You want to be more present for your children, to engage with them from a place of intention and connection rather than distraction and knee-jerk reactions. But more often than you'd like to admit, you're bored or preoccupied, sneaking glances at your phone, reviewing your list of everything you need to get done, or just wishing the kid would hurry up and finish this endless story already.
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I get it. I really do. Staying present for our kids can be hard. Sometimes it's hard because the present moment sucks. It can be boring (Snakes & Ladders, anyone?), infuriating (PUT THE DAMN SHOES ON ALREADY) and confusing as hell (Why is the child crying again?!).
And sometimes it's hard because we're distracted, either by a buzzing smartphone or the buzzing inside our own minds. When that happens, we're more likely to snap at our kids, spill the blueberries, or blow the moment in any number of ways. We're also more likely to react from a place of unhelpful habits, strong feelings, or childhood memories that we're not even aware of.
It's worth working on, though, because each time we show up with our full awareness, we're giving ourselves our best possible shot at getting this parenting thing right (whatever that means). Our responses to whatever is going on with our kids, whether it's awesome or awful, will be more empathetic and effective and parenting will feel easier and more enjoyable when we're fully present.
Here are some ways to stay in the present moment even when the present moment isn't where you want to be.
Do one thing at a time
At the risk of stating the obvious, you just can't be present for something if you're trying to do something else at the same time. The ability to multitask is a myth, so let that one go. Pick one thing to focus on; sometimes it will be your kids, but not always.
Practice when it's easy
Paying attention is a skill that we can practice, which means the more we do it, the better we'll get at it. Pick one or two activities that you do every day and that you enjoy (showering, drinking coffee, reading a book to a snuggly child, staring at the wall, etc.) and just be as present as you can be.
When your mind wanders, notice that it wandered and bring your attention back to the coffee or child or whatever it may be. Each time you do this, you're making it just a little bit easier to stay present for whatever else shows up, including a meltdown in Aisle 2 at the grocery store.
Put down your phone
Don't just put it down. Get it out of the room. Research has found that just having that damn thing nearby — even if it's turned off — distracts us. Not only will you survive the separation (I promise), but it will be much easier to win at Connect Four when you're not tempted to sneak a glance (or blatantly stare) at that tiny screen.
I was three and a half months pregnant when my partner and I separated, and I suddenly had to rearrange my life around something I'd never anticipated. single parenthood. In operatic moments, I made mental ledgers of all the things I'd likely have to give up as a sole caretaker. my demanding career, my exercise routine, my friends, reading, going out to dinner, going out to movies, going out at all. I was terrified to parent alone.
Turn off your notifications
If you can't bring yourself to put your phone in the other room, at least turn off any unnecessary notifications. Your phone should only light up, buzz and beep for phone calls and text messages. That's it. Unless you're the freaking president, you really don't need to know the very instant an email lands in your inbox.
While it's possible to stay present while you're racing through life, it's not easy. Try to notice when you're rushing and slow down whenever you can. Spoiler alert: you can slow down more often than you may think, and parenting is more fun when you're not constantly nagging your kids to hurry up.
Narrate your experience
This is a useful brain hack for when you're having a super hard time staying present. Just say what you're doing, either silently or out loud. "I'm opening the cabinet, I'm getting the box of Mac N Cheese, I'm bringing it back to the stove." Like that. Simple, but not always easy, especially if you have to narrate your way through an angst-filled teenage rant (which is why it's helpful to practice when it's easy).
Find something to be grateful for
Finding something to appreciate requires you to get out of your spinning brain and back into the present moment, whether it's ultra-absorbent diapers or the GPS tracking app on your son's smartphone. If nothing else, you can be grateful that you're still breathing. Speaking of which...
Take a few slow, deep breaths, or try counting your breaths, one to ten and then repeat. Pick any breathing exercise you like, as long as you're breathing and paying attention to your breath. Each time you do this, you're calming down your cranked up nervous system and bringing your awareness back to the present moment.
Make time to not be present
It is neither possible nor desirable to pay constant attention to your children. You need physical and mental space, and when you intentionally carve out that space for yourself on a regular basis, it will be easier to show up for them when they actually need you.
Sometimes this means trading child care duties with a spouse, parenting partner, or friend, and sometimes it just means not involving yourself in their creative play or foam sword fight so you can chill in the other room.
Get some sleep
The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that regulates our attention, is also the first part to go off-line when we're exhausted. It is incredibly difficult to be present when you haven't slept. Try not to stress about it; cut yourself some slack and do whatever you can to get some sleep.