New research shows that when parents are more mindful of their emotions, children benefit. By Shane Green
On any given day, Lea Waters experiences the challenges of trying to stay in the moment. A champion for the benefits of mindfulness, the University of Melbourne professor knows how easily the daily rush of life can interfere.
‘I might be picking my kids up from school but I’m thinking about what will I cook for dinner, what do I have to pack for tomorrow – athletic training, then saxophone practice,’ says Professor Waters.
It’s a familiar scenario for parents in the daily juggling act of life – as Professor Waters notes, our brains are constantly doing mental time travel.
But as Professor Waters’ research has found, pausing and practising mindfulness can have profound benefits for parent and child alike. A mindful parent results in a less stressed child.
Mindfulness has become part of the zeitgeist, a concept and practice that is talked about regularly in the media, and applied in the workplace and the classroom.
Professor Waters, director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, agrees that mindfulness has become something of a buzzword. ‘For me, mindfulness is a particular type of attention – present moment attention,’ she says. ‘So we pay attention to the present moment.’
As Professor Waters explains it, it distinguishes itself from other forms of attention. There’s rumination – attention on something in the past, such as going over a fight you’ve had with someone.
And then there’s prospection – attention on the future. That can be pleasant – anticipation of a meal or a holiday. But usually, it’s anxiety-based.
‘But when we’re mindful, and just paying attention to here and now, we don’t have to worry about the future or thrash over the past,’ Professor Waters explains.
Mindfulness, she says, is a secular practice and psychological tool that you can learn and develop, with a host of emotional benefits. ‘The neuroscientists are also starting to show that it is working to change the brain,’ she says.
The benefits of bringing a sense of calm to children’s lives is growing in importance, with increasing evidence that children are becoming more stressed.
Professor Waters cites research showing that 31 per cent of children are feeling ‘very stressed’, while 40 per cent believe that they worry too much.
What’s behind the stress? Professor Waters sees a confluence of factors, including heavy timetabling of children’s lives, meaning they are too busy.
Social media also contributes. The need to be constantly connected means it’s hard for teenagers to switch off. ‘What that means is that young people aren’t getting the downtime they used to get,’ she says.
Add to mix peer pressure and academic pressure. And there is the stress that arises from both parents in the workforce. (Professor Waters points out that she and her husband both work.)
Enter mindful parenting. ‘It’s a style of parenting where the parent is able to pay attention to their own emotional response and to understand that before they react negatively towards their children,’ says Professor Waters.
A research paper by Professor Waters published earlier this year found that there was strong evidence that when parents are more mindful of their emotions – pausing before reacting with anger, stress or frustration – children benefit.
‘Though many parents are likely to understand the importance of providing love and emotional support to their children,’ the paper concludes, ‘they may be less aware of the benefits of being able to regulate their attention to be present and accepting of their children,’
Part of that relates to role modelling – if a child sees a more mindful, less stressed parent, the child learns to become more mindful. Professor Waters encourages parents to show children how to bring mindfulness into their daily routines – on the bus going to school, before doing homework, packing their school bag.
‘What you’re doing is that you’re teaching a transportable tool kit that they can carry with them, any moment, anywhere,’ she says.
Professor Waters holds the Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne. Twitter @ProfLeaWaters