This Expert Mindfulness Hack Helps Parents Stay Level-Headed

Envisioning the future might be a better strategy for raising kids, new research suggests.

A dad holds his son in the air, as the boy plays with his hair.
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Being a “good” parent is often equated with being a present one — and to be fair, much of this has to do with the evidence-based link between mindfulness and mental health. Whether it’s through deep breathing, meditation, taking a walk outside, or a number of other such exercises, the basic idea is that the more you train your brain to stay in the moment, the less likely you are to slip into fight-or-flight mode when stressed out. But that might not be true when it comes to parenting.

When clinical psychologist Julia W. Felton became a mother, she noticed that the more she focused on the present moment with her children, the more stressed she was. In the heat of a tantrum, thinking about how her reaction would affect her kids in the future gave Felton more perspective and helped her stay calm. If she were present in the moment, however, she might throw a fit herself.

There’s also evidence that people who think more about the future tend to make better decisions about money, education, and their overall health. I started to wonder,” Felton says, “could we use this in some way to help bring down the stress of everyday parenting?”

Thinking Of The Future...

To test her theory, Felton and her colleagues conducted two studies that asked parents questions to gauge whether they were more oriented to the present or to future goals, and assessed how this was correlated with their approach to parenting. The first study included 196 moms with children under 3 years of age, and the second study consisted of 202 moms and dads with children ages 6 to 17.

Both studies found that when parents were more focused on the present, the more likely they were to demand rapid compliance, and experience more parenting aggravation as a result. And the more stressed they were, the more they displayed negative parenting behaviors such as yelling.

Kids' needs are moment to moment, and if you as a parent get sucked into that, you’re going to end up in these constant battles.

Felton suspects that part of the reason for this is that children are so hyper-present. When a toddler is screaming for a donut but they’re supposed to eat their vegetables, meeting them where they're at is not helpful.

“Kids' needs are moment to moment, and if you as a parent get sucked into that, you’re going to end up in these constant battles,” she says. “There are just some things in life that you can't be 100% present for.”

Felton’s emerging research suggests that moms and dads don’t have to be present and savor every moment with their kids. In tough situations, parents have the option of imagining a future where their healthy and happy child does not throw broccoli at them — which will be all the more likely to happen if you stay calm when they do chuck vegetables. But if you’re hyper-present when your kid is screaming at you, the natural impulse is to scream back.

To be clear, there’s a key difference between becoming more future-oriented and constantly worrying about what could happen in the future. Future orientation is positive and voluntary, but chronic worries are negative and can be a symptom of an underlying anxiety disorder — ironically, something that staying present is typically helpful with.

It’s also important to note Felton is still a huge fan of mindfulness. But to her, thinking more about the future and being mindful aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory. What her research emphasizes is the importance of being flexible enough to “toggle back and forth” from present and future orientations. If you can find that balance, you may be less likely to overreact when your child tantrums or acts out.

So the next time you start to feel yourself getting stressed, frustrated, and demanding your kid does something “right now,” that’s a good cue to be less present, Felton says, adding that beyond getting them out of a busy street, there are very few things that children need to do “right now.”

As much as parents are told to love every second of parenting, it’s okay to mentally jump ahead a few chapters when you and your kid aren’t on the same page. Or, as Felton puts it, “A lot of the joy of parenting comes from looking back and looking forward.”