Parent Mindfulness and Self-Care

Brought to you by CHYP’s Parenting Blog

September 27th, 2021

By: Lonnie Zeltzer, MD

As a longtime adolescent medicine physician and pain physician, I have heard parents say that their focus was on helping their child recover from pain, anxiety, depression — or whatever stress the child is experiencing — before they can focus on themselves.

Meanwhile I see parents running ragged taking care of family, as well as bringing their child to various doctors’ appointments and therapies, until they themselves are exhausted.

I ask the parent, “Do you ever take five minutes to just sit and do nothing? Not plan a meal or think about your schedule for the day, but just sit and breathe?” Rarely do I hear a parent say that they’ve given even one minute for themselves.

The problem is that children, teens, and young adults who see their parents running ragged have different reactions, typically not any that are healthy. The child may feel guilt, which then adds to their own stress, which in turn adds to their pain, anxiety, depression, etc.

Parents role model adulthood and parenting for their children. If children see parents engaged in self-care, they learn that self-care is important for themselves, therefore self-care for any parent is a critical component in successful childrearing.

The Importance of Parent Self-Care

Parents become role models for what a “good parent is.” But for many, a good parent is one who gives up self-care for the sake of their child (“if you really love your child, you will sacrifice your own care for their sake”). However, when children notice this type of parental behavior, they tend to not share their own stressors with their parents because they see them already super stressed-out and don’t want to make the situation worse.

In a two-parent household, a stressed parent may be more irritable or distant with the other parent, thus creating or adding to couple stressors. The parents’ tension then trickles down to their children who see their parents fighting — often about them — and that adds to guilt and withdrawal from the parents.

Mindfulness and Self-Care Basics

So, what do I mean by self-care? Self-care involves feeling good enough about yourself to allocate some time for yourself. This means time for exercise and activities that are pleasurable, as well as time to just be “without thinking, doing, or planning.”

The easiest way to begin self-care is to allocate some time for just focusing on yourself. That may mean five minutes to sit somewhere at home – either outdoors or indoors — where no one can bother you. You could put a sign outside your bedroom door saying, “Do not disturb — parent meditating.”

Sit somewhere with your legs uncrossed, in a comfortable chair, with your hands in your lap, and just focus on your breathing. You don’t need to do anything with your breath other than notice it. Notice the in-breath, and notice the out-breath.

As you begin to do this, a million thoughts will pop through your head like a popcorn machine of thoughts. Some of them will seem like they came from outer space — just a random bunch of thoughts. It’s important not to do anything but just notice them, like a reporter, and go back to the breath. (The motto is always: “back to the breath.”)

When I began meditating, I don’t think I was able to get one full breath out before thoughts would pop into my head. However, after a number of days of doing this five-minute mindfulness period, I noticed that I was able to take two or three breaths before the thoughts started popping in.

Then, after five minutes of just sitting and breathing, I noticed that my brain started quieting down. I was aware of the feeling of the breath in my chest — the air going in and filling my lungs with good clean oxygen, letting out any stale breath and carbon dioxide, and letting go of stressors in my muscles.

In time, I began noticing colors and shapes in the room. If the window were open, I would hear the wind rustle through the trees or the birds outside. Everything around me had suddenly become much more present in the moment.

I was no longer worrying about the past or fretting about the future. I wasn’t thinking about all of the tasks I had yet to do, or what was going to happen with my children, but rather just allowed myself to be “in the moment.”

This type of practice quiets the brain in such a way that the body begins to change along with the brain. Stress hormones are reduced, positive “feel-good” hormones increase, and the body is energized and feels healthier.

The Neurobiology of Mindfulness

There have been a number of research studies on the neurobiology of mindfulness. Dr. Richard Davidson, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, has been doing many studies on the effects of mindfulness on the brain.

He found that people who are anxious tend have more right side brain activity, especially people who are depressed. However, he found that longtime Buddhist monk meditators had significantly more left side brain activity than most people and that there were different kinds of brain activity for different kinds of meditation.

Dr. Davidson conducted studies with his graduate students, who would be asked to spend 45 minutes a day meditating, for one month. He found that their brain activity also began to shift to more left side activity, and they reported feeling more equanimity and a sense of peacefulness.

Following the early work of Dr. Davidson, we learned from many other researchers that mindfulness is a person’s active way of changing brain and body neurophysiology to a healthier and more calm state of being. We also know that stress can influence one’s immunology and can aggravate a variety of diseases and medical conditions.

Benefits of Mindfulness

One experiment you can try is called “mindful eating.” When you eat, first spend time noticing the food on your plate — the colors, the textures, the scents. As you take a bite of food, let it linger in your mouth and notice the texture, taste, and aroma as you chew it.

Mindful eating can be very helpful if you’re trying to lose weight or if you’re trying to gain weight. It’s important to start shifting your brain and your intestinal tract to a more positive connection in relation to eating and drinking enough water.

There are other aspects to mindfulness such as “mindful walking” in which you walk slowly, with a focus on the feeling of the air, the wind, the sun. Look at the colors of the plants and trees. Notice bird sounds. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Smell the aromas around you

The entire goal of mindfulness is to be present and train your brain and your body to be in the moment — not hijacked by memories of past negative experiences or worries about future potential problems.

Some families even do a five-minute mindfulness for the entire family sitting at the dinner table together right before they eat dinner. The idea of getting the family to engage in mindfulness and being present can influence family friction in a positive way and help everyone feel a greater sense of equanimity and togetherness.

However, it all starts with mindfulness and self-care as the critical ingredient in being a good parent and role model for your child and family.

Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D., is a Distinguished Research Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Immediate Past-Director of the UCLA Pediatric Pain and Palliative Care Program. She is a co-author on the Institute of Medicine report on Transforming Pain in America and is a member of the national steering committee assigned to provide directions for pain research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  She has received, among other awards, a Mayday Pain and Policy Fellowship and the 2005 Jeffrey Lawson Award for Advocacy in Children’s Pain Relief from the American Pain Society (APS).  Her UCLA integrative pediatric pain program received a 2009 Clinical Centers of Excellence in Pain Management Award from APS and a 2012 award from the Southern California Cancer Pain Initiative.  She is active in advocacy for pain care and research. She was an invited member of the Institute of Medicine National Expert Panel on pain in American and was a co-author of the IOM publication on the committee findings in 2011. She was an invited member of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Special Advisor on The State of Opioids in America. She is also an invited member of the FDA Committee on Analgesia, Anesthesia, and Addiction, where new pain-related drugs are given FDA approval or not, as well as an invited member of the Expert Advisory Committee on Hemoglobinopathies as a pain expert for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at NIH.  She is also on an expert panel for the NIH on a national study on a mind-body intervention for teens with fibromyalgia. She is also a member of the national Autism Think Tank as a pain expert in autism. Her research includes yoga, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, and other self-help interventions, including mobile technologies, to help children and adolescents who have chronic pain, as well as understanding biopsychosocial pain mechanisms in irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, sickle cell disease, headaches, dysmenorrhea, and other conditions. She has over 350 research publications on childhood pain and complementary therapies, has written more than 80 chapters, and published her first book for parents on chronic pain in childhood (HarperCollins, 2005) and her second book for parents on chronic pain in children and young adults (Shilysca Press, 2016).