remapping.
If you find that you’re struggling to learn mindfulness on your own, working with a professional is an excellent way to connect yourself with the resources you need to succeed. Joining a support group for parents of children with ADHD can also provide you with a number of insights on how to create an environment of peace and security in your household.
No matter how frustrated you feel at times when trying to help your child correct problem behaviours, know that there is hope. Thousands of parents have used mindful parenting to change their minds, their lives, and their relationships with their children. As is the case with any form of behavioural modification, adopting mindfulness will require time and patience, but the results are well worth this initial investment.