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How to Enjoy Playing with Your Children (Even When You Don’t)

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 “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

One day last week, after hours without seeing my children, I came home with a strong desire to play – to spend hours of uninterrupted quality time with them, just playing. But my desire soon turned to frustration when:

  • I realized that I didn’t really know what to play with them;
  • when my suggestions fell flat; and
  • when my presence seemed to cause more bickering and less enjoyment between my children.

My elation upon seeing my children and finally having some time with them, fizzled into dejection and the afternoon ended flat.

Afterwards, I found myself wishing that I was more playful, more imaginative, more fun.

I thought back to how often I’d been distracted when playing pretend games with my son and his little plastic animals;

how many times I’d brushed off my daughter’s requests to play because there was something “more important” that I had to do;

how often I’d responded to seeing my children playing happily together by going off and doing something by myself rather than joining them in their games.

And I felt even worse.

It isn’t that I don’t like to play at all – I love to build with blocks, put together puzzles, play board games or throw a ball – its more that I don’t have a playful personality or a ready store of ideas of games to play, and I don’t know how to play with both of my children at once without there being some sort of mommy-tug-of-war over who gets more of my attention.

But I know that play is important for young children, as is quality time with their parents, so I thought I would dig a little deeper. I started researching play, the importance of play (and parents who don’t like to play ), and it turns out that:

  • I am not alone, many other parents feel similarly distracted, frustrated and – dare, I say it – bored, when playing with their children;
  • It is not as important WHAT you play, as HOW you play;
  • There are a lot of great play ideas online for parents, like me, who need a little help.

I AM NOT ALONE; OTHER PARENTS REPORT NOT ENJOYING PLAY WITH THEIR CHILDREN

It was a huge relief to learn that I am not alone in my feelings, and difficulties, with play, especially pretend play.

In her post I Hate Playing with My Children, blogger Scary Mommy talks about how she feels when her daughter asks her to play pretend games, often making excuses to get out of having to play.

In her article in Red Book Magazine, Mom Confessions, I Don’t Like Playing with My Kids, Jennifer Seinhauer describes a similar dislike of play, admitting to being distracted by impatience and the lure of more adult tasks.

In her post How to Play with Your Kids When You Don’t Like Playing, another mother admits her guilt, and lack of enjoyment when playing with her children, but also, even more importantly, provides practical alternatives for parents who still want to have that quality time with their children (see below).

And these are just the parents who admit it publicly, which isn’t easy to do!

Secondly, I learned that –

IT ISN’T WHAT YOU PLAY, IT IS HOW YOU PLAY, THAT MATTERS

Many parents know that play is important for children, but don’t know why or how to go about it. In Why Playing With Your Child is So Important on Parenting.com, the author explains that play is important, not only for children’s social and emotion development, but also for their relationship with their parents. According to the author, parents who play with their children when they are young, find that they are more able to maintain a close connection when them as they grow. The author states that regardless of what is being played, that the time parents spend with their children should be uninterrupted (as much as possible), relaxed and child-led (or an activity that you both enjoy). He also reminds parents that play doesn’t have to happen at a specific time, but can happen any time of the day, when you are out walking, or shopping or doing other things.

In her post on Aha! Parenting, Playing with Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Laura explains that play is a child’s “work,” and it is often how they discharge negative emotions that build up through the day, in addition to building stronger bonds with parents. She explains that games and active-play that allow children to laugh, helps them to release any pent-up emotions they may have and also releases oxytocin – the bonding hormone – and helps to repair or strengthen the connection between parent and child (In this post, Dr. Laura also provides a list of games parents can play with children when they are displaying specific behaviors, including rough housing, role-playing and play which allows children to take on a more powerful role).

In his Psychology Today article, Playing with Children, Should You? If so, How?, Dr. Peter Gray highlights some of the mistakes parents make in playing with their children, such as letting themselves be bossed around or, conversely, taking over and directing the play. While he argues that adults are not ideal playmates for children – stating that children are often better playmates because they WANT to be involved in the play – most importantly, he says that play isn’t really play, unless both parties are having fun.

And finally in the above mentioned post, How to Play with Your Kids When You Don’t Like Playing, the author states, “The main thing is to spend time with the children in a way that is intentional and present. Find things that you all like to do and do them together.”

THERE ARE A LOT OF GREAT PRACTICAL IDEAS ONLINE FOR GAMES AND ACTIVITIES 

A quick Google search for “Things to Play with Children” yields thousands of ideas from simple indoor and outdoor ideas, to multi-step, photo-tutorials of children’s craft ideas on Pintrest. I’ve included a few of my favorites below:

In this post, Encouraging Children to Play Imaginatively and Creatively, Psychologist, Counselor and Play Therapist, Kathy Eugester talks about the importance of creative play and provides encouragement and ideas for creative play with children.

Kelly of blog Be a Fun Mom, provides parents with a list of 100 School Holiday Activity Ideas (and a wealth of information and inspiration on life with children in other posts).

Learning4Kids provides ideas for creative play and learning, separated by play category and age – complete with photos, supplies and ideas.

In a series on play, the Rachel Cedar of You Plus 2 Parenting, started an online conversation about play with parents and parent-bloggers, which evolved into a series called 28 Days of Play, where parents share their experiences and ideas for playing with their children.

And for those days when you can barely muster enough energy to get out of bed, much less play, the blogger at The Ugly Volvo provides a humorous list of Games to Play With Your Child in Which You Barely Have to Move or Talk.

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation – wanting to play, but not sure how; or not wanting to play, but still wanting to have some quality time with your children – I hope some of the information here helps!

How about you? Have you ever found your self in a similar situation? Or do you have any thoughts or resources to share? If so, I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading!

Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook

 

Conscious Transitions – Moving with Children

 

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“She took a step and didn’t want to take any more, but she did.”
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Our family is about to go through some pretty big transitions. We’re moving from our home of two years in Myanmar (Burma) to a new home in Ecuador. We’re moving from a big city to a small town. We’re moving from a private home to a guest house. And we’re moving from an international private school to a home school. And in the middle of all that we’ll be visiting friends and relatives for two months, staying in seven different houses in four different states.

While just reading about all those transitions may raise the stress levels of some adults (including me!), imagine the stress on small children.

I realize that this nomadic life we’ve chosen does not provide the stability and security that many children have growing up and so I try to make a conscious effort to provide stability and security in other ways – practicing positive parenting, maintaining connections with relatives and long-time friends, fostering and nurturing connections with new friends in our new homes, creating family traditions, sharing family pictures and stories; and making, and sticking to, daily and weekly routines. But while all this helps to create a sense of continuity and security in the times when we are settled, during those in-between times of transition, it can be more difficult to meet our kids specific needs for that sense of security and familiarity…

…so I thought I would do a little research to help ease the transition for our children (and other families in similar situations).

In her article on Expat Focus – Smooth Moves for Expat Kids (Tips to Ease the Transition – Aisha Isabel Ashraf provides three key areas of focus to help children with international moves: Communication, Control and Company, so I’ll follow her example using Communication, Control and Conscious Parenting

COMMUNICATION

  • In her post Ease the Transition of Moving to a New Home Hand in Hand Parenting’s Julianne Idleman suggests that parents work to understand their own feelings about the move before the big day (or days) so they are prepared to help their children with their feelings.
  • Aisha Ashraf stresses the importance of being open to communication about the move with children, both before and after you are settled. She suggests playing a game that allows family members to share the things you like about your new home (and maybe also the things that you may miss about your old one).
  • In addition to communicating with yourself and your children, it is also important to maintain regular communication (if possible) with friends and family through letters, email, video calls, photographs, memory books and visits, to show children that just because they have moved to a new place, it doesn’t mean that they have to lose those special connections.

CONTROL

  • Moving and leaving behind friends and environments they feel comfortable in can leave children feeling like they have little control over their lives. Ashraf and authors of other articles on moving with children (Bright Horzon’s Article on Moving and RelocatingHelping Kids Cope with Moving), stress the importance of helping children feel a semblance of control over the move by allowing them to make age-appropriate decisions, such as what to pack, how to say goodbye to friends and how to decorate their new room. Other ideas include
    • reading children’s books about moving,
    • allowing children to document the move by taking pictures and making a picture book of the move;
    • making a list of people to say good-bye to and letting them plan a “going away” party;
    • letting them pack their own suitcase or toys;
    • letting them set up their rooms as soon as possible upon arrival;
    • drawing a map and/or taking pictures of their new home and neighborhood; and
    • resuming familiar routines in your new home.

CONSCIOUS PARENTING

  • In her post on Hand in Hand Parenting, Julianne Idleman recommends, when possible, to take your children to visit their new home before the move so that they will have something to look forward to and a place that feels a little more familiar when they arrive.
  • She also advises parents to give children extra special time during the move, especially time playing games in which they take a more powerful role to help them process their feelings of powerlessness, as well as being open to their questions;
  • Additionally, Idleman suggests helping children get to know their new home through play by going on adventure walks, playing hide-and-seek in their new house and making friends with neighbors and local pets.

Moving to a new location can be stressful for all members of the family, but if we work to do it a bit more consciously – including remembering that the initial chaos and un-familiarity of a new place often subside with time – it can help to ease the transition for everyone.

Thanks for reading! (And best of luck with your move! 🙂

Sharon, Author The Conscious Parenting Notebook

 

 

Conscious Parenting Inspirations – April 2015

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“Let us keep reminding each other to breathe, to smile, to treat ourselves and one another with kindness.” – Denise Roy

I am one of two siblings; the youngest of a small, quiet family. As such, my childhood fantasies of my future family involved three children, their spouses and children, all filling up a festive, loving home, while the snow fell picturesquely outside our home (I also grew up in South Florida without snow…). I wanted a large family to fill our house with laughter, to provide friendship in times of plenty and support in times of want. I dreamt that my children would have strong, loving connections that they could rely on throughout their lives.

My dream family began when my daughter was born, and continued to grow when my son was born two-and-a-half-years-later.

But then fighting began.

I have read that things that trigger you come from unresolved issues in childhood, so somewhere in my psyche there must be some unresolved issues around sibling fighting. Or perhaps, it is simply that I, like many other parents, am easily frustrated by the broken peace and intentional irritants that are thrown back and forth between my children. Whatever it is, my dream of loving, supportive siblings is not my family’s current reality and I have decided that the change has to start with me.

If I want a peaceful, loving family, I need to build a peaceful, loving family culture. And so this month’s Conscious Parenting Inspiration touches on consciously addressing sibling issues, ways to begin choosing conscious responses, and ways to reconnect when we don’t act as loving as we’d like to.

Consciously Addressing Sibling Issues

Sibling issues – fighting, rivalry, general discord – have been featured a lot in my blog feeds and newsletters lately and what keeps coming up is the importance, not of just stopping the fighting, but of helping siblings work through conflict and creating an environment of peace.

My go-to advice for sibling issues is Dr. Laura of Aha! Parenting, who is awash with advice on sibling issues from her recent book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. In her post 21 Tips to Prevent Sibling Flighting, she provides information on valuable parenting tools from proactive steps like creating an intentional family culture; bringing awareness to how you talk to, and about, your children; and providing lots of one-on-one time (when possible); to tools to use after conflict has occurred, such as empathizing, modelling emotional intelligence and involving kids in conflict resolution. While Dr. Laura’s step-by-step conversations may not be practical for every family, or every situation, I’ve found that using the underlying wisdom – approaching the conflict without judgement, giving each child a chance to feel heard and involving them in resolving the conflict – in a more abbreviated form, has worked for us.

The bloggers over at A Fine Parent has put together a really helpful Sibling Rivalry infographic based on Dr. Layra’s new book and are currently offering a free printable download.

For more inspiration, Dr. Laura is currently on a virtual Happy Siblings Blog Tour in which she talks with, and shares the resources, of other great parenting professionals and bloggers.

Choosing a Conscious Response

Given the amount of advice available for parents on how to best address sibling issues, it seems safe to say that many parents of multiple children struggle with responding positively and effectively in such situations. In her post on the Empowering Parents blog, author and licensed mental health counselor Debbie Pincus describes why parents often feel powerlessness (which can lead to anger) when interacting with their children.

She explains that, when triggered, many parents believe that the only way to calm themselves is to “get their children to behave the way they want them to.” She goes on to explain that in thinking this way, parents put the power to calm themselves in the hands of their children. She says that when parents begin statements with the phrase, “I need you to…,” as in, “I need you to stop bothering your sister. I need you to speak kindly. I need you to be more respectful,” the implicit message is, “I need you to calm me, validate me, reassure me because I don’t know what to do.”

Debbie then talks about the following the feedback loop that often results from unconscious reactions:

Child/Children are “Acting Out” ——-> Parent Feels Overwhelmed and Powerless ——> Sense of Powerlessness Leads to Anxiety —–> Parent Attempts to Control Children in an Attempt to Regain Sense of Power and Calm ——-> Children Fight Back Against Attempts to Control Them (“Act Out”) ——> Parent Feels Overwhelmed and Powerless

Debbie explains that in these situations, both parent and children are reacting from a place of anxiety, rather than responding from a place of calm. And this loop often happens faster than it took you to read about it, leaving parents wondering how things got so bad so fast.

In her post, The 5 Main Tenets of Mindful Parenting, mindfulness educator Lisa Kring privdes describes how the use of the acronym, S.T.O.P, as a conscious reminder can help parents break this loop by changing a reaction to a response in tense moments:

S – STOP

Whenever you notice stress or imbalance, simply pause in awareness.

T – TAKE A BREATH

Bring your awareness to your breath.

O – OBSERVE

Internally – observe how the breath begins to calm your nerves. Externally – observe what is really happening, in the moment.

P – PROCEED

Having shifted to a more mindfully responsive mode, respond in a thoughtful way to the situation, even if it means explaining that you need a break to calm yourself and returning to address the situation at a later time.

In her post, On the Hard Days, Remember, the author provides beautifully describes her habit of intentionally focusing on positive memories from the past, using the mantra “Remember,” to bring more clarity and perspective to stressful situations.

In her post, 4 Mommy Mantras for Being a More Mindful Parent, Stephanie Morgan of Modern Parents, Messy Kids, explains that remembering the quote, “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory,” by Dr. Seuss, helps her to remember that how we act as parents will become our children’s memories, for better or for worse, as inspiration to choose more conscious responses.

Consciously Reconnecting

As we are all human, we will never respond to our children intentionally and lovingly 100% of the time. Many of us, myself included, might be happy if we are able to respond intentionally and lovingly even 50% of the time. But even when we find ourselves reacting, it is still possible to parent consciously, after the fact.

In her post, Five Ways to Reconnect with Your Child When You are Having a Bad Day, Dr. Laura of Aha! Parenting provides five strategies to reconnect by helping them feel safe, clarifying your opposing needs, physically reconnecting, playing and empathizing with their feelings.

In her post on Positive Parenting Connection, The Most Important Question to Ask After Yelling, Dr Andra Brill, founder of Mindful Happy Families, describes the importance of having a ritual to reconnect after you lose your temper with your children. She shares her family’s question, “What do you need?” which helps her to get to the root of the problems in order to avoid stressful situations in the future and helps family members feel heard and participate in the problem solving.

What about you? Have you found anything new that works for your family this month or come across any Conscious Parenting Resources to share? If so, I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for Reading!

Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook

Conscious Flexibility

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A tree that is unbending is easily broken. – Lao Tzu

I am not the most flexible person.

When I am in the middle of something, I like to finish what I’m doing before moving on to something else.

If I have plans and they go awry, it takes time for me to recommit to Plan B.

If I ask my children to do something, kindly and respectfully, like the authoritarian parents of previous generations, I expect them to do it and when they don’t, I tend to use power plays to “get my way.” (Read Encouraging Children to Listen for a better way.).

And I used to be even worse.

When my daughter, our first child, was young, I thought I could control things that were out of my control – her behavior, her sleep habits, her expressions of emotion. When her spirited personality clashed with my introverted one, and I had used up all of my reserves of patience and motherly affection, I would fall back into more authoritarian parenting tactics. Not every time. Not all the time. But enough. Enough for me to remember and hope she doesn’t.

These days, I am more aware of what falls under my sphere of control (partially from repeating, “You can’t make other people do things; the only person you can control is yourself” to my daughter for years). Through my journey to live a more conscious life, I have become more flexible in some areas. I have learned to accept things as they are and not force them to bend to my will. I have learned not to react so dramatically to things that would previously have caused me upset. I have learned to catch myself in knee-jerk reactions and pause to choose a more thoughtful response.

Sometimes.

But not always.

I still sometimes give in to frustration and disappointment when my carefully laid plans are threatened by an inconvenient melt-down. I still find myself trying to control situations outside my control. I still feel a distinct sense of unease when I feel powerless in my parenting.

But I realize that this need for control and lack of flexibility is a detriment. It is a detriment to my relationship with my children. It is a detriment to a growth-oriented mindset. It is a detriment to my desire to live a more conscious life.

But the worst part of it is that my four-year-old has turned into a mini-dictator who appears to feel actual, physical pain when asked to say something nicely, and who has heaps of pre-school control issues, and I’m just a little bit afraid that she might have gotten some of that from me.

And so, in April of my More Conscious Year, I am going to work on being more flexible, less rigid, in my everyday life.

Control vs. a Sense of Control

A sense of control, if not actual control, is a deep psychological need, not just for me, but for people in general. A sense of control allows people to feel safe and secure; it allows them to move forward in their lives with predictability.

Feeling out-of-control, or in a situation that is out-of-control, can lead to feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and fear. According to social scientists, this aversion to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness and desire for control is so strong, that people will make things up or find patterns where there are none, in order to regain a sense of control.

Our need for a sense of control can be traced back to our evolutionary roots when our survival depended on a sense of control over our environment. When we feel in control, we are at less risk of danger. When we feel in control, we feel safe. When we feel out-of-control, our mental and physical health can suffer.

And yet, a sense of control over our lives and the desire to control everything in our lives are very different things.

A sense of control over the things we can actually control – our own behavior, our reactions to others behavior, how, and with whom, we choose to spend our time and energy – is positive. But attempts to control other people and other things outside of our actual control, more often than not leads to unhappiness, rather than the security (and following happiness) we are hoping to attain by maintaining control (according to Psychology Today Article, Let Go, Be Happy).

Effects of Controlling Parenting

This need for control, or a sense of control, can also enter our parenting. According to the author of Five Things You Can and Can’t Control as a Parent, many parents attempt to control their children’s behaviors because of societal pressure or their own fear. Denny Hagel, founder of Awakened Parenting, explains that perceived lack of control is a common cause of parental frustration. Parents can become so focused on their child’s behavior that they are unable to see the larger picture and only feel the need to win the power struggle.

In her post, Let’s Stop Controlling and Start Listing to Children, Parent Coach Shelly Birger Phillips says that when parents force children to submit to their authority, they send the message that they are the more powerful ones and their children’s ideas, thoughts, and desires don’t matter. By controlling, parents teach children to submit to another’s will and not think for themselves. Authoritarian, or overly powerful, parenting robs children of their psychological autonomy, by telling children what to do, what to think and how they should feel. Kids parented in this manner may be relatively well-behaved, but they also tend to be less resourceful, have poorer social skills, and lower self esteem.

While I don’t consider myself a controlling parent in a lot of ways, I have realized that it is my fall-back parenting strategy when I am over-tired, stressed or overwhelmed, and all of the above is motivation enough to want to make a change.

Ways to Practice More Flexible (Respectful) Parenting

Week 1: Awareness of the Bigger Picture

Following the adage that our children are mirrors of ourselves, I want to use my daughters controlling behavior as a wake-up call to be more conscious of my own words and actions towards my children (and my spouse) when I am under stress. I want to bring awareness to these moments when I use power inappropriately, to see the bigger picture of the unintentional example I may be setting.

For any of you who may be practicing your own flexibility, bringing awareness to your use, or misuse of power, in all areas of your life is a good start to affecting change. Additionally, noting the areas of your life for which you actually have control and reflecting on them in these moments can help to shift your perspective. In her article, How to Let Go of Control Issues, the author suggests making a conscious list of the things in life that you have control over, and later when you find yourself trying to exert control over something, she suggests returning to the list (mentally) to hep bring your focus to what you can control.

Week 2: Be Proactive

Making self-care a priority is key to a sense of control over your life. When we are rested, exercised, relaxed, we are more likely to feel in control and to be in control of our responses.

Additionally, working on my relationship with my daughter to prevent power struggles, may help prevent the occasions where we find ourselves in a power struggle. In her article on power struggles, Denny Hagel advises parents to work to convey to their children that they are a resource for help, guidance and support from an early age, to foster a teamwork mentality, rather than a “you against them” mentality. She explains that parents can do this by reacting consciously and supportively when children make mistakes; she states, when children make mistakes, how you react will determine your child’s perception of you as supporter or opponent.

This week I am going to work on meeting my goals for self-care and work to consciously build a less adversarial relationship with my daughter.

Week 3: Choose a Conscious Response

In her article Let Go of Control: How to Learn the Art of Surrender, psychologist Amy Johnson notes that sometimes it can be as easy as noticing that you are in control mode and choosing to let go, consciously surrendering to the moment. She describes how when she finds herself in a situation where she is trying to impose her will, she imagines that she is in a canoe paddling upstream, against the current. She then pictures the boat turning around, dropping the oars, and floating downstream, or simply reminding herself to “let go of the oars,” to shift her perspective.

This week, I am going to try to use Amy’s technique, or simply ask myself “Where is the power?” when I find myself trying to exert control, to reminding myself that my job is to help my children feel powerful not powerless.

Week 4: Practicing Surrender

When dealing with more difficult situations, Amy Johnson, recommends asking yourself the following questions, “What am I afraid will happen if I let go of control?” “Could this really happen? And if it could, how bad could it actually be?” Parent Coach Shelly Birger Phillips recommends taking a step back and watching what happens when we stop trying to control things (situations, people, children) and see what happens; to get in the habit of following the lead of others and surrendering to the moment.

Following this combined advice, this week, I am going to try “surrendering to the moment,” facing my fears of “what could happen,” and seeing if I can’t let the reality of what unfolds help me to become a more flexible parent.

(For more on letting go of control for parents see Control Less, Trust More).

What about you? Do you have issues with power and control that you would like to work through? Do you notice yourself falling back into a certain, less, conscious way of parenting or being when you are over-tired or over-stressed? Do you have any techniques that have helped you make a more positive shift in these times? If so, I’d love to hear from you!

I’d love to hear if you find anything in this series helpful. I am writing a lot that I want to do personally, but I am hoping that some of the situations might resonate with readers and some of the links may be helpful. If you find the A More Conscious Year series helpful (or don’t think it is helpful at all), I’d love to hear from you. 

Thanks for reading!

Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook

A More Empathetic March

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Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. ..it makes the world a better place. – Daniel H. Pink
My husband and I, as many parents, want to raise children who are kind, open and accepting of other people. We also want our children to have a strong sense of themselves and the ability to be true to themselves and their values in the face of whatever life throws at them. Empathy, or the ability to understand and share another person is feeling, plays a strong part in raising children with these values.

According to psychiatrist Dr. David Sack in his post, From Mine to Ours, Nurturing Empathy in Children, Children with a strong sense of empathy are kinder and more resilient against peer pressure. They are the children more likely to attract friendships, to have more diverse groups of friends and to feel secure enough to stand alone rather than blindly follow the group.

There are many books, articles, and posts with information on how to raise more empathetic children, but one thing they all seem to have in common an emphasis on parenting that emphases connection and communication. In her article Teaching Empathy, Dr. Gwen Dewar references studies that suggest kids are more likely to develop a strong sense of empathy when their own emotional needs are met at home. Empathy is a cornerstone of positive, conscious, responsive, attached parenting (as many other areas of life). Showing children empathy for all of the challenges of trails the face as they move through life, helps them to be kinder to themselves and to others.

And although I know this on a theoretical and practical level, oftentimes in the moment I need it most, empathy evades me.

As a practicing social worker for years before I became a mom, I have had the privilege of working with, and getting to know, people from many diverse economic, social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I prided myself on my ability to connect with even the most resistant client through our shared humanity. Yet as a parent, I find this empathy harder to express.

One reason for this may be the emotions involved in family interactions that are not involved in professional interactions. As Dr. Dewar explains (in the above referenced article), the expression of, or ability to express, empathy is only possible when one is able to regulate one’s own emotional responses. And it can be challenging to feel empathy when we feel threatened, stressed or emotionally triggered, which is often the case when overstressed parents are faced with overstressed children (see How to be Truly Empathetic for more).

What is Empathy?

In his article Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It, defines empathy as the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. (For a more detailed explanation, watch this short video clip from a Ted Talk by Brené Brown).

When something happens that I understand, a physical pain, a fight over toys, a bid for my attention, I am more easily able to respond empathetically. But when my highly sensitive daughter is triggered into an intense display of emotion over a misplaced cup, a younger brother who does not do exactly as she says, or something not going according to her exact expectations multiple times a day, I find it harder to truly empathize.

I have practiced responses, “Wow. It looks like you’re having a really hard time right now!” or “You seem really angry right now,” but I don’t often FEEL empathy because, my initial reaction is more often one of annoyance, aggravation or anger.

But I want to change this.

And so in March, I will work to be more empathetic, and even if I only get as far as stopping, sitting down at her level and opening my arms for a hug, without uttering a word, this will be a great improvement over the present!

Week 1– Practice Listening, Reflecting and Taking the Opposing Perspective

How often as parents, have we heard ourselves saying, “She’s just tired,” or “He’s just hungry,” or some other statement that tells our children what they are feeling when their behavior is less-than-stellar? I know I am guilty of it and can hear my daughter in my head yelling, “I’m NOT TIRED!” And maybe she is, maybe she’s not, but it isn’t for me to tell, but to ask.

In his article I Don’t Feel Your Pain: Overcoming Roadblocks to Empathy, the author advises the practice of attentive listening and using empathetic responses,  such as, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” instead of assuming we know how someone feels or rushing in to make things better. In Time Magazine’s Article, 5 Ways to be More Empathetic, Krznaric advises, to step back for a moment in the midst of an argument and try to see what the other person is feeling and consider what they need. He suggests giving them a chance to express their feelings and needs, and then to reflect back what they’ve said. A phrase often used in positive parenting circles is, “What I hear you say is ___________, or what your body is telling me is ____________? Am I right?

This week, instead of assuming I know how my daughter is feeling, I will try to practice checking in with her, practicing active listening and reflecting her feelings back to her to see if she feels more heard.

Week 2 – Practice Restraint (of the Desire to Try to Make Things Better)

I remember reading years ago, that between men and women, women are more likely to listen and empathize, while men are more likely to feel the need to jump in and provide assistance, or to fix the situation. This has stuck with me because I have always been more like the men in this description when friends or family members came to me with problems or concerns. In my professional life, I could empathize; in my personal life, I feel the need to do something. Just empathizing never felt like enough.

Yet in a portion of Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on empathy, referenced above, she states, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection (through empathy).” Instead of trying to “fix” a situation, she suggests saying, “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.”

This week, I am going to practice restraining my desire to try to make things better in conversations with friends and family members and let empathy be enough.

Week 3 – Practice Restraint (of Judgement)

Whenever I’ve read the quote that begins, “Please Mom and Dad, my hands are small. I don’t mean to spill my milk…” and goes on to ask for understanding from parents from the perspective of a small child, I have always teared up, envisioning an innocent child punished for simply being small. But once my daughter was born and developed into the head-strong, spirited child that she is, my vision of this small, innocent child has vanished, replaced instead by the picture of a little person deliberately determined to reject any and all positive influence I try to have on her and to drive me mad in the process.

It is this image that often clouds my vision when looking at my daughter’s scowling face, leading me to see willful defiance rather than a child struggling. And it is this judgement that so often keeps me from empathizing with her plight.

In her Ted Talk, Brené Brown, includes the added element of “reserving judgement,” as a necessary ingredient to empathy. This week, I will try to use my mindfulness cue of a rising level of frustration, to notice any judgements in response to my daughter’s behavior and to replace them with a more loving, understanding, empathetic perspective before responding.

Week 4 – Practice Developing a New Perspective

My closest friend has a very clear memory of her childhood. She not only remembers people and events; she also remembers feelings. She can recall how it felt when her mother left her, for even short amounts of time. She can recall feelings of joy, sadness and fear. She remembers what it feels like to be a child. And because she can do this, she is more easily able to understand how her children are feeling and empathize authentically.

I do not have such memories. I remember bits and pieces. Stories that were told to me. Snippets of my younger years. But I have no memories (or access to memories) of what it feels like to be a child.

In her article 4 Unexpected (and Science Backed) Ways to Develop Empathy, the author suggests reading literary fiction to immerse yourself in the lives of fictional characters to develop empathy for others. While there may not be a lot of literary fiction written by children, this week, I will seek out stories, articles and quotes on childhood and incorporate them into my reading for the day to help me better understand and empathize with my own children.

Note on Empathy on a Larger Scale

I realize that so much of this post focuses on empathizing with children as parents, whereas some readers may not be parents or may want to practice empathy in different areas. For resources on developing empathy in other areas, Roman Krznaric’s Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It, or any of the other links in this post.

What about you? Do you struggle to empathize with your children or others in stressful moments, or have you found ways to practice empathy that work for you? Either way, I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for Reading!

Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook

Conscious Parenting Inspirations – February 2015

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He who knows patience knows peace.” – Chinese proverb

I began practicing patience this month as part of my More Mindful Year, and although I have struggled with it, I have also learned a few things along the way. In my moments of silence and space, when I would otherwise have been worrying about being late or making someone wait, repeatedly reminding my children or family that it was “time to go,” or thinking about something else I “should” be doing, I found that I was able to turn moments of impatience into moments of learning or joy. By pausing and consciously shifting my mindset to one of patience, rather than impatiently trying to rush the moments by, I was able to make space in my day to listen to myself, listen to my children and take little joyful breaks throughout the day.

Listen to Yourself

Bedtimes and early mornings are, I’ve realized, when I am at my least patient. As a parent of two under five, I have had few nights when I’ve actually gone to bed in the evening and woken up naturally in the morning, with a complete night’s rest in-between. Nor do I, as most parents of young children, have much time to myself. So when I am in “danger” of losing either of those precious commodities, I can be a bit impatient and rigid.

But this month, since I’ve been practicing mindfulness and patience, I had the experience of listening to my thoughts before I opened my mouth when my daughter fought sleep and roused me out of mine, and one day, what I heard was, “Be the mom.”

It was, at once, both revelational and embarrassing. I realized that so often at these times, I am putting my own needs, for sleep or time to myself, above the immediate needs of my daughter. And while my own needs are important and should be honored, a reminder to myself to “be the mom,” helped me to respond to her, patiently, in the moment, rather than focusing on my own irritation. I realized that, sometimes, I reverse our roles and expect her to meet my needs, rather than me “being the mom” and meeting hers. This reminder, which has now become a mantra, helps me to act with patience and love, much like my own mother did, hopefully building similar memories for my daughter of her mom. Without pausing to shift to a patient mindset, I might not have heard that reminder or made the change that followed. (It could also work as “Be the Dad!”)

Sometimes, if we just stop and listen, rather than rushing through a moment, we make space for our own inner wisdom to be heard.

Listen to Your Children

Another thing I’ve learned by practicing patience is that by waiting, you open up space for your children (or others) to talk and share their feelings.

I’ve started my daughter’s bedtime routine a little earlier in the past few days, to give her sufficient time to wind down before I run off to tend to her little brother’s bedtime needs (something that is often hard for her). During this time, I’ve started the practice of “checking-in” with her, asking how she’s feeling or if she has anything she wants to talk about. During one of these conversations, she asked why I spend so much time getting her little brother to bed, which led to a conversation about how she wishes she was still a little baby and how we could meet her needs for more “babying.” After this conversation, I was able to make some small changes in our daily interactions to help meet these needs, something I never would have thought to do if I had not made more space in our evening routine, rather than impatiently rushing through it each night.

If your children are older, in this post, How to Build a Great Relationship in 15 Minutes a Day, the author describes how consciously setting aside small amounts of time to regularly connect with, and listen to, older children can have a real positive impact.

Take Joyful Breaks

Another thing I learned, in practicing mindfulness and patience, is that when you do, life slows down. You find time in between things that you never knew was there. You begin to enjoy things you never took the time to enjoy before. And you give yourself the gift of little moments of joy every day that you might otherwise have rushed through or not have noticed at all.

As parents, we have a never-ending list of things to-do for our families, for our jobs, for our homes, for ourselves. But in the course of checking things off of this list, if you try to remember to practice each one mindfully (when you remember), focusing on the task at hand, rather than the thoughts in your head, you can create little moments of peace and joy that can keep you renewed throughout even the busiest of days.

Links and Resources

In her article 11 Things Parents of Empty Nesters Want Kids to Know, Shelley Emilling provides a list of small things to help parents savor their children’s childhoods (with more in the comments if you have a lot of time on your hands!) – Thank you Geneva!

In this great article 12 Tips to Transition to Peaceful Parenting from Aha! Parenting, Dr. Laura Markham provides a compact overview of Peaceful Parenting strategies and tips for dialogues to have with your children in different situations. A great first read if you are new to Peaceful or Conscious Parenting or a great refresher even if you currently parent in this way.

What about you? Have you had any conscious parenting insights this month or new or inspiring resources to share (to be included in next month’s Conscious Parenting Inspirations)? If so, I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for Reading!

Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook (Now only $5.99!)

A More Conscious February – Practicing Patience

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 “Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.” ― Molière

Patience, as they say, is a virtue. Patience allows you to be  more peaceful, more kind, more understanding, and more joyful. Patience allows you to slow down and enjoy the moment you are in. According to Essential Life Skills, cultivating patience reduces stress levels and makes you a happier, healthier person; results in better decision making; helps develop understanding, empathy and compassion; and helps you to understand and appreciate the process of growth.

Of course, there are times when patience is not warranted, such as in emergency situations, but often so much of what we perceive to be an emergency is really not so urgent in the larger picture. I’ve had moments when I’ve been rushing around trying to get everyone out of the house on a self-imposed time table, only to find myself angry when no one else was even remotely upset and there was really nothing to be angry about.

But I don’t want to do that any more.

Which is why this month, I am going to work on cultivating patience (For a beautiful story on another mother who made a similar decision read, Hands Free Mama’s post, The Day I Stopped Saying Hurry Up).

In her article, Cultivating Patience: A Practice That Becomes Its Own Reward, Ker Cleary, a practitioner of contemplative psychology, explains that the practice of patience involves a shift in our perspective. She explains that “Patience comes from having confidence – born of awareness, practice, and experience – that the storm will pass, and that if we ride it out, all will be well again.”

She notes that, with practice, patience comes more easily.

And so this month I will practice.

Week 1: Determining When You are Impatient and Why

In her post, 6 Pointers for Practicing Patience, Dani Dipirro of Positively Present, suggests noticing reoccurring situations that test your patience and then asking why you are impatient at those times. While we can’t always predict when we will become impatient, we may be able to notice that we have less patience in certain situations such as driving in traffic, juggling multiple responsibilities at work or during dinner time at home, or when we are running late.

Once we become aware of these situations, we can more consciously cultivate patience by taking deep breaths, repeating helpful mantras, practicing mindfulness, or any other technique that works for us. In the above referenced post, Dani also suggests asking yourself why you are impatient, so that you can address the reason or simply acknowledge it as a way to bring more mindfulness, and patience, to the situation. Before beginning the week, I can already think of a few regularly occurring situations that will be great opportunities to practice patience.

Week 2: Releasing Attachment to the Outcome

In her post, Four Steps for Cultivating Patience, spiritual teacher Barb Schmidt, advises readers to “release the expectation that everything will go as planned or that people will do what you expect them to do.” In order to cultivate patience, she also recommends that we “make an intention to begin letting go of your expectations and replacing them with preferences.”

As a part of small children (or perhaps a parent of children in general), I often find myself wanting my children to do something that I’ve asked them to do right when I ask them to do it. While I’ve started being more conscious of the need to acknowledge what they are involved in and ask if they can do whatever it is that needs to be done when they are finished with their current task, I still expect them to follow through.

But as I was researching the topic of patience, I remembered something that had resonated with me from a book on conscious parenting – when children are growing, it is not realistic to expect immediate compliance, but instead practice expressing your preference (for them to do something) and let go of your attachment to the outcome. If whatever it is really needs to be done, I can either do it myself or try to change tatics to help them want to comply, instead of becoming frustrated or impatient.

Week 3: Using Mantras for Patience

In the same post, 6 Pointers for Practicing Patience, Dani Dipirro also suggests using a “patience-provoking” mantra to remind you of the need to be patient in a stressful situation. One of my favorite mantras is “Enjoy This.” As I mentioned in a previous post on Developing Mindfulness Cues, my 4-year-old child moves at her own slow pace. I’ve begun using my rising frustration at times when our chosen speeds conflict to remember to be mindful, and “Enjoy This,” allows me to slow down and do just that. Another, “Radical acceptance,” reminds me not to try to force my will or judgement on a situation, but simply to accept what is and move forward.

Week 4: Practice Conscious Preparation

While preparing ahead of time isn’t necessarily a tactic to cultivate patience, I find that I am typically impatient when I am late for something and I am typically late when I haven’t prepared well or planned my schedule ahead of time. I hope that by getting into the habit of thinking ahead each evening to what needs to be done the following day, I can avoid situations where I have to rush, leading to impatience on the part of anything standing in my way.

What about you? Have you found practices that have helped you cultivate patience, or do you think could use a month to focus on cultivating more? Either way, I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for Reading!

Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook

A More Conscious Facebook Page

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You are what you share.” ― C.W. Leadbeater

As someone who leans more towards slow-living, adding a facebook page to this blog was not something I had originally planned to do. However, after becoming more involved in researching, writing and living A More Conscious Life, I found so many wonderful books, articles, photos, quotes, communities and other resources available on-line and wanted to share them with readers. I thought that a facebook page would be a good place to share these resources, to further connect with readers and to connect with others working to live more consciously.

And so… A More Conscious Facebook Page was born.

While facebook can be a way to keep in touch with friends, it can also be a way to connect to people and organizations that inspire you. Through this page, I hope to use the power of facebook to do just that.

If you would like to receive Facebook posts with resources and inspiration on Conscious Living, Conscious Parenting, Mindfulness, Simplicity, etc., and to be notified of new blog posts if you aren’t already, please click Like on A More Conscious Facebook Page.

I look forward to the conversation!

Thanks for reading.

Sharon, Author The Conscious Parenting Notebook