Mindfulness classes for parents benefit their kids, too

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Mindfulness lessons for parents can help them manage their emotions and cope with stressful situations, but the lessons also benefit their kids, according to a new small study.

Parents, picture the situation: Your child is misbehaving. You’ve had a hard day, and one more outburst sends you over the edge. You threaten. You yell. Maybe you announce a punishment so over the top you know you won’t, and shouldn’t, follow through.

“That’s reacting based on emotions,” explains Liliana Lengua, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. “Not in the way you know you’ll be effective.”

What is effective, Lengua says, is practicing mindfulness: staying calm, seeing a situation from other perspectives, and responding in an intentional way.

4 lessons for parents

Through a parenting program researchers created and offered at two early childhood centers, participants learned strategies and techniques that helped them manage their own emotions and behaviors while supporting their child’s development.

“Our goal was to support parents engaging in practices that we know build up their children’s social and emotional well-being, and in a pretty brief program, parents showed improvement in their own feelings of emotional control, and demonstrated more of those parenting behaviors that support children,” says Lengua, who directs the Center for Child and Family Well-Being. “Our data show that when parents improve, kids improve.”

For this study, which appears in Mindfulness, 50 parents of preschoolers participated in programs at two sites—one a kindergarten socialization class at a suburban elementary school with a high population of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch, the other a Head Start program at a community college. Over six weeks, researchers guided parents through a series of lessons on mindfulness and parenting strategies:

  • Be present: notice, listen, and engage with what’s happening right now
  • Be warm: pay attention to the child’s emotions and give the child opportunities to initiate interactions
  • Be consistent: set limits and developmentally appropriate expectations, praise the good things they do
  • Guide without directing (otherwise known as “scaffolding”): offer help when needed but encourage independence and comment on child’s accomplishments

In addition to lessons geared toward parents as a group, researchers observed parents interacting with their children and surveyed the parents—before the program started, at its end, and three months afterward—about both their own behavior and their child’s. One of the biggest improvements, Lengua says, was in the parents’ ability to manage their emotions, which helped them apply consistency, guide and encourage more often, and reduce negativity.

Children, meanwhile, showed improvements in their social skills, and also displayed fewer negative behaviors when they were observed interacting with each other.

Beyond the buzzword

While the study was relatively small, Lengua says, the results are promising, not only because of the behavior changes among adults and children, but also due to the ability to provide such lessons in existing early learning settings. In other words, there is potential to reach people of a variety of backgrounds—not just those participants who might be familiar with mindfulness concepts—and arm them with positive parenting tools.

“Mindful parenting” has become something of a buzzword, Lengua adds.

“People talk about ‘mindful parenting’ as a thing. It’s really just recognizing your child, in that moment, as having their own experience, and being attentive and intentional in that moment,” she says. “We view these strategies as skills that we can teach discreetly, and they provide regulation practices that we can use for any purpose.”

Researchers are now implementing the program at additional sites, largely via community organizations that serve a diverse range of families, to see if the results will be the same, Lengua says.

The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child and the UW Center for Child and Family Well-Being funded the study. Additional authors are from UW and Educational Service District No. 112 in Vancouver, Washington.

Source: University of Washington