Mindful Parenting: Equanimity and a Screaming Child

Stacked rocks

Perhaps the most important and beautiful concept in the Buddhist tradition is equanimity. Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein says one could argue “that the whole path [to enlightenment] rests on the maturing of this powerful, … beautiful factor.”

What is Equanimity? (short answer)

The Oxford Dictionary defines equanimity as “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.”

Isn’t that what we all desire, to approach our lives with balance and serenity? Isn’t that how we all want to parent – calm and composed, even through the challenging times?

And isn’t that really f*@king hard to do?

This post was inspired by two recent searches that led people to my blog: “equanimity and a screaming child” and “how to breathe through parenting.” I absolutely love those phrases. Cultivating equanimity in the presence of a screaming child is perhaps THE definition, and greatest challenge, of mindful parenting. And, like much else, it all comes down to breathing — pausing, living, inhaling, exhaling — through parenting.

It’s as simple, and as hard, as that.

What is Equanimity? (not-as-short answer)

In Pali, the word commonly used for equanimity is upekkha, which means “to look over.” It is also sometimes translated as “neutrality of mind,” “there in the middleness,” or “to see with patience.”

The English word equanimity combines two words:
1)   equa: even, plain, equal; and
2)   anima: mind, spirit, feelings, courage, passion, desire, breath, temper.
 

Do you see our challenge? Anima is all about action: passion, energy, spirit, and emotion. And equa is all about balance and composure.

But I see this beautiful combination of concepts, which may initially appear contradictory, as liberating and inspiring.

This definition reminds us that equanimity is NOT passivity, resignation, indifference, or disconnection. It is being there in the middle. It is fully embracing anger, love, frustration, joy, sorrow, and happiness. It is experiencing and living our lives, while acknowledging that we needn’t cling to or crave certain conditions (which are always changing), and knowing that we always have a choice about whether, and how, we act on our emotions (which are always changing, too). In short, we can engage with composure.

Meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal describes equanimity as leading not to indifference, but to “radiance and warmth of being,” noting that the Buddha described the equanimous mind as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.”

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha expressed equanimity as follows:

 As a solid mass of rock
Is not moved by the wind,
So a sage is unmoved
By praise or blame.
 

Praise and blame are two of the “eight worldly vicissitudes” that we all experience – the always changing circumstances of our lives that also include gain and loss, fame and disrepute, and pleasure and pain.

The Buddha says the sage remains unmoved in the face of all of it.

A parent, listening to the Buddha, then asked, “But seriously, how the f@$k do we do that?” {*translator’s note: my Pali is a bit rough}.

The parent further asked,

“When my child throws a tantrum for the 8th time that day,
when my five-month-old wakes up from her nap after 35 minutes
EVERY SINGLE DAY and
I CANNOT EVEN GET A SHOWER,
when my children fight over
who gets to play with Gru and
who gets to play with the minions
for the 89TH TIME IN A WEEK,
when my son TAKES 1O MINUTES
to put on pajamas or
refuses to eat cereal unless it’s out of
THIS BOWL ONLY or
shrieks uncontrollably for no reason at all,
how do I remain unmoved?
How do I cultivate equanimity in the presence of a screaming child?”
{*see above translator’s note.
**actually, I may have made this up.}
 

Mindful Parenting

Mindful Parenting: 7 Ways to Cultivate Equanimity and Breathe 

1. Practice When It’s Easy.

Last week, I taught a lesson on mindfulness to my high school students. As I was describing the difference between reacting and responding, a student asked, “But how do you DO that? When I get mad, I just want to punch someone!”

Mindfulness is a practice. You cannot, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, simply declare, “Yes! I need to be more present!” and then expect your approach to living and parenting to be magically transformed.

To parent mindfully, we need to practice.

My response to my student was this: You don’t join the gymnastics team and have a competition on the first day. You practice in the safe environment of the gym. You learn your routines by doing them over and over. You fall down and get back up. And then when you get to the pressure-filled environment of a competition, you’re ready. You know what to do, because you practiced.

Begin by practicing mindfulness when it’s easy, when your screaming child is not around. Wake up before the kids do and spend five minutes with your breath. Find ways to bring mindfulness to your daily routines.

And then when your child starts screaming, you’ll know what to do, because you practiced.

2. You Don’t Need to Address Every. Single. Annoyance.

I think this particular struggle comes to me from my years of teaching. From Day One of teacher training, we are instructed to be ever vigilant of every movement in our classroom. Let one misbehaving student slide, and watch your classroom slip slowly out of your control.

I’ve learned my home is not the same as my classroom. My children are not my students. If I reacted to every single argument, every single annoyance, every single instance of whining, begging, and complaining, I’d go crazy. Siblings fight EVERY 17 MINUTES. And, I don’t like to brag, but my children are totally above average.

There are some things our children need to learn to deal with on their own. There are some things you can just. let. go.

3. Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk.

Can it be fixed? Then don’t waste energy getting mad. I often need to remind myself that kids are kids; they are messy and uncoordinated. Before I started practicing mindfulness, my child spilling milk would likely have resulted in the following reaction: eye-rolling, deep sighing, and a reprimand about not being so careless.

And what would that accomplish? Frustration, resentment, and an upset child. And a floor still covered in milk.

The more skillful response? “Oops! That happens. Here’s a towel to clean up the mess.” Result: equanimity and a clean floor. {And maybe a gentle reminder about being more careful}.

4. Call a Timeout. For Everyone.

This past week, I had a mountain of papers to grade, several days of dance recitals and soccer practices, and my husband was out of town (for 12 days!). Tuesday night, I had a pounding headache and crabby children. I called a timeout. We didn’t go to soccer practice. We made pancakes for dinner, the kids got a bath, we snuggled in my bed and watched Berenstain Bears, and then we all went to sleep early.

The next day was much better. Yes, we have commitments to recreational activities and nutritious meals. But it’s okay to let those go sometimes. Take a timeout and breathe. Take time to take care of yourself.

5. Adjust your sails and learn to surf.

An African proverb says you cannot change the wind, but you can adjust your sails. Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us:

Learn to Surf

Parenting is a lesson in learning how little we control. While we will do what we can to teach our children emotional regulation and self-control, they are still kids and they will rant and yell and cry. When your child starts to scream, take a deep breath, and assess the wind and the waves. Sometimes, dispassionate observation is exactly what is needed from you. For example, some researchers say that the best response to a tantrum is to do nothing, and watch the outburst proceed through its predictable stages. When your child is ready for comforting, you’ll know.

Adjust your sails, learn to surf, and you won’t be tossed around by the storm. 

6. Cultivate Wisdom: Take Your Child’s Perspective.

Wisdom is one of the seven mental qualities that support the development of equanimity. The wisdom gained from practicing mindfulness teaches us to “separate people’s actions from who they are.” My favorite parenting mantra is “They are not their tantrums.” Though it’s hard, we sometimes need to not take things so personally. Try to see a situation from your child’s point of view.

The other night, as I got my children ready for bed, I started to get frustrated with my son’s slow pace in putting on his jammies. I was tired and desperately wanted to get to the couch so I could continue binge-watching Scandal. I felt the tension in my body, I observed the irritation in my mind, I noticed my huffy, deep sighs. Instead of barking at my son to “hurry up!” or getting angry at his dawdling, I paid attention. I watched him sing dreamily as he put his p.j.’s on: “la la la, loooooooo, la la la looooo la la….” I watched him bend down as a small toy buried in the fluffy rug caught his attention. He studied it, stretched his legs, and then slowly pulled his jammie pants on.

He was fully engaged in the moment, aware of his surroundings, playing with his voice and stretching his body. He wasn’t taking his time to annoy me. He wasn’t aware of my plans for the evening. In mindfully observing, I found his little routine adorable. And realistically, it probably only delayed bedtime by about 97 seconds.

7. Acknowledge Your Growth.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more your parenting will transform. You will notice you are responding more skillfully. Keep a journal so you can track and honor your growth. I wrote this post last year {when my husband was out of town on the same trip} about yelling at my kids because they were splashing in the bathtub. That doesn’t really happen anymore. A year later, I can see how much I’ve grown. Do I still yell sometimes? Yep. Do I still get frustrated when my kids scream and throw tantrums? Yep. But have I grown? Yep.

*****

We will never be perfect. Mindful parenting is not perfect parenting. It is bringing our intentional, nonjudgmental awareness of ourselves and of the present moment to the practice of parenting. It is about learning to respond skillfully.

We can find equanimity in the presence of a screaming child. We can learn to breathe through parenting. And once we learn to navigate, our journey is a lot more joyful.

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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
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Comments

  1. I like your comment about responding skillfully. This is is so key to parenting effectively. It’s something I try to work on every day and feel that I’m getting better. It’s about being aware of what I’m saying and doing.
    Jenny recently posted…How To Get Your Kids To Brush Their TeethMy Profile

  2. I’m not a parent, but these, guidelines work for me!

  3. I’m more of a “we shall sing opera and turn our loud loud feelings into comedy” kind of mom, but the underlying principle is the same… you need a plan, and tools to help you direct your feelings appropriately if you’re going to make it out of this parenting gig alive. :) Stopping in from Bloppy Bloggers.

  4. Wonderful post. I feel myself breathing easier just reading it.
    Liz recently posted…Zoe vs. “King of Pain”: A Song ParodyMy Profile

  5. I suck at equanimity, and I loved, and more importantly, NEEDED this post. Thanks for making this so accessible to us.
    Stephanie @ Mommy, for Real. recently posted…A Letter to My Dad on Father’s DayMy Profile

  6. I love the moment in your son’s bedroom when he was being slow putting on his jammies. Such an important reminder.
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…A Letter to My Dad for Father’s DayMy Profile

  7. Timely goodness for me as I practice being with a 22 month old grandchild who has a new baby brother. The gymnastics analogy for what practice means–so great.

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