To set the theme for this post, I’d like to start by sharing a poem by Portia Nelson:
I love how this poem captures the cycle of growing awareness of a problem, and how this builds over experiencing it a few times before being able to contemplate change, then trying to make change, before finally achieving the change you need.
For anyone, parent or otherwise, we all have traps with our thoughts, feelings and behaviour which we are susceptible to fall into on repeat. Mindfulness can offer all of us an opportunity to notice our thoughts in action, and reflect on our observations. For parents, spotting your own traps as a person can be as useful as spotting those you might succumb to as a parent. Both can be insightful when trying to understand the traps your child might fall into. It’s helpful to be compassionate with yourself, your partner if you have one, your child and anyone else playing a part in traps as being human its a universal experience to have. It’s also often upsetting, agravating and exhausting to repeat unhelpful cycles that get you further from your values and goals.
Typical traps as as adult
excessive self criticism
lack of self care or self compassion
unfavourable comparisons with other people’s lives on social media
Typical traps as a parent
Shouting and swearing at a child who won’t do as they are told, then feeling sad when this doesn’t work and you haven’t enjoyed your day with them
Battling with a child in a fussy eating phase to eat their meals, then giving them sugary snacks when this doesn’t work
Typical traps as a child
Having regular toiletting accidents due to delaying going to finish a game first
Pushing boundaries to clarify what the rules are, then getting stuck in time out still confused
Typical traps as a baby
Wanting to walk but falling over on your face
Wanting milk but not having words to ask
In family life, every family member will both have their own traps and their own role in the other family members traps. This can of course become both complicated and stressful. For example, a child may be trapped in not getting to the toilet in time due to getting absorbed in a favourite game, while a parent may be feeling anxious that the child should have got the hang of going on time by now and be self-critical of their parenting skills, denting their confidence in supporting their child to beat the trap. In turn, the child may pick up on the parents anxiety, feel anxious in turn themselves about upsetting the parent, and consequently actually be more likely to have accidents, and even try to hide the accidents from the parent thus compounding the problem.
I’ve noticed recently that my daughter and I share some bad habits for the same reasons. Neither of us drink enough water. For both of us, the reason is we’re too busy. I am instead guilty of making cups of tea and coffee, and my daughter has picked up on this by developing a liking for chai, and requesting this too rather than the water I’d like her to drink more of. I’ve previously used a reward chart to increase her drinks consumption which was effective, but her drinking tends to reduce if mine does, even if I offer her drinks. What helped increase my awareness of my own contribution to her drinking trap was my husband working from home during the coronavirus lockdown. He continually pointed out that I, rather than her, was not drinking enough and kept croaking. My initial response was to feel indignant that I didn’t have enough chance to drink, which led me to consider that my daugher might also experience me nagging her to drink more as irritating when she too perceives herself to be busy. So rather than set up a new reward chart for us both, my solution is simpler – I model drinking lots of glasses of water, and she happily copies. Therefore, improving both of our wellbeing and reducing frustration for both of us.
So, how to spot traps?
Regularly practicing mindfulness can help you notice your thoughts, memories and other cognitive processes without getting as emotionally involved with them. With that distance, it can be easier to see what to do.
What kinds of mindfulness practice can help? Listening to an app recording regularly, e.g. from Headspace or Smiling Mind could help. Alternatively, sitting with a notepad for five minutes a day writing down whatever comes up can help you tune in. Or, go for a walk and notice what comes up in your mind – after the walk, jot down any lightbulb moments you had and any actions that you need to take. For me, its often in the shower these days that I notice traps and emerge with inspiration. It doesn’t really matter what kind of practice you do, as long as it allows you to observe your thinking and have the chance after to note down any insights or actions needed.
An observant friend or partner may also be helpful provided they can impart the feedback with some compassion or even offer of assistance in beating the trap.
And how do I beat the trap?
As with the the poem, the first and biggest step is defining and understanding the problem and commiting to doing what it takes to address it. The next step from there is to set yourself a SMART goal – one that is Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic and Time bound. Then, decide one small step you could do today to get you nearer to that goal. Next? Do it.