Welcome to the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness: Support for Parents series. This is part four of a series on parenting a child with a pain condition. This installment discusses ways to stay calm, caring and centered, which can make all the difference when caring for a child with chronic pain.
Read part three | Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness: Creating a Circle of Care
Mindfulness and self-compassion practices are key to parenting. Both are very closely related and can be helpful for parents of children with chronic pain. As Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, a physician specializing in pediatric pain and mindfulness practitioner, explains, “Attention to the present moment allows parents to listen to their child, observe in a non-judgmental way, and have compassion without the need to ‘rescue.’ By practicing mindfulness, parents can learn to stay calm even in the middle of the storm of their child’s pain.” (1)
How does it work?
Mindfulness training will help anchor you in the present moment without judging your experiences and allow you to cultivate a deepening sense of groundedness and peace. More importantly, it can help you avoid getting swept up in daily stress. As covered previously, stress happens when our bodies go into a fight or flight reaction. Emotions can erupt and overwhelm the brain’s emotional center. And witnessing your child suffer can be a major and ongoing trigger. Calming strategies like slow, intentional breathing can offset the brain’s natural stress response.
At the same time it’s important to be kind to yourself during challenging times. “Kindfulness” is one way to think about this, says psychologist Dr. Tara Cousineau who defines “kindfulness” as “experiencing the present moment with heart.” According to Dr. Cousineau, “You can strengthen your kind neural pathways through the building blocks of mindfulness, intention, and self-compassion. If you’re like most parents, some days you may feel overwhelmed. Don’t be too hard on yourself. I don’t know any parent who hasn’t felt this way but then still managed, to make it through for their kids.” When you’re going through a challenging time, it helps to have self-compassion. (You will find two meditation scripts at the end of this article.)
Dr. Samantha Levy, a psychologist who has worked in the field of pediatric pain for over 20 years, urges parents to take care of themselves, too. Dr. Levy’s suggests that parents intentionally do activities that are healthy, bring joy, and preserve important social connections. Some examples include exercising, meeting up with good friends, hiring a babysitter and having a date night, going on a weekend getaway, or seeking therapy or counseling.
Practice makes progress
Mindfulness takes practice. Don’t judge yourself about how “well” or “poorly” you think you do the activities. If you haven’t practiced mindfulness or self-compassion before, it can be helpful to start in a quiet and comfortable place or set aside a few moments whenever you can, such as when you are sitting in the car or taking a walk around the block. As you get more familiar with mindfulness practices, you may find that you can practice almost anywhere. Here are some words of wisdom from parents who are caring for children with pain:
Be patient. As with learning anything new, it takes intention and lots of practice to find a mindfulness groove.
“Don’t give up on it. Do it. If you practice at it, you’ll get better and it’ll become an everyday ritual for you.”
Be open. It is hard to “let be and let go,” especially when the world seems to demand your attention in so many ways. Taking a pause during the chaos can help.
“One thing that has been a lesson for me, in particular, is learning to let go. When I feel frustrated and I am in that moment, I have to sometimes just remember, and that’s a mindfulness moment. ‘Okay, you’re frustrated. Just let it go now.’ To me, my mindfulness is reminding myself to let things go.”
Be creative. Find the aspect of mindfulness that works for you. There is not one single way to practice. In fact, it helps to use your imagination and have variety of skills so you don’t get bored.
“I do a lot of deep breathing…Just try to go to a quiet place and close my eyes. And pretend like I’m on a beach somewhere. And just breathe. And breathe until I feel calm. And sometimes it’s five minutes. Sometimes it’s an hour later.”
Be kind. Mindfulness and self-care are connected. As you practice one you may find it easier to practice the other as well. Or, think of it this way: Self-compassion is treating yourself like you would treat someone you love or care about. It’s parenting—yourself!
“What I would say to parents is finding anything that you can do for yourself that makes you feel calm and centered and good and happy and where you can just have a moment of peace, whatever that is …I just had this conversation with a friend about her mindfulness practice. She loves to cook. She just feels so happy in that place. I think we, as parents, give so much to our kids and our family that we’re the last ones in line for self-care. …I think doing anything that really brings us joy that’s just for us, makes us better parents, better people, better spouses, better friends. It’s just better for everybody, especially our own selves.”
Be connected. Finding other parents in similar situations can be helpful. Not only can you gain insight from those facing similar situations but you also realize you are not alone. Sharing these emotions with others may help you cultivate an attitude of acceptance.
“A big thing that came up (for me) was kind of this whole ‘new normal.’ And one of the things that was talked about in one of the support groups, too was grief and how that relates to a child being diagnosed with something and having chronic pain. There is this period of going through grief, basically. And my husband tends to like the anger level of grieving and he was getting mad about it. And I understand, I’m mad about it, too, that it happened to our kid. So I think it definitely made us look at our life and our family life differently. We went from having a kid who was really athletic and energetic, and happy and busy, to now he couldn’t play sports, or do what he wanted to do, and he was in pain all the time. And it was really, really hard on the whole family.”
- Mindfulness is a way to experience and accept the present moment with caring and kindness.
- Mindfulness techniques can help focus attention and relax the body.
- Self-compassion, or being kind to ourselves, is a practice that can benefit us and those around us.
Watch and listen to the Week 4 collection in the mobile app.
Here are meditation scripts to try on your own. Read through a script a few times and then guide yourself. You may also use these to guide your child in meditation.
Meditation: Breath Awareness
Let’s take a few moments to practice mindfulness together. Finding a quiet place to sit (or lay down) in a way that will allow you to simply be in the present moment. Allow your body to become still and relaxed as best as you can. (pause)
Sit quietly and begin to bring your attention to your breathing. Becoming aware of the movement of your breath, the inhale and exhale. You may notice the airflow in your nostrils or the rise and fall of your chest or belly. (pause)
Just notice the sensation and rhythms. Don’t try to get anywhere or force anything. Simply tending to your breathing with kind attention. (pause)
Releasing any tension you may be holding, such as in the jaw or shoulders. Finding a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor and your back upright but not stiff, muscles relaxed, and hands resting comfortably on your thighs or in your lap. Allowing the eyes to close gently if that feels okay, or just lowering the gaze. (pause)
Now let the breath flow in and out of your nose quietly, paying attention to the in-breath and the out-breath. (pause)
There is nowhere else to be and nothing else to do in this moment. Feeling the breath move. Noticing the sensations of breathing. (pause)
Pay attention to the in-breath and the out-breath. Using your breath to help you tune into a state of relaxed awareness and stillness. As your meditation ends, you may want to acknowledge that you have spent a few moments nourishing yourself.
One basic way to practice and strengthen the neural networks in your brain for compassion is to try a loving-kindness meditation (LKM). It is so simple that anyone can do it, even young children, to cultivate the wish that others be happy. It is like a blessing or prayer. Psychologists use loving-kindness meditation to develop wellness skills to enhance positive emotions. A loving-kindness meditation cultivates compassion from the inside out. Rather than focusing on pain or suffering, the practice begins with opening up to feelings of love, affection, and friendliness.
Sit quietly. Begin by sitting with a straight posture, and relax into it so that the posture evokes a sense of grace, strength, and dignity. Gently place your hands on your lap or, if you desire, over your heart. Tune in to your natural breathing for a few minutes.
Focus attention on your heart space and body. Place your attention around your heart area, in the middle of your chest, perhaps repeating words such as “love,” “peace,” or “warmth.” As you say this, envision someone or something you feel caring toward. It could be a loved one, pet, or comforting object. This ignites feelings of affection and love. Let these feelings radiate through your whole body, holding you in a warm embrace.
Focus on phrases that bring about gentleness for yourself. Feel the sense of caring, love, and healing wash over you. Softly say to yourself any of the following phrases, and explore how they resonate within you.
May I be well.
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I feel at peace.
May I feel safe.
May I be at ease.
May I feel loved and cared for.
Expand your tenderness to a loved one. Envision a loved one or someone who you care for or respect. Offer them feelings of warmth and caring, and wish them well with words like these:
May you be well.
May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
May you feel at peace.
May you feel safe.
May you be at ease.
May you feel loved and cared for.
Wish a stranger well. Extend your warm feelings to someone you do not know, someone you feel neutral about, like a fellow person in the hallway, a person crossing the street, the cashier at the supermarket. Repeat the words offered in the previous list. May you be well…
Extend wishes of well-being to the entire world. Broaden the warm wishes to include your larger community, whether a church group or a city, and then include the world at large.
Return to your body, yourself, and your life. When you are ready to return, repeat the phrases that wish yourself well. Close the practice by gently letting the feelings of loving-kindness ease and then paying attention to your breathing. Slowly open your eyes.
Read more from the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness Series: Support for Parents
[Part 1] Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness: What Is Childhood Chronic Pain?
[Part 2] Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness: Managing Parent Stress When Caring for a Child With Chronic Pain
[Part 3] Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness: Creating a Circle of Care
(1) Pain in Children and Young Adults: The Journey Back to Normal (2016) by Lonnie and Paul Zeltzer, p. 271.
(2) The Kindness Cure: How the Practice of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World
(2017, New Harbinger Publications) by Tara Cousineau.
Contributors: Laura Seidman, BS, and Sarah Martin, PhD, UCLA; Meredith Trant, MSW and Tara Cousineau, PhD, BodiMojo Inc.
Edited by Kayla McGowan, MA
Photo credit: W A T A R I