Parenting with mindfulness & acceptance
– Chris McCurry, PhD
D.W. Winnicott famously said, “There is no such thing as a baby”. By that he meant that one cannot isolate the child from the environment, especially the social environment. In my work as a basic 25 to 30 kid per week private practice psychologist I see how emotional challenges can quickly become interpersonal problems as the child seeks understanding and help/rescue from important and powerful adults. The resulting interactions can be smooth, comprehensible, and helpful or they can be confusing, emotionally-draining, and discouraging. I call this the parent-child “dance”. Sometimes it goes well (think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), and sometimes a lot of toes get mashed. Awareness, responsiveness, and shared goals make the dance go well. I like to use the word “supple” to describe a good parent-child relationship; flexible but strong, not too yielding.
A supple approach to life is the goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT. In ACT we talk about “psychological flexibility” as the chief treatment goal; the ability to remain in touch with what’s going on in your life at the moment, pleasant or unpleasant, to appraise the situation accurately, and to then make decisions that will be helpful and consistent with one’s goals.
To the frustration of their parents, children are born hard-wired to be psychologically IN-flexible. Given a reasonably supportive early environment a child’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development proceeds from concrete, rigid, and reactive to more abstract, flexible, and adaptive. I have found that ACT’s basic principles, goals, and strategies inform our understanding of how the parent-child dance develops, how it can go astray, and how to introduce some new and more adaptive choreography. The basics include: Awareness and presence through mindfulness practice; acceptance of the current facts of the situation; reducing the struggle to avoid or control thoughts and emotions; reorienting to valued goals and the necessary “next steps” to get there.
Our everyday dances with our children may rarely feel like we’re channeling Fred and Ginger (it’s said that Ginger was the better dancer because she did everything he did but backwards and in high heels), but we can learn to disengage from maladaptive patterns, pivot on one toe, and glide off in a better direction perhaps with a little style.
I had the privilege of studying under Steve Hayes, the developer of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model, at the University of Nevada in the late ’80s. I have been using ACT in my clinical practice for the past 25 years. My book, Parenting Your Anxious Child with Mindfulness and Acceptance, was published by New Harbinger in 2009.