Three Amazing Ways Mindfulness Can Impact Special Needs Parenting
Before you shrug off mindfulness as a trendy buzzword found on supermarket tabloids or at a local yoga studio, hear me out. Mindful parenting is not complicated, nor is it something that you have to make time for; it is simply about being present.
It’s an evidence-based practice that works. It’s about stopping and noticing what is going on around you and accepting each moment with all of its uniqueness and flaws. Instead of attaching ourselves to outcomes, mindfulness helps us parent the child we have completely and with compassion. Will it make you perfect and unflappable? No. But it can help you move through difficult moments with less pain or regret.
Mindfulness and mindful parenting have been shown to have positive outcomes for families of children with autism by:
- Increasing physiological and psychological well-being in parents through stress reduction.
- Improving relationships by changing the ways we respond to difficult situations.
- Decreasing challenging behaviors in children by modeling coping strategies and building acceptance of each moment.
If I told you that I could help you reduce stress and increase well-being in just a few minutes a day, would you do it? Research suggests that parents with children on the autism spectrum experience more stress than those with typically developing children or even other disabilities. This stress accumulates and leads to caregiver fatigue, often resulting in mental and physical illness, causing burnout and decreasing our ability to parent the way we wish. You may have heard of “putting YOUR oxygen mask on first.” Mindfulness is one strategy that allows you to do so.
You are an important—perhaps the most important—person in your child’s world, and when your health is depleted, you can’t be the parent you want to be for your child. Mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that modulates emotion, consequently lowering the stress response in our bodies and reducing the devastating effects stress creates.
Additionally, ongoing research supports the efficacy of mindfulness in not only helping to reduce stress but anxiety and depression as well. Daily practice of as little as five to ten minutes a day has been shown to have positive effects on both mental and physical health.
Mindfulness also challenges the way we look at and respond to stressors. In the height of a stressful situation, stop, take a breath and notice what is going on, both inside of you and around you. Our tendency is to react, rather than respond in difficult situations. We may catch ourselves yelling or saying things we later regret (that result in even more problems).
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By stopping and allowing yourself to slow down, you may see that you have a lot more options available to you and that this challenging moment will soon pass. Moreover, this pause can help you identify and label your own emotions while allowing you to truly listen and try to understand those you are in conflict with. This intention encourages the sharing of emotions and helps us connect to those we care about.
When we don’t react in anger or frustration to our child’s behaviors, they respond. Modeling empathy and a sincere intention to understand and accept each moment is impactful for our children who already struggle with heightened anxiety and regulating their emotions. It’s like pouring water on fire rather than adding more gasoline. Children begin to trust their ability to handle hard moments and realize that while they may be struggling, they are safe, accepted and supported by their parents. This leads to fewer “fight or flight” responses and greater emotional resilience.
So how do you train yourself to take begin this mindfulness parenting approach? By beginning with the breath and intention. Instead of getting caught up in the anxiety and worry of the future or the regret and sadness of the past, practice BEING HERE NOW. Pay attention to what is around you at this moment. Feel the soapy water when washing dishes, smell the cool air in your backyard, notice the look in your child’s eyes when they are doing something they love, and just breathe. This practice helps you train your body and mind while in calm times so that it knows how to get there even when emotions run high.
Of course, you can extend this practice with meditation (I suggest beginning with guided meditations) and yoga, but simply starting each day with present attention, empathy (for yourself and others) and gratitude can not only help your parenting, but can improve your experience of this wild life we live as autism parents.
Emily Daniels, MSW, RP, MEd, is a psychotherapist and social worker in private practice in Fort Collins, CO who supports families with children with disabilities. Emily runs groups for young people on the spectrum and provides individual, sibling, parent and partner counseling using a strengths-based approach. In addition, Emily is the mother of a 10-year-old, super-enthusiastic boy on the autism spectrum.
This article was featured in Issue 84 – The Journey to Good Health and Well-Being