THE BLOG
09/16/2014 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5 Mantras for Mindful Parenting

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Yesterday I enjoyed one of the outings mothers dream of: I went to Target by myself.

As I sorted through my coupons at the checkout counter, I heard a screaming child. A nasty tantrum. My first thought was that it sounded exactly like the screams from the terrified children being flung down the huge slide by the mean Santa in A Christmas Story. The yelling got louder, until said-tantrum-throwing toddler was right behind me in the checkout line.

I looked up and gave the mother my most sympathetic, we've-all-been-there-mama smile... and saw her not only calming her possessed toddler, but her four other children (all under the age of 10) who had accompanied her to Target.

But she didn't need my smile. She remained amazingly calm, speaking softly to her tantruming toddler while also telling her older children that they could not impulsively buy the toys and candy in the impulse aisle.

Seriously, this woman was like a Zen master. She kept her cool, smiling at and nurturing the shrieking child. There was no heavy sighing, no raising of her voice. Not even an eye-roll. She was totally calm and unfazed. By the time I handed the clerk my credit card, the toddler was calm, too, and smiling back at his mother.

I wanted to ask this woman the same question the Buddha's disciples asked him after he attained enlightenment: not "Who are you?" but "What are you?"

*****

It can be easy to parent mindfully when our children are sweetly playing together, or telling us they love us. It's a lot harder when their behavior tests our patience and frays our last nerve.

In my experience, taking a mindful pause is one of the most important actions we can take to make us more patient in our parenting. Yes, our children push our buttons. They challenge and frustrate us. But many of their behaviors are out of our control. What we can control is how we respond when the parenting gets tough.

Responding is different from reacting. Reacting is based on emotion, often anger and frustration. It's unthinking. It might consist of yelling, or shaming. And it's often unhelpful.

Responding is based on reflection. It's thinking. It's calm, firm, and appropriate. And it was exactly what I had witnessed the Zen Master of Target doing. I really wish I had asked her my question. I want to know what she does to keep her calm.

But since I didn't get the chance to ask her, I'll share with you what I do to calm myself when I am upset with my children: I repeat a mindful mantra.

I've learned to recognize my physical signs of frustration -- the quickening pulse, the heavy sighing, the slight feeling of dizziness. I feel ready to lash out... but I take a mindful pause. I breathe, I reflect, and I respond.

Here are five mantras that I've found most helpful for my challenging parenting moments:

1. "Breathe." We probably tell our children to do this, too. Bringing our attention to our breath for even 10 seconds has a dramatically calming effect on the body, and allows us to see the moment, and therefore respond to it, more clearly.

2. "They are not their tantrums." Mindfulness practice teaches us not to over-identify with our emotions. We are not our anger -- we can observe anger rise, and then dissipate in our awareness. Similarly, our children are not their tantrums. The tantrum is anger, sadness, frustration and a host of other emotions that their little bodies are struggling to control. When my child throws a fit, I ask myself, "Can I see my sweet smiling child through the tantrum? Can I reach out to him, and not react to the surface emotions?"

3. "This too shall pass." My mother says this one to me all the time when I am facing a tough parenting challenge. The only constant in life is change. Your exasperation will likely soon be replaced with laughter in a few minutes, when your child's anger has also passed. Little Yoda at Target calmed down in less than the time it took to scan my groceries. Your irritation and anger will pass. Your child's tantrum will pass. Trust in change.

4. "Try a hug instead." I vividly remember a terrible tantrum my daughter threw when she was two (though now I can't even remember what caused it). She was yelling, crying, hysterical... and I was trying to rationalize with her. "You need to calm down.... This isn't a big deal...." But nothing I said worked. Feeling my anger and frustration rising, I tried a totally different tactic. I hugged her. She and I both calmed down. Sometimes the tantrum is all about seeking comfort. Often a gesture of compassion works better than words.

5. "The house will soon be quiet." By the end of the day, my entire family is tired, and stressful bedtimes can add to the exhaustion and exasperation. {There's a reason Go the F**k to Sleep was a bestseller.} By the time I am putting my children to bed, I am desperately craving my quiet time. But bedtime can also be a sacred time. I remind myself not to rush it. The stories, the snuggles, the hugs and kisses, and the I-love-you's are moments I treasure. I remind myself that my time for peace and rest will come. I enjoy and stay present for the last moments of the day with my children. And even if bedtime is a struggle, I tell myself, "The house will soon be quiet."

These mantras have helped me through many parenting challenges. Taking a mindful pause in order to respond, rather than react, to my children's behavior has helped me become a more calm and compassionate mother.

And if you are the Bodhisattva from Target checkout lane #18, please share how you did it. Seriously.

This post originally appeared on Sarah's blog Left Brain Buddha. You can follow Sarah on Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+.

{photo credit: VinothChandar via photopin, modified with permission}