Teens Win When Parents Practice Mindfulness

A new study suggests mindfulness-based training could improve the parent-teen relationship, with fathers benefitting the most from mindfulness training, leading to a reduction in aggression in teens.

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Raising children is the ultimate mindfulness practice. And now researchers are trying to figure out whether mindful parenting may affect teen behavior. A recent study looked at if mindfulness instruction might lead to changes in parenting strategies, parent-teen relationships, and problem behaviors like aggression.

Researchers had a group of parents participate in the Mindfulness-Enhanced Strengthening Families Program as part of a longitudinal, randomized-controlled trial published in Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research. After training, parents were more positive and shared better relationships with their teens. Additionally, the researchers made an interesting observation: adolescents of mindful fathers were also less aggressive.

“Changes in positive parenting strategies can enhance relationships at a time when parent-child interactions typically increase in conflict,” said the study’s lead author, Doug Coatsworth, Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Applied Developmental Science Program at Colorado State University.  “Mindful parenting is a set of skills and ways of approaching parenting tasks that changes over time—meaning that interventions that effectively target these skills can influence the way that parents parent with attention, acceptance, emotional attunement, and compassion.”

Mindful parenting programs—those designed to incorporate mindfulness-based principles and practices with traditional parenting skills—are increasing in popularity, but we know little about their effectiveness compared to typical parenting instruction for navigating an evolving parent-teen relationship during this period of life.

Mindful Moms and Dads Score Differently

In this study, the authors wanted to see if parents would become more mindful over time, whether mothers and fathers parented differently, and if parenting practices were related to better teen adjustment. The researchers asked 432 families of 6th and 7th grade students to attend either a mindful parenting program (the Mindfulness-Enhanced Strengthening Families Program), typical parenting instruction (the Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10-14), or to read two parenting booklets.

The Mindfulness-Enhanced Strengthening Families Program is based on the Strengthening Families Program. For both, parents and youths attend different groups where they focus on how to improve communication and strengthen parent-teen relationships. They then join up and learn skills together. The mindfulness-enhanced version emphasizes listening with full attention and learning to avoid knee-jerk reactions to unpleasant behaviors.

There are very few studies that explore mom’s and dad’s parenting skills separately. Since moms and dads play unique roles in children’s lives, researchers also wanted to see if changes in mom’s and dad’s behavior impacted kids differently.

Fathers who received mindful parenting instruction showed an increase in their emotional awareness of their children over time, whereas those without mindfulness instruction did not.

Strong links were found between mindful parenting, positive parenting practices, and positive parent-teen relationships for both mothers and fathers. This means more mindful moms and dads parented more positively and had better relationships with their teenagers. But there were several interesting differences.

Increases in mindful parenting were tied to less teen aggression, but only for dads. Fathers also showed greater gains in mindful parenting scores regardless of which parenting group they attended, but mothers did not. “This might mean that fathers benefit most by learning about an accepting, emotionally aware, and attuned approach to parenting,” says Coatsworth.

An important part of the study is that changes in mindful and positive parenting were looked at over the span of a year. This allowed researchers to gauge which impacts of the trainings persisted. They found that fathers who received mindful parenting instruction showed an increase in their emotional awareness of their children over time, whereas those without mindfulness instruction did not. Once again, these changes were not observed for mothers.

Other studies have also found that, in general, mothers tend to report more mindful parenting than fathers. Authors of the present study suggest that this may be because mothers may have a greater tendency to connect with their children in the present moment and be more emotionally attuned than fathers.

Parenting with Presence

There have been studies in that past suggesting that mindful parents tend toward more positive parenting strategies like using clear instructions, praising good behaviors, showing affection and warmth, and communicating effectively. Mindful parents also demonstrate fewer signs of negative parenting such as being angry, hostile, coercive, and intrusive. They also share more positive parent-child relationships, healthier interactions, and better child adjustment.

“The biggest thing that a parent can do to be more mindful is to pay careful attention to what their child is saying and doing, but also to their own reactions. Careful attention often stops parent’s automatic reactions, allows them a moment to calm themselves physiologically and mentally, and to be more present for their child.”—Doug Coatsworth, Ph.D., lead study author

This study’s authors say it’s a parent’s ability to notice their own reactions to what their child is saying and doing—and avoid knee-jerk emotional reaction that is key.

“The biggest thing that a parent can do to be more mindful is to pay careful attention to what their child is saying and doing, but also to their own reactions,” Coatsworth said. “Careful attention often stops parent’s automatic reactions, allows them a moment to calm themselves physiologically and mentally, and to be more present for their child.”