Parenting a Toddler: A Practice in Mindfulness

It’s hard to be present in the moment when my toddler is running around the house in his underwear and we’re late for preschool. It’s hard to acknowledge how I feel when my toddler demands “snacks” instead of the dinner I prepared while he hung on my leg. It’s hard to find peace in my heart at the end of a long day with an irrational child who refused to take a nap.

Right before I’m about to emotionally explode, I take a mindful moment. This reminds me of the advice they give at the hospital: If you ever feel like you might hurt your baby, put him in the crib and walk away. He’s safe, and you need time to cool down.

When my toddler is screaming at me for playing the wrong version of Five Little Monkeys, I put on my blow dryer and tell him I need five minutes to dry my hair. I listen to the sound of the rushing air and feel the heat on my scalp. When I’m done, I find myself back in the present moment. I’m ready to squat down to his level, give him a hug, and explain that I don’t know how to play the song he wants. I offer an alternative.

Other versions of this strategy are hiding out in a small room like the pantry or bathroom, putting on loud music in the car, or just closing my eyes for a few moments. They all give me just a little space to clear my mind. If he’s upset during this time, I justify taking a mindful moment by remembering that if I don’t, we’re both going to get more upset. The payoff is worth it.

What I often do in my mindful moments is to observe my emotions. I make them objects that I can visualize floating in space. A fiery ball of anger, a green bubble of frustration, or a blue ball of exhaustion. Then I can think about how the emotion I am feeling is affecting me. If I acknowledge that I’m feeling unappreciated, I can then realize that maybe my toddler isn’t ready to appreciate how long I took to mop the floors before he spread applesauce all over them.

Mindful moments can also happen when I’m not struggling. Although I have to remind myself to do it, some of the best reflections I’ve had are during peaceful times, when my toddler is napping or miraculously entertaining himself. Reminding myself to take a moment to meditate helps me reflect on how fortunate I am despite life’s challenges.

When my toddler loses control of his emotions, I can also visualize how he might be feeling, what caused the feeling, and how I can coach him to acknowledge his emotions. If he is rolled into a ball crying because he doesn’t want to go to the doctor’s office, I take a moment to accept that although this is clearly irrational behavior, he is upset. But I also need him to go to the doctor. So I go to him, hold him, and acknowledge what he is feeling out loud. Then, I calmly explain that although it’s scary, all people need to go to the doctor and sometimes get shots. Then I shift his thinking. What can we do after the doctor’s office? Don’t they have cool stickers there? Do you think your friends go to the doctor?

If taking this time makes you a few minutes late, it’s worth it for you and your child to be calm. If it doesn’t work, then you move to plan B which is picking him up and strapping him in the car screaming. Either way, it’s helpful to remember that his little brain is just learning how to process emotions.

When I practice acknowledging his feelings or my own, verbalizing my thought process teaches him that it’s ok to have emotions and that you can work through them.

You can also teach your toddler other mindfulness strategies they can practice alongside you. We do all kinds of breathing, some serious and some silly. I’ve found that I can use breathing to calm him down when he’s upset if I’ve practiced it with him when he’s not.

Toddlers can do mini-meditations, too. After a long day, we practice sitting still (for a few minutes), closing our eyes, and counting our breaths. Sometimes we think of a different color or shape with each breath.

Although life with a toddler is never perfect, mindfulness has helped me maintain the peace in my heart that I need to enjoy as many moments with him as possible. And I think it helps him find peace in his little heart as well.

Erin Kinsella

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