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Practicing Mindfulness Helps Rare Parents Decrease Stress and Increase Happiness

Parents of children with disabilities are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. Juggling the logistics of meeting your child’s medical needs demands time, energy, and attention—and it can have a significant emotional toll. “Everything that’s going on is incredibly demanding,” says Mark Bertin, MD, a developmental pediatrician based in Pleasantville, New York. “For parents, it’s very stressful. There’s a lot of stuff that has to get managed.”

A simple technique called mindfulness can help to counteract that stress, make parenting more enjoyable, and improve your resilience—to name just a few benefits. For example, in one study, mothers of children with disabilities reported reduced anxiety and depression and improved sleep and well-being after six weekly sessions of mindfulness practice. Plus, it takes only moments and can be done anywhere. Of course, mindfulness shouldn’t replace other types of mental health treatments, but it can be a helpful complementary approach—speak with your doctor, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist if you feel you may need medical intervention from a professional.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention to the present moment without judgment, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a psychologist who pioneered the use of mindfulness in healthcare. It’s a type of meditation, a practice that focuses on mind and body integration to calm the mind and promote overall well-being. Because mindfulness has no formal structure, it is easy to incorporate into daily life. For example, you can be mindful when you’re eating, washing your hands, doing chores, walking, or caring for your child.

“Mindful parenting is being in the moment with your child, turning off all the other things going on in your brain,” says Wendy Blumenthal, PhD, a child and family therapist based in Bradenton, Florida, who has sons with special needs. She describes being mindful as concentrating on one thing, like playing with your child, rather than the half dozen or more things parents typically think about.

When thoughts or feelings distract you—and they will—you choose to let them go without judging them as being good or bad. You can imagine them as balloons or clouds floating away. If you start to worry about the past or anticipate the future, you again redirect your attention back to the present.

“Our mind is naturally distracted. We get anxious or exhausted or knocked back on our heels,” says Bertin. In addition to being a developmental pediatrician, Bertin teaches mindfulness to parents. “With mindfulness, we’re just trying to live our lives more aware of what’s actually going on.” This increased awareness makes it easier for parents to navigate challenges and savor joyful moments, he says.

The Science Behind Mindfulness

Paying attention to the present may sound too simple to have much of a health effect. But if you consistently practice mindfulness, it can have significant physical and mental benefits over time.

The effectiveness of mindfulness stems from how it affects our nervous system.

When your brain perceives a threat, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and triggers the fight-flight-or-freeze effect. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up, your muscles tighten, and you feel on edge. This survival response prepared early humans to face physical dangers. Today, the brain interprets many things as threats, including scary or stressful events, like being with your child during a medical procedure or waiting to get test results.

Mindfulness has the opposite effect. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which responds with the rest-and-digest response. Your heart rate and blood pressure go down, your muscles relax, and you feel at ease. Your mind and body relax.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more readily this happens. It’s like building brain muscle. “If we reinforce more productive habits, those habits seem to hardwire, and that’s something we can take advantage of over time,” Bertin says.

How to Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness helps you reduce reactivity and stress over time, Bertin says—and “lots and lots of other things improve.” Here are some ways to integrate mindfulness into day-to-day life.

Tune in to your breathing

One of the easiest ways to anchor yourself in the present is to focus on your breathing. In addition to mental health benefits, mindful breathing offers physical benefits, such as improving our immune response, helping alleviate chronic pain, and improving sleep quality. Pause, be still, and close your eyes. Then, inhale and exhale slowly and deeply. “Breathe out slower than you breathe in,” Blumenthal recommends.

Mother lying down, relaxed, with her hands behind her head and eyes closed.
Credit: iStock | AntonioGuillem

Belly breathing is a basic technique you can do while standing, sitting, or lying down. Inhale deeply and slowly, and feel your belly expand. Exhale slowly and feel your belly flatten. Repeat as many times as you’d like.

Pause before reacting to problems

With mindfulness, you acknowledge problems without judging them or how you feel about them. That pause to observe what’s happening gives you time and space to decide how you want to react to a situation, Bertin says. You might say to yourself, “I can handle it. I can sit here for a minute before I do anything specific about it.”

When you observe what’s happening around you without judging it or judging yourself, you practice self-compassion and reduce self-criticism. “You recognize the inner critic without getting quite as caught up in it,” Bertin says.

Self-compassion can help alleviate feelings such as guilt and self-blame that are common to parents of children with medical needs. “It’s important to approach all this with a sense of self-compassion and a sense that everybody struggles with these things, and it’s normal,” Bertin says. “Parenting is hard. So if we can work on these things, they get easier.”

Being mindful sets up a positive feedback loop, Blumenthal says. “When you’re mindful in the moment, you have more fun, you’re happier, and you’re more in control.”

Immerse yourself in your time with your child

“Part of staying strong ourselves, and part of keeping our children positive and feeling strong, is really immersing ourselves and noticing our time together,” Bertin says. Foregoing multitasking to focus on the here and now can help you give your child more undivided attention.

Another way to be mindful is to pause and shift your focus to input from your senses. “It’s hard as a parent of a child with special needs,” she says. “If they want to roll the ball 6,000 times across the floor, and that makes them happy, you do it with them. It’s going to improve your relationship.” During playtime, ask yourself what your senses are telling you. If you’re rolling a ball, what is its texture? What color is it? What does it feel like as you catch it? What reactions do you see or hear your child making?

Asking yourself questions will keep you immersed in the present, away from all the other things usually occupying your mind. It also makes it easier to notice and appreciate the moments of happiness with your child. “When we can catch that mental wandering and just come back to the present, that actually allows us to enjoy our lives and our families a lot more,” Bertin says. Even when life is chaotic and stressful, “there probably are really positive things going on in the middle of all that.”

Tie mindfulness to an existing routine

Being mindful isn’t difficult. “It really is something that’s accessible and possible for anyone to practice,” says Bertin. The challenge is remembering to do it and integrating it into your life.

He encourages parents to find ways to pause and slow down throughout the day. “That little redirection sometimes can help break the stress cycle,” he says.

One way to make mindfulness a habit is to tie it to something you already do regularly. For example, every time you bathe your child, notice the temperature of the water or the slipperiness of soapy bubbles. Take a few deep breaths whenever you prepare medication or unbox a medical supply delivery.

You can also slow down and pay attention to your senses when you’re doing something for yourself, like noticing the scent of your shampoo when taking a shower or savoring the flavor and aroma of your morning coffee.

Take a break when life gets tough

Being mindful helps Blumenthal recognize when she needs to take a break. “I put myself in timeout. I come back calm,” she says. “I’m showing my child that sometimes you just need to remove yourself from a situation.

Mother walking her son in a wheelchair outside, smiling
Credit: iStock | AndreaObzerova

You don’t need to be still to take a mindfulness break, either. A walk outside, with or without your child, offers ample opportunities to get fresh air and focus on the present. Pay attention to your senses. Do you hear birds singing? Is there a breeze? What colors are the leaves?

Children do what they see their parents do, Blumenthal says. When you practice mindfulness to cope with difficult situations more calmly, you demonstrate resilience and show your child that self-care is important.

How to Integrate Mindfulness Into Daily Life

Regularly practicing mindfulness “builds traits that help us manage life more easily,” Bertin says, such as resilience and patience. However, the mental and physical benefits of mindfulness are not immediate. And mindfulness can be easier said than done. You may find it frustrating, because it’s so easy to get distracted. That’s normal.

When your thoughts wander, briefly acknowledge them without judgment, let them go, and return to the present. You can always turn your attention to your breath or your senses to ground you in the present.

The more you practice and the longer you practice, the more likely you will be able to recognize positive effects. For example, you may pause to observe without judgment when faced with a difficult IEP meeting and react in a more intentional and calmer way.

You may also find yourself capturing more happy moments with your child. “It’s so easy when your child has special needs to focus on what they’re not achieving or what you’re trying to achieve, instead of enjoying them in the here and now,” Blumenthal says. “Celebrate all the victories, not just the big ones, but the little ones, and in a way that is mindful because you’re in the moment.”


References and Further Reading

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