Recently I experienced a difficult moment with a young client—and gained some insight in the process.
In the midst of a session in my office, something triggered the 8-year-old boy into a “red zone” and he suddenly burst out yelling and screaming. His mother and I had seen this happen before, and we typically reacted by actively shifting into a supportive problem-solving mode, working to help him calm down—not always with success.
This time I tried something else. I quietly took a long, deep breath and let out a slow, gentle exhale, and accepted the moment as it was. That breath ushered in a wave of compassion for the child, who was so often triggered by things invisible to the caring adults around him.
This time, instead of first trying to think of the best way to quickly quiet the child’s behavior, I settled into a moment of mindful acceptance.
My reaction wasn’t just an instinctive choice. As a clinical psychologist, I’m always interested in research that can help us improve the lives and relationships of the children we work with. And I have seen a growing body of research that demonstrates the benefits of mindfulness.
A recent Carnegie Mellon University study, for example, examined the value of a key component of mindfulness: acceptance of the present moment. It asked, what is the benefit of accepting our feelings in a given moment, rather than judging them?
The study found that when people were trained to welcome and accept unpleasant feelings rather than fighting to get rid of them, they experienced measurable benefits. Those taught to monitor the present moment with acceptancehad a 50 percent greater drop in the stress hormone cortisol and 20 percent greater drop in systolic blood pressure than those whose had other interventions.
In essence, the researchers found that a small amount of training in mindful acceptance was a key ingredient for improving health. That finding builds on hundreds of other studies that have also shown how mindfulness training benefits various populations, including parents of children with special needs.
It makes sense that learning to accept the moment has benefits for these parents and their children. Most of the interventions we use for managing children’s behavioral challenges and differences encourage the opposite of acceptance. We are quick to label, judge, diagnose, and intervene.
What if we added a component of mindful acceptance into our interactions with children who struggle? I’m thinking particularly of those times when we interact with children whose behaviors are a stress response, or the result of their native brain wiring. What if (assuming the child isn’t in danger of harming himself or others) we reacted to the present moment of a behavior with a tone of acceptance rather than judgment?
That’s what I tried to do that day when my young client had his outburst. The result? His meltdown was much shorter than usual — seconds rather than minutes. Coincidence? Perhaps. But it just may have been the feeling of acceptance that made the difference.
The next time you find yourself not knowing quite how to respond to a child try a bit of mindful presence. Instead of jumping to fix the situation immediately, shift instead to acceptance and compassion. Move from the instinct to promptly intervene or change the child to simply, and compassionately, being with the child in her suffering, even if for a few moments.
And mindfully, see what happens for each of you.