Taking a Mindful Break

Author: K.C. Kinney, LCSW – Associate Director Child PHP/IOP

“It’s like she’s not even listening to me.”

Does this sound familiar?

Many parents say that when they are in the throes of a heated argument with their child, it can feel like talking to a brick wall. And they’re right!

Our brains can interpret arguments as a threat—this is a biological remnant from our prehistoric hunter-gatherer days.  When confronted with a perceived threat, a response naturally occurs via the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. This triggers what is more commonly known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.  Research shows that a myriad of physiological responses occur. This includes changes in breathing, muscle tension, increased heart rate, and a rush of adrenaline. Because our bodies are allocating more resources to survival, this can also cause a temporary lowering of one’s IQ.  (Don’t worry — the IQ returns to baseline once you calm down).

When a child appears too upset to absorb verbal information, it can be counterproductive to continue a discussion. The best course of action is to take a brief break from the interaction.

A common question is this, “If we take a break from this argument, is that giving my kid the message that she can just avoid it?” This brings up an important point. If we abandon the conversation and never return to it, this is avoidance. Leaving an issue unresolved can build up resentment and lingering feelings of discomfort.

The difference between avoidance and taking a break is this: after a break, both parties return to the discussion.  A break is time-limited and productive. Taking a break buys families some time so they can respond to a situation versus reacting impulsively. It also lessens the chance of saying something that you’ll later regret.

Children are constantly looking to their parent or parents as an example. Modeling how to take a calming break is an important life skill to demonstrate to your children. It is just as necessary and valid to take some time to regulate your own mood so that you can be available to help your child regulate theirs.

Using a mindfulness technique is one way to ensure that the break is helpful. Mindfulness means purposefully choosing to focus on the present moment. Many of our worried and upsetting thoughts are about things we cannot control, because they happened in the past or may happen in the future. Bringing yourself back to the present moment, focusing on one thing at a time, and letting go of judgments are core tennants of mindfulness. In today’s fast-paced world, being present is not easy; however, mindfulness strategies can increase your success with this endeavor.

You know yourself and your children best. You may be the type of person who responds best to calming your body sensations, or you may be someone who responds best to distracting your mind.

If you respond best to attending to physical sensations, deep breathing is a great place to start. “4×4 breathing” is a technique in which you breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and breathe out for 4 counts.  This slow-paced breathing cycle is repeated several times. Placing a hand on your belly can help you connect further to the breathing. It helps ensure that your breaths are deep, causing your hand to move in and out as your diaphragm fills.

Progressive muscle relaxation is another technique aimed at calming your body. From a comfortable position, slowly tense and relax different muscle groups in your body.  Begin at your toes and slowly work your way up your entire body, focusing on different areas at a time. Taking time to notice the difference between tense and relaxed muscles has a calming effect on body and mind.

If you are someone who needs structure to ground you, some other mindfulness strategies can target your thoughts. One of these is called ABC Mindfulness, which is a game where you pick a category and think of something for every letter of the alphabet.

Another more cerebral technique is to find things within your sight to count. For example, you can pick ceiling tiles, blue objects, or circles to count. While your mind is engaged in counting, it is nearly impossible for worried thoughts to register at the same time.

The four techniques outlined can be practiced with your children as a way to take a break together. Alternatively, you can each find a quiet place to practice mindfulness on your own before you regroup to finish the conversation.

Teaching your kid to listen to her body and take a break has benefits beyond effective conflict resolution. Taking a break can be a helpful strategy during almost any situation that spurs overwhelming emotions. Test anxiety, joining a new group, and making a mistake are examples of situations that can be helped by taking a calming break. You can also practice mindfulness before you become upset—this will make the strategies come more naturally in the moments that you need them the most.  The time to practice taking a mindful break starts now—in this present moment.