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The Mindfulness Effect: Parenting, Eating, and Life

By Rebecca Johnson

Brother shouting at sister sticking her tongue outOne of the many reasons I really enjoy my work with Am I Hungry? is because it keeps me in daily  contact with ideas and practices that are relevant to and important in my own personal growth journey. The most recent example of this happened when a challenging situation with my children reminded me of an important lesson we had been discussing earlier that day in our new Training for Mindful Eating Coaching:

If you don’t like the results you’re getting, the first thing to do is bring awareness to the thoughts and feelings that led to those results.

The Scene

If you have children, or have spent any time with young children, you know how quickly things can turn from pleasant to a disaster, particularly when children are tired or sick. That was the situation in our house one evening this week. Our six-year old daughter was irritated and antagonizing her four year old brothers, which is her default mode when she’s tired. One of our boys was mildly sick with a cold so he was unusually sensitive to his sister’s teasing and whining. The other one was stuck in the middle, alternating between defiance and tears.

As the squabbling and whining increased, I did what I often do: I became anxious, then irritated, then angry. I repeatedly tried to manage the kids’ behavior to calm the situation (and my nerves). I warned, I scolded, I ended dinner abruptly, and separated them all. It didn’t work, things got worse, and we were all heading quickly into a full melt-down. If we’d continued on this path, the night would have ended with all of us feeling frazzled and exhausted.

The Solution

But thankfully I connected with the lesson. I remembered that the results I get in virtually any situation are the outcome of my thoughts, feelings, and choices – and that if I want different results, I need to look within first.  I remembered (for the umpteenth time) that I can’t control my children’s moods or even their behavior at times, but I can take charge of my inner state, stop resisting what is, and intentionally decide how to respond to the present moment.

I stopped focusing for a moment on my children and brought my awareness to myself. I left the room briefly, took a few deep breaths, and asked myself,“What’s going on here?” I realized that my irritation and anger stemmed not actually from the children’s behavior, but from the thoughts I had about their behavior that conflicted with reality. I observed a few of my own beliefs and thoughts about the situation, which included: “My kids shouldn’t be mean to each other.” and “I hate it when they act this way.” The simple act of observing those beliefs and thoughts immediately relieved some of the power they had over me because I could clearly see them as normal and understandable thoughts, but ineffective and counterproductive in the moment.  Then I asked myself, “What can I do right now to change my emotional state to something more helpful and comfortable?” Music always does that for me, so I put on my favorite George Winston station, turned it up loud enough to immerse myself in it, and decided to let the kids continue squabbling in their bedrooms.

Within minutes, I felt noticeably different. Irritation, anxiety, and anger resided; calm and clarity emerged. What had seemed like a big deal just a few minutes earlier – loud voices, chaos, and the potential for a triple melt-down – just didn’t seem so bothersome. I no longer felt the need to do something to “fix” the situation and decided to let it play out without interfering.

Much to my surprise, the scene changed quickly on its own. Soon after I turned on the music, my daughter came out of the boys’ bedroom in a less resistant mood. I made a joke and gave her a hug (something I would never have done in my previous emotional state). We began cleaning up the kitchen together and had a fun conversation about the music and what she would wear for her party the next day at school. Without her in their space, and perhaps in response to our emotional shift, the boys settled down in the bath and played contentedly. The night ended peacefully with snuggling and hugs. The difference between what happened and where we had been headed was nothing short of amazing. As it does more and more often in my life, mindfulness saved the day!

The Application

In our Training for Mindful Eating Coaching, we discuss these and other mindfulness-based ideas, not as it relates to children’s behaviors (although that analogy has arisen), but in relation to one’s own eating and self-care behaviors. We’re exploring how ineffective thoughts and feelings can drive ineffective choices with food and lead to less than desirable results. We’re honing our skill and confidence in helping clients and patients identify, accept, and manage their internal state so they can respond in more effective ways than eating. This is important work because it lies at the heart of creating a more peaceful and balanced relationship with food – and it’s essential for creating new, sustainable eating and self-care behaviors that support optimal well-being.

The longer I work in the field of mindful eating, the more I see its vast potential for application in virtually every aspect of life. Eating mindfully requires that we get out of auto-pilot, cultivate awareness, observe internal and external experiences objectively, create space between observation and response, and choose intentionally. When we’re able to extend this approach to our work, our play, and our relationships with others, we show up in the world in a whole new way.

Have you noticed the mindfulness effect? How has the practice of mindful eating benefited other aspects of your life? Or vice versa?

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of experience in diverse roles. She is a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Facilitator and Coach and advocates for the use of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the workplace. Rebecca also serves as a consultant for organizations ready to leverage the power of organizational development and employee wellbeing to create truly thriving cultures.

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