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Shirley Pastiroff - How to cultivate mindfulness for effective parenting

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here

In this interview with Shirley Pastiroff, a seasoned counselor and co-author of The Mindful Parent book, she shares invaluable insights on the power of self-awareness in parent-child relationships.

Shirley explains that by understanding our own emotions, we can guide our children more effectively. She also introduces the A.L.L. technique (Acknowledge, Link, Let Go), which offers a practical approach to staying present when your kids frustrate or upset you.

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Also in this interview:

About Shirley Pastiroff

Shirley Pastiroff is a Counsellor, Parent Coach and author of The Mindful Parent. She has trained and supported thousands of parents in their journey to becoming the parents they always wanted to be, and to having the relationship with their children they always wanted to have. She lives in Auckland with her husband and five children.

You can find more about her book, The Mindful Parent, here.

Follow her on Facebook, or Instagram.

How to cultivate mindfulness for effective parenting

Sue Meintjes: Let us get started and just tell us a little bit more about yourself and your work with parents.

Shirley Pastiroff: I'm a counselor, so therapist. I don't just see parents, I see all kinds of different adults. But over the last sort of five or six years I have developed, alongside my colleague, a mindful parenting course that turned into The Mindful Parent book.

Probably 50 or 60 percent of my clients are parents. I work with them in a pretty holistic way in the sense that I don't work with any one particular age group or any one particular presenting issue. I generally work with the internal world of the parent and the space between the parent and the child.

So that's my expertise area if you like, and my interest, my passion.

Why listening to yourself is the key to getting your kids to listen

Sue Meintjes: What is your favorite technique or strategy that's working really well for you or your clients to get kids to listen and increase cooperation?

Shirley Pastiroff: My overriding strategy and the one that has made the biggest impact on me, and my client's lives, is that we have to listen to ourselves.

This is a scientific approach. The chemistry of the body doing the speaking determines the level of listening available to the listener, whether they're an adult or a child.

When we speak with a voice that has some cortisol and adrenaline in it, so some activation, even if it's a really small amount, a slight frustration, a bit of a hurry, the ability for the child to have open pathways in their brain (and that includes their auditory pathways, not just their cognition and their emotions) start to shut down a little bit.

Just as if I spoke to you slightly impatiently now, you would slightly shut down just a little bit. And if I carried on being a little bit aggressive, like asking you "Why are you asking me these questions?" you would start to either get defensive, or move forward to justify.

And so, what a lot of parents don't understand is that the brain science behind getting children to do what we want is actually based on the "launch" rather than the "landing".

I have lots of strategies for this, but the sort of foundational framework is this: we can listen to ourselves, and try to keep ourselves in the zone where we've got serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine running through our bodies. And when we're in this state, when we've got a good relationship with ourselves and with our children, then the child's brain stays open, because the connection feels safe.

This is all subconscious. They feel like we're on their team. And then their ability to do what we want becomes so much better. It becomes much more likely they will just amble over and pick up the shoes, even if it's the second or third time we ask.

But when we get triggered out of that what I call the "Green Brain Zone", getting our children to listen and do what we want is almost impossible. They will either refuse or they'll do it out of fear, both of which are unsustainable over the long term.

How to move from Orange Brain to Green Brain

Sue Meintjes: What are a couple of things that parents can do to ensure we speak with the right tone of voice and the right mindset with children?

Shirley Pastiroff: So, this is where the work is really. It's not easy, but it's very effective.

The first would be that we need to work out how we live our own lives, our "general way of being in the world".

Are we moving in what we call the "Orange Brain State", which is at speed, in a hurry, with most of our brain in the future rather than in the present moment? If we live like that, we don't stand a chance of getting our children to listen to us.

So, the first is a foundational, how are we developing what I call "Green Brain" in our lives?

And that doesn't mean an hour of meditation every day. It just means dropping into pockets of mindfulness so that we can actually tell where we are. We can notice our breathing. We can be aware of our emotions. We can be aware of the thought patterns that we have.

This is basically about getting fit as a human being, regardless of whether we're a parent.

There are a whole bunch of mindfulness strategies out there, but understanding what they're for, that they're not just so that we can be "Zen", but so that we can be present to our own internal environment.

So that's the first one.

"Why am I triggered?" Emotion regulation in 10 seconds

And the second one, which is probably the bigger one in-the-moment is, “Can we understand and regulate our emotions?” Because when our child isn't quite listening, we will be triggered. We need to know that we're triggered, and we need to know whether it's fear, sadness, or anger.

It's usually anger, but sometimes it's fear. "I'm going to be late." "I'm going to get into trouble myself at work." Or it could be sadness. "My child has become an uncompliant child, having been a really easy child."

So, there are lots of different emotions, not just frustration and anger going on. I have some very specific processes for emotion regulation, but basically, they're about turning towards ourselves and away from the child, and identifying the feelings in our body.

And this can happen in 10 seconds once we get practice, it doesn't take forever. You start by recognizing high feeling of frustration, "they're still not doing what I've asked them to do," my voice is rising, my body's got tense, I've gone into tunnel vision, I'm not in good relationship with this child anymore, I'm just in "let's get this thing done" mode.

Once you recognise that, you accept it. So "I have a high feeling of frustration. It makes perfect sense. They're not listening again." Take some deep breaths.

And then what starts to happen is we start to say, "Hey buddy," or "Hey hun." We tend to get down on their level. We hold their shoulders. We look in their eyes and go, "Did you hear that I said, it really is time to put your shoes on. Have you heard me?"

And often at that stage, you get a nod and an okay and a shrug because you've dialed yourself down and you've moved into the space of the relationship. And at that point, if they want to say, "I don't want to put my shoes on," then you still got connection and you've got a conversation to have.

But all the work happens within the physiology of the parent. And then the second little piece, which usually goes quite smoothly happens between parent and child.

How to practice mindfulness in daily parenting using the A.L.L. technique

Sue Meintjes: Is there any one mindfulness technique you can recommend?

Shirley Pastiroff: Yeah, so the one that I just referred to there, I'll just describe it very quickly. It's called Acknowledge, Link, Let Go, and the acronym for that is A.L.L., and what it means is that in any moment that you notice that you're not in that lovely, productive, present state, which is often for a lot of us, is that we turn to the body, we acknowledge something like, "Hey, tight chest," "Hey, feeling of frustration," "Hey, feeling of, ugh, my stomach just dropped," just noticing, acknowledging.

Then we do the L, which is the link, "Makes perfect sense, I'm half an hour late," "Makes perfect sense, he just pooed in his nappy again," "Makes perfect sense, they're fighting over X again."

And then we let it go, which is a simple breath technique.

And again, none of this solves the problem. What it does is it takes the body's activation, and it gives it a chance to reduce so that instead of going from stimulus directly to reaction, we go from stimulus to pause to response.

And so, the pause is the Acknowledge, Link, Let go. And then we move into whatever problem solving needs to be done.

Sometimes we walk away and let them sort it themselves. Sometimes we engage really definitely with, "This is coming to an end right now, but I'm still on your team, but I'm intervening."

And usually what starts to happen is the children start to recognize that certain tone, because it's not cross, it's not disappointed, it's not frustrated, it's just got a really definite, boundary.

And so, for me, the Acknowledge, Link, Let Go piece is the bridge between people saying, "Hey, calm down, parent," and parents actually calming down. Because parents can't just calm down. They actually need some strategy so that they can really kindly and compassionately take care of their own emotional activation, and then become more effective in moving into the difficult space with the child.

Experience a richer life from having children by letting your child give you the gift of slowing down

Sue Meintjes: We've just about to come to the end of our time. Before we finish up, was there anything else you wanted to add about what we spoke about?

Shirley Pastiroff: Yeah, I think we've really all been oversold the idea of parenting as this incredibly difficult job, rather than a really precious relationship.

And because we're moving so fast these days, I think the biggest gift we can give ourselves as parents is kindness to ourselves, because it's really hard to bring up children, because children move slowly. I mean, they run around fast, but they move in the world very present to the moment, and we as parents are moving at a very different speed.

And so, giving ourselves the gift of slowing down, by recognizing our internal state, is actually a win-win. Because that means we as parents get to be in the moment a little bit more.

That makes our relationship with our children a whole bunch easier. They then start to actually do what they're told, which is one of the main things we want to happen. And we get to experience a richer life, rather than a poorer life, from having our children, because it's almost like they invite us back into that slightly more mindful, in-the-moment world that we've often let go of in the hurly-burly of modern Western life.

Actions steps

Here are my action steps that I got from this interview. I hope you’ll find these useful as well:

  • Take moments throughout the day to check in with your own emotional state. Are you feeling rushed, frustrated, or anxious? Acknowledge these feelings without judgment.

  • Practice the A.L.L. technique (Acknowledge, Link, Let Go) when you notice negative emotions. Acknowledge what you're feeling, understand why, and then consciously let go using simple breath techniques. This practice helps you respond, rather than react, to challenging situations with your child.

  • Incorporate mindfulness into your routine by creating "pockets of mindfulness". These don't have to be long meditation sessions but can be short moments where you focus on your breathing, emotions, or thought patterns. This practice enhances your ability to stay present and calm, creating a positive atmosphere for interaction with your child.

  • Embrace the idea of slowing down and being present in the moment with your child. Instead of viewing parenting as a difficult job, see it as a precious relationship that requires your attention and care.

  • Be mindful of your mental state, striving to stay in the "Green Brain Zone" where you have serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine flowing, indicating well-being and positivity. Practice self-compassion and self-care to promote a positive internal environment.

  • Check out Shirley's book, The Mindful Parent, here.

  • Follow Shirley Pastiroff on Facebook or Instagram.

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here