NYC- Parents in Action Appreciation Luncheon 2019: Elizabeth Allen, Ph.D., Explains “Mindful Parenting”

By Melanie Wells

“Being a parent is really hard!” exclaimed Dr. Elizabeth Allen, eliciting vigorous nods of recognition and a few rueful chuckles from the audience at the NYC-PIA Appreciation Luncheon on December 5, 2019. Dr. Allen, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical Collegeand a licensed clinical psychologist, spoke to the audience on mindful parenting and the benefits it confers to parents seeking best strategies. Alternating between dense, evidence-based data and warm personal anecdote, Dr. Allen was informative yet accessible.

Offering background, Dr. Allen said her current focus on mindfulness techniques and training had grown from an earlier focus on motivation in children, which led her to question and examine the parenting techniques behind such motivation, or lack of it. During a post-doc fellowship at Weill Cornell, she was hired to work with a researcher who had developed an 8-week mindfulness course; here, she realized the applications of the training to parenting.

Dr. Allen confided she was, at the time, emerging from a very busy year, having married, started a first pregnancy and moved to a new home, and found that sitting down to eight weeks of mindfulness training brought a welcome respite and fresh perspectives.

Now a parent of two children, Dr. Allen spoke for everyone there when she affirmed that it can be very “hard to notice, in the moment, what strategy to use” in the unrelenting business of child-rearing, but this, she said, “is where mindfulness comes in.” 

So, what exactly, is mindfulness?

Dr. Allen described it as a multi-pronged practice.  Quoting the scholar, Jon Kabat-Zinn, she said that mindfulness means “paying attention, in a particular way: on purpose, in the moment, non-judgmentally.” It is a “quality of consciousness,” involving focused attention, but also flexibility, to “allow shifts from moment to moment.” Although long associated with Buddhist practices, mindfulness can be available to people apart from that tradition, and may or may not include focus on the breath. 

Citing a common misconception, Dr. Allen explained that many people equate mindfulness practice with relaxation, and then suggest it “didn’t work” if they don’t “feel better.” Rather than a specific means to a specific end (i.e., relaxation) mindfulness “really is observing,” said Dr. Allen. “You observe, notice, observe, reclaim your attention when it wanders (it will), notice, keep noticing.” One may notice that “it worked,” or notice that “it didn’t work” – neither is evidence of success or failure. “You simply keep bringing your mind back to focus.” 

Observation, a key and constant component of mindfulness, may be brought to bear “at any time,” she added, so that one can simply “observe the present moment, knowing that it will pass, and then there’ll be another.” Over time, and with practice, one can develop a tendency to be “mindful on the whole, and to take a mindful stance in life.”

Another key component of this “present-centered” practice is that it has a “non-judgmental and non-attachment” orientation. With non-attachment, one is able to let go of a moment after it passes; and, by avoiding rush to judgment, make room for openness, curiosity, acceptance (and, ultimately, compassion for oneself and others) to grow.

Dr. Allen pointed out that we are not used to this model in our day to day function: with little awareness of what we are doing, “we RAPIDLY judge nearly every single passing thing.” For example, we wake in the morning, note that it’s December 5, think to ourselves okay it’s winter, it’ll be cold, I’ll need my coat, I’ll take it. But if we spend “all our time on auto-pilot, we can miss some of the reality of each moment” as it passes. “We all spend time in our heads, reliving the past or anticipating the future (often with anxiety),” she added. Caught in a cycle of automatic reactions, we may not be consciously aligned with the reality around us.

During the past 10-15 years, “interest in mindfulness has exploded,” said Dr. Allen. A current approach is to incorporate mindfulness training into other therapies and enhance benefits.  Data has shown that those who learn to practice mindfulness alone or in conjunction with other therapy techniques exhibit increased emotional intelligence, calm and contentment. These combined therapies have evidence-based outcomes, with data backing up effectiveness in reducing stress and depressive symptoms. Mindfulness has benefits for relationship enhancement, too, which segues neatly to its use as a parenting practice.

Dr. Allen told parents that mindfulness practice can “help parents break free from an auto-pilot approach” and instead, when faced with a challenge, simply pause and shift awareness to the child “with intention and in the moment.” Dr. Allen listed the elements involved:

1) Listening with full attention – convey that you have accurately heard what your child is saying (for instance, don’t gear up for a homework fight if your child is merely coming to you with a clarification question);

2) Non-judgmental acceptance of yourself as a parent, and of your child – let go of notions of what your child should be, rather, notice her true strengths, and be equally fair with yourself;

3) Emotional awareness of yourself and your child – “strong emotions can undo good intentions” so avoid knee jerk responses and instead, “just sit” with your reaction for a bit;

4) Self-regulation in the parenting relationship – PAUSE before responding, and avoid over-reactive or inconsistent punishment patterns;

5) Compassion for yourself and your child – take a forgiving view of your own parenting, and shift toward compassion for both of you.

Dr. Allen advised that parents notice how their own moods change in response to the child’s moods, and that it’s best to simply “allow your child to have negative emotions.” If you allow your child to express his own emotions, and then stay present but refrain from judgment, you will find that your child’s emotions need not color your own.

Mindfulness training, fully integrated, is not easy, said Dr. Allen, but it is a path worth pursuing, because it conveys real benefits:

1) Mindfulness practices can lead to greater well-being, in both parents and children;

2) Parents’ mindfulness practice fosters their ability to successfully incorporate mindful parenting techniques at home, which in turn, fosters better outcomes in kids, including lower levels of depression, anxiety, and acting out.

3) Practicing mindfulness at home, with your kids, can help reduce stress, improve bonding, mitigate ADHD symptoms and ease emotional problems.

On the neuro-bio level, mothers who self-described as “highly stressed” were given MRIs of the brain before and after an eight-week mindfulness training course. Comparisons showed positive changes, after training, relative to socio-emotional processing and behavior regulation.

Dr. Allen suggested a book, Everyday Blessings, by Mila and Jon Kabat-Zinn, that might be of help and interest to the audience. She then offered to take a few questions:

Q: What is the relationship between technology and mindfulness, particularly in parenting?
A: We all have to be on our cell phones in today’s world.  But being on your phone while you are having a conversation with your child is the antithesis of mindful listening. It would be interesting to track phone use to collect data on mindfulness throughout the day, as it relates to technology use.

Q: What should a parent do AFTER pausing and taking a deep breath?  That was the first step recommended – what is the next step?

A: Remind yourself of your intention in parenting and your intention in that moment, as you interact with your child. For instance, if your intention is to catch the school bus, perhaps you can apply strategies that have worked in the past, e.g., offering a limited set of choices (“Do you want me to put your shoes on, or will you do it?”) or discussing a treat reward for positive behavior. The focus should be on the here and now and on staying with the intention of the moment, strategically, calmly, and without getting lost in a battle of wills.

Q: Should you openly let your child know you use mindfulness training?

A: We do mindfulness work with parents and kids together and openness about that is not a problem. The children know they and their parents are both working on mindfulness techniques and strategies and it is effective.

Q: Talk about the judgment piece – I’m often caught in self-doubt!

A: The idea isn’t to have NO judgments but rather to notice them, and then let them pass by. It’s like the difference between watching a stream of judgments go by and simply noticing, as opposed to being in a canoe and trapped in the stream with them. Notice each, then let it pass. Every moment is a new opportunity to simply be in THAT moment, which will be replaced by another…

Dr. Allen offered one last observation: her talk was not only about avoiding negatives but also about “enjoying in the moment what is good,” and savoring it, while avoiding judgment. 

She wrapped up by noting the benefits of being a “validating parent.’ The validating parent avoids knee-jerk reactions (usually judgmental!) in favor of validation. It’s the difference between saying to a worried child, “Don’t be anxious! Why are you anxious??” and, preferably, saying, “It makes sense you’re anxious – who wouldn’t be in this situation?” The latter offers validation. (Plenty of time to segue to advice-giving later, after validation has seeped in.)

Finding the validation sweet spot is straightforward (but not always easy!), Dr. Allen said. It involves these steps:

1) Listen (mindfully!)

2) Reflect back (I heard you say…)

3) Avoid efforts to instantly solve the problem. 

4) Show your child you understand the how or why of his or her feelings.

These simple steps can nurture effective communication (one of our cherished NYC-PIA values) and calm the waters of parenting. If parent and child, together, can stay in the moment, without judgment but with intention, then together they can survive the bumps in the road they will travel until, one day, the child emerges into an autonomous adulthood of her own. 

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