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As a Marriage and Family Therapist, now in my 20th year of clinical practice, I have had the privilege of treating hundreds of individual women and men, couples, and teens suffering with a wide variety of Mood Disorders and addictions. My clients have included young girls with eating disorders, teens addicted to heroin, crystal methamphetamine, marijuana, and prescription drugs. I have educated and consoled traumatized and grief stricken parents trying to make sense of their child’s suicidality, and reunited parents with children who had come to prefer membership in a street gang to the comforts of their own bed and a home cooked meal.
By 1997 such experiences had led me to focus my attention on this question: What primary factors contribute to the development of eating disorders and high risk behaviors in teenagers and adults? What was this all about? Abuse? Peer influence? Social pressure? Brain washing commercials and magazine ads? Dysfunctional family systems?
In my research I discovered a longitudinal study (JAMA, 1997) that helped me begin to answer this question. The study concluded that a child’s positive feelings of “parent-family connectedness” and “school connectedness” are critically important in his or her development of resiliency and immunity to high-risk behaviors—including drug and alcohol abuse, premature sexual initiation, and criminal activity.
When I read the words “parent-family connectedness,” I knew I had found a key-missing piece to the puzzle. Children who feel connected to their primary caretakers do better in their lives. This then led me to ask “how?” How does this parent-family connectedness, or, parent-child connectedness develop, especially in our high-stress society? Many mental health and child development professionals will tell you such a feeling develops through a process of secure attachment.
“Attachment” refers to a child’s instinctive bond to the primary caregiving adults in their lives. This bond functions to support and ensure, inasmuch as possible, a child’s survival and development. A close parent-child connection supports the development of a healthy bond and increases the likelihood that a child will mature into a resilient, happy adult. Without a secure attachment bond—the development of which ideally depends upon the responsive, consistent and stable attention of a caring adult —a child will be more vulnerable to distress, discouragement, and engagement in high-risk behaviors.
This notion of “secure attachment” grew out of research in the 1940’s, initiated by psychoanalyst John Bowlby. His findings led to the development of “attachment theory,” a field of study refined and expanded by Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main. For six decades, these three, along with a growing multitude of colleagues, have made significant discoveries and contributions that have informed professionals and parents about how to raise children well.
Healthy attachment parenting does not teach a strict set of rules. Rather it requires a more highly developed skill set in which the parent figure in a child’s life reads and responds effectively to both the instinctive and learned needs of the child. Parents who consciously attend to developing a responsive, consistent and stable attachment bond with their infant, learn the particular language of their child and respond with greater accuracy. In this way, a trusting and dependable relationship between parent and child is cultivated and reinforced.
It sounds clear and easy, doesn’t it? But as any parent will tell you, the nature of our own humanness and the daily demands of life make us vulnerable to distractions, unconscious reactions and hurtful styles of communication. How does the well- intentioned and loving parent maintain the parent-child connection from the early days of infancy through the often stormy seas of the adolescent years? What happens when life “hits the fan” and outer stresses and emotional upheavals take over? More importantly, what happens when a parent with best intentions ends up parenting in a way that slowly erodes or repeatedly severs this bond of trust?
Mindful Parenting teaches that when we have a depth of self-understanding and a stable, caring connection with ourselves, we are more likely to be responsive and caring to the needs of our children in a way that more effectively supports the development of a secure attachment bond. Paying mindful attention to yourself and your own reactions can help you understand “how” you are doing and being in this present moment—It can lead to valuable insights and gentle self-correction. When you consistently practice paying attention, on purpose, to what is happening right now within the field of your experience—with a disciplined practice of acceptance and nonjudgment—you inevitably expose the roots of less healthy mental and emotional states and the negative behaviors that are generated by them. You then have an opportunity to consciously disrupt their continued reinforcement and growth, and you are laying the necessary groundwork for becoming more connected with yourself. This healthier connection with yourself is what optimalizes the possibility that you and your child will experience a more secure attachment bond.
What is mindfulness and mindfulness practice? For the purposes of mindful parenting, there are three key aspects or practices that involve:
- describing moment-to-moment experience
Mindfulness is the practice of learning to be aware of what is happening in this very moment without mindless reactivity, diminishment or negation of self or other. It can be cultivated through sitting or walking meditation, or—which is often the necessity—while washing dishes, or sitting with a child. It is being deliberately aware of the transient experiences of thought, emotion, sensation, and behavior in present time and space. This means mindfulness is exquisitely portable. It goes wherever you go. It arrives whenever you arrive.
The benefits of mindfulness practice have been well confirmed by scientific research. The evidence is clear: Mindfulness practice can stimulate personal growth and an increased sense of well-being. It assists significantly in recovery from addictions, the therapeutic management of personality disorders, and the improvement of mental and physical health. Mindfulness helps individuals become better at regulating thoughts, emotions, and physiological processes. Among other things, it helps the practitioner become more “self-attuned,” empathic, and insightful. In effect, mindfulness practice cultivates a better relationship with ones self.
Now imagine what greater self-attunement, empathy, insight, emotional and physical regulations can do to enhance the connection you have with the children in your life. For example, imagine responding in a calm and positive way to your four-year old when she or he is being especially troublesome.
Why engage in Mindful Parenting? I hope you are now able to understand that it can help lay the ground work secure attachment relationship with your child, and support the growth of a more secure, more resilient, happier child. Mindful parenting helps parents develop nonjudgmental self-awareness, self-compassion, self-attunement, and self-organization. These important qualities, mirrored to our children, are instrumental in their developing sense of self, over all health, and capacities for living.
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