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Family dynamics have changed significantly over recent decades. Traditional family structures have started to dissolve as what we often call the “modern family” takes its place. Unlike more traditional family structures that were quite commonplace a few decades ago, the modern family is much harder to define. With softening rules about how we should structure the home and those in it, the modern family becomes whatever we wish to define it as.
Traditionally speaking, a family is often defined as “a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household.” However, the definition itself is outdated. Families don’t necessarily have children, and they don’t necessarily all live under the same roof. This freedom has eased much of the pressure that comes along with being a part of a family, but it poses unique challenges of its own. From the rise in alternative ways to be in partnership to the softening of clear roles amongst family constituents, we are still learning how to live harmoniously with one another in these more modern times.
In addition to these more commonplace ways of defining and understanding a modern family, it’s important to also consider how changes in our society and environment have affected the way families function. Some of the changes we have seen taking place over the past few decades include (but are not limited to):
All of these factors influence the way we interact with family members. While modern families are in many ways more empowering for the individuals within them, it is also difficult to nourish meaningful relationships in a world that is highly connected in the virtual world and less connected fact-to-face. It might be safe to say that while the strength of our internet connection remains of top priority, human-to-human connection is set on the back burner.
All of that said, it is not impossible to achieve health and happiness amongst families, children included. As we work on increasing our awareness of the way we live and interact with the world and those around us, our sense of wellbeing and harmony within the family unit is enhanced. Becoming more mindful of our own inner landscape and of the experiences of those around us, we increase our ability to foster loving families.
Deep connection is not often fostered enough in the modern world. Living on the surface of life through increasing engagement with social media and distractive technology, the more intimate aspects of ourselves go largely untouched. Mindfulness helps us to look inside and to increase our capacity for more authentic relating – first with ourselves and then with others.
As we increase our own capacity to be mindful of what is moving within us, our relationships begin to shift. Our own mindfulness practice sends out a ripple effect that leaves everyone within its path touched, even if only subtly. Relationships don’t change overnight, but they are undoubtedly impacted by our own willingness to look within.
This increased awareness for whatever exists in the present moment (the essence of mindfulness practice) helps to improve relationships of all varieties in a few different ways.
As we begin to pay greater attention to the present moment, we often find that compulsive thinking becomes more manageable. Though the mind doesn’t subside entirely, our ability to observe its habitual thought patterns and beliefs is enhanced. This is crucial for promoting healthy relationships as it intervenes with the tendency we often have of listening to respond as opposed to listening to understand. Relationships amongst family members can be challenging, but if we are able to listen non-judgmentally and compassionately, we move closer to finding a way to bridge whatever gaps divide us.
Practicing mindfulness enhances our ability to be self-aware. This helps us to more clearly see when we are acting or speaking in ways that contribute to challenges rather than to solutions. As we get to know ourselves better, we are able to better manage unhealthy or destructive behaviours that are not contributing to the wellbeing of the family unit.
Mindfulness draws us deep into our bodies and hearts, helping us to gain a clearer and broader understanding of our emotions. As humans, we are each susceptible to the wide range of human emotion, from joy and anticipation to fear and anger. Mindfulness helps us to notice when emotions are arising and facilitates our ability to more clearly see and understand what is beneath them. Are boundaries currently unclear or being crossed? Is there fear of rejection at present? What triggers our emotions is as unique as we are. As we get to know ourselves better, we learn to manage rising emotions in ways that effectively and healthily process and release them. Healthy expression of our emotions promotes healing and wellbeing in both ourselves and in the unit as a whole.
Compassion and non-judgment exist at the core of mindfulness practice. Through the implementation of a variety of heart-centered exercises, we foster our capacity for self-empathy. As we begin to feel this growing sense of warmth and acceptance for ourselves unconditionally, we naturally begin to extend that love outwards. We start to see ourselves in others, finding greater patience, acceptance, and understanding of the experiences of others.
Children benefit from mindfulness practice as well. Since most of our long-standing habits and behaviours are informed by our earliest years, mindfulness practice can help to promote self-awareness in children. When kids are exposed to mindfulness practice, they benefit in countless ways. Mindfulness practice promotes wellbeing in children by:
Children soak things up readily, even absorbing the subtlest of energies. As parents and caregivers, it is important to lead by example and to explore mindfulness as a personal practice. Mindfulness training can also be of great benefit when we wish to work with children, offering us the tools and skills to powerfully and effectively bring mindfulness into their lives.
There are countless ways to help children understand what it means to be mindful. The best practice in any moment will depend on the child’s unique make-up, their age, and the present state of reality. The following are some introductory practices that can be introduced to children of all ages.
Drawing awareness to the breath is a prime place to begin as it is a foundation of most mindfulness practices. Whether in moments when the child is already feeling calm or when he or she is overwhelmed by emotions, guide the child to pay attention to their breath for ten full cycles. You might help them to focus by encouraging them to silently repeat the words “inhaling” and “exhaling” each time their breath switches directions.
To help promote healthy eating patterns amongst children, it can be beneficial to guide them through a simple mindful eating exercise. Start with one small piece of food and then repeat the exercise with a different food item. Guide them to first observe the piece of food with their senses of sight, sound, touch, and smell, one sense at a time. Then, guide them to place the object in their mouths and to chew it very slowly. Have them close their eyes as they pay attention to the taste and texture of the food and then to the feel of it as they swallow. Ask them if they can share a bit about their experience of eating this way.
Help them to take a break from screens and other modes of distraction by getting outside. Take a walk outdoors somewhere, whether through a forest, a park, or around a city block lined with trees. As you move through this natural environment, inquire with your child about the different things they notice. Help them to safely explore the world through their five senses. What do they see? What can they smell? How do things feel in their hands? What sounds do they notice? Ask them to point out where they observe life happening, helping them to expand their awareness of where energy and movement are present.
Families who practice mindfulness together do well together. While many mindfulness practices are personal explorations, they can also be exercises that help to improve communication and closeness amongst family members. The following are a few exercises to practice together.
Getting offline is a simple and powerful practice that will help both parents and children to be more content with and tuned into the present moment. Try to set aside some time daily to be without devices of any sort. When practiced just before bedtime, this exercise can help to promote a deep and restorative sleep.
Sometimes, you might sit in the same room, each family member choosing to read, write, draw, meditate, or reflect. Other times, family members might opt for solitude. Allow this practice to be natural by honouring the needs of each family member in each moment. The only rule: no connection to the world outside of the physical reality you are presently in.
Increase awareness of the abundance and blessings in life by going around the table at dinner and having each family member share what they are grateful for. Each person can share something they are thankful for in the present moment or something they enjoyed earlier in the day. As we increase our awareness of the blessings that exist around us, our happiness increases and we start to find that life gets brighter and more abundant.
The most challenging times to be mindful is when conflict arises. In a family unit, disagreements are inevitable but how we manage them is within our hands (and within our hearts). When conflict comes up, invite everyone involved to take thirty to sixty seconds to close their eyes and tune into their hearts. Guiding the mind into the body and into the heart space can help us to then communicate more clearly and compassionately. In addition to this practice, mindful listening helps all parties to feel heard and understood. See if you can allow five minutes for each family member involved to speak about their experience of the situation at hand without anyone else following up with a counterargument. Allow each party involved to speak their feelings without being made wrong.
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