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Mindful : December 2013
Raising the Mindful Self An unsettling shift is happening in our culture today: there’s less a nd less intimate connection in modern fa milies, as the bonds between partners, and between parents and children, weaken through distraction and busy ness. Too many family members spend dinner hour (if it lasts that long) looking at their phones and tablets instead of connecting with each other. We convey our love on the fly, in sound bites and cursory text messages like “luv u.” That ’s no substitute for looking into one a nother’s eyes, feeling each other’s touch, taking time for a real conversation, and saying “I love you” with meaning. It’s easy to imag ine a future in which disconnected families are the norm, as habitual routines blind us to the connections, choices, and wonders that make fa mily life so rich. Through our therapeutic work with hundreds of children, adolescents, adults, couples, and fami- lies, we have seen how deep a nd heartbreaking the growing disconnection in families can be. We’ve watched family after family give up trying to re- connect because it feels too hard and painful to try to reverse the direction of something that has been eroding for too long. Seeing the depth of these challenges has inspired us to develop some principles and guidelines that might be helpful in raising a mindful family. We have done this not only to work with disconnected fa milies—and help others not end up that way—but also because we wa nted to discover how to raise our own children with love, understanding, playfulness, humor, and trust, and maintain a strong relationship in the midst of it all. All of us sta rt out with such high aspirations, but we run into difficulties along the way. When the inevitable challenges arise, we have lea rned over and over again (sometimes the ha rd way) that look- ing first to what others need to do to change is not the most effective place to star t. That ’s why our first principle is “raising the mindful self,” which doesn’t mea n cultivating any special “self.” It simply means that each of us has to do our own work first. The next natura l place to put our attention is on our relationship with our pa rt- ner, which will not do well on autopilot. We need to nurture and tend to it regularly. If that’s happening, we’re well on our way to giving our children what they need, because they will take their lead from us. How they see us live is more powerful than anything we say to them about mindfulness. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who conducts a private practice in West Los Angeles. He is author of The Now Effect (Atria Books, 2012). Stefanie Goldstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who works with adolescents, adults, couples, and families. They’re the parents of two boys, ages 2 and 4. Years ago we were invited to a private talk by the famous pediatrician and author Berry Bra zelton. There were lots of questions from parents and professionals, including us, who were searching for “how to” answers to everyday pa renting qua ndaries. Toward the end of his talk Brazelton said, “You know, it may be that the enormous field of child development a nd pa renting has actually done parents a disservice. It has sent them the message that they need to look to experts to find the a nswers, when oftentimes the a nswers lie within. They always have.” Looking within is where we believe raising a mind- ful family starts—with each of us learning how to pause, listen deeply to ourselves, and trust our own wisdom. Finding spaces in our day to slow down, take a breath, and check in trains our minds to shift to a larger perspective in the midst of emotional reactions a nd see more clearly what we and others need in any given moment. Raising a family is anything but simple. It offers multiple inputs coming at us from mul- tiple directions, and if we get overwhelmed, our brain will operate on default. We will draw on our childhood emo- tional history to make quick judgments about how to react to our own children and our partner. In our best moments, we can find the breathing space to see the bigger picture and consider healthy ways to respond. But as life becomes increasingly stressful and hectic, it’s easy to fall into a routine of unhealthy, impul- sive patterns that we may have inherited from our parents— despite the fact that we swore we would do it differently with our own family. Now we feel bad. Ashamed, we label ourselves “bad parent ” or maybe “not good enough pa r- ent.” Lea rning how to pause more frequently through the day can help you notice these patterns a nd provide insight into how you can reconnect to yourself, your part ner (if you have one), a nd your children. As parents, we’re all imperfect. One of the most important practices we’ve found for raising a mindful family is applying self-com- passion during the stressful moments: being aware of our own moments of struggling, with a n inclination to help ourselves with kindness. We recommend any of the many short mindfulness practices that teach you how to stop and quickly shift your perspective. We also encour- age using practices that help you trust your inner wisdom as a pa rent—something we so often tend to doubt. Here’s one practice that we’ve found particularly helpful. As parents, we’re all imperfect. Remember that, and be kind to yourself during the stressful moments. in practice insight 72 mindful December 2013