The type of parenting a child receives can have profound impacts on the life trajectory of that child. For example, in contrast to punitive parenting we know positive parenting practices affords children many life advantages, including, building secure attachments, accelerated language development, greater readiness for school, reduced risk of antisocial behavior and substance abuse problems, improved physical health, and greater capacity for later intimate relationships (Guajardo, Snyder, & Petersen, 2009; Gutman & Feinstein, 2010; Moffitt et al., 2011; Stack, Serbin, Enns, Ruttle, & Barrieau, 2010). Put simply, how we raise our children matters.
One of the best methods of helping parents raise children is through Evidence-Based Parenting Programs (EBPPs). EBPPs are programs that have been rigorously evaluated through randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and show increased positive parenting practices and reduced ineffective disciplinary practices (Sanders & Kirby, 2014). The United Nations and the World Health Organization recommend EBPPs as a pathway to both preventing and treating childhood social, emotional, and behavioral problems (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2009; World Health Organization, 2009). EBPPs also help build nurturing environments.
Nurturing environments include four key principles: (a) promoting and reinforcing pro-social behavior; (b) minimizing coercion, aggression, and conflict behaviors; (c) reducing opportunities for problem behavior; and (d) promoting mindful, flexible pro-social values (Biglan, 2015). EBPPs adopt many of the principles necessary to create nurturing environments, as they (a) promote and reinforce pro-social behavior— they utilize parenting strategies such as descriptive praise to encourage desirable behavior, and promote reinforcement; (b) minimize coercion and aggression— they build parenting knowledge around effective non-coercive parenting strategies such as logical consequences; and (c) reduce opportunities for problem behavior—monitoring child behavior, providing ground rules, and creating safe home environments (e.g., removal of potentially dangerous objects in the house; Biglan, 2015; Kaminski, Valle, Filence, & Boyle, 2008; Sanders, 2012). However, current EBPPs do not emphasize the importance of the fourth principle to the same extent —promoting mindful, flexible, pro-social values. Therefore, we need to explore other models that fit within a family context and build mindful, flexible, pro-social values that can be combined with our existing knowledge base to enhance nurturing family environments. Two concepts that provide such a basis are mindfulness and compassion.
Mindfulness has been described in a number of ways, one of the most popular is, as a non-elaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which thoughts, feelings, and sensations are accepted as they are (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Over 20 years of empirical research has shown that mindfulness improves outcomes for a range of issues, including interpersonal relationships (Aldao et al., 2010), romantic relationships (Barnes, Brown, Krusemark, Campbell, & Rogge, 2007), one’s level of empathy (Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998), and resilience (Aldao et al., 2010). The rationale for the inclusion of mindfulness to enhance the impact of traditional behavioral family interventions is that it could increase psychological flexibility and reduce the influence of negative thoughts and feelings a parent may have about a child’s behavior (Brown, Whittingham, Boyd, McKinlay, & Sofronoff, 2014). Consequently, this can decrease the likelihood of a parent being reactive, harsh, or impatient when faced with difficult child behavior. If the parent adopts mindfulness as part of his or her parenting repertoire, this can provide the space and opportunity to engage in parenting strategies that align with his or her values of parenting (Duncan, Coatsworth, & Greenberg, 2009; Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). Promisingly, there are some parenting programs that are starting to introduce mindfulness as a core component in their intervention model (Duncan et al., 2009).
Compassion has been a relatively neglected area of research within the field of parenting interventions. This is surprising given that compassion helps to build social relationships and connectedness through caring pro-social behavior (Gilbert, 2014; Goetz et al., 2010), and is essential to the development of secure attachment relationships between parents and children, that helps facilitate emotional self regulation and adaptive relating styles into adulthood. Compassion has been defined in various ways, in terms of a specific definition a common one is a sensitivity to the suffering in self and others, coupled with a commitment to alleviate or prevent it (Gilbert, 2014).
A compassion-focused approach to parenting not only is motivated towards reducing suffering and threats in the the child’s environment but also providing the opportunity for exploration and social, emotional and behavioral growth. So at the heart of compassion-focused parenting is the relationship and connection between parent and child, one focused on affiliative emotions. This approach requires parents to ‘slow down’ and try to see what ‘sits behind’ the child’s behavior, that is, what is the function of the behavior. This perspective requires parents to move beyond a short-term lens, one focused on immediate reductions in misbehavior, and rather take a long-term focus of their child’s development and their ability to self-soothe and grow to be healthy and resilient young adults. Affiliative emotions are central in the compassion-focused parenting approach, as evidence from developmental, neuroscience, and social-emotional research has indicated the profound effects it has on our physiology, as well as social, emotional and behavioral development (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006; Francis & Meaney, 1999).
The Next Generation of EBPPs
My premise is that many of the techniques in current EBPPs will remain the same (e.g., attention, praise), but the model of how to facilitate positive parent-child relationships will shift to focus on processes that help build mindful, flexible, pro-social values. This is where mindfulness and compassion can help in the next generation of EBPPs create nurturing family environments.
- Are some parents and families likely to be more receptive to mindfulness and compassion-based exercise over other families?
- What would potentially block parents from adopting mindfulness and compassion as part of the parenting repertoire?
- Would the inclusion of specific mindfulness and compassion-based approaches enhance the impact of EBPPs?
- Would a modular approach to intervention design be the best approach at including mindfulness and compassion in EBPPs?
Dr. James Kirby is a Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist at The University of Queensland. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. James has three key research aims: (1) how we understand and measure compassionate action, (2) what blocks people from being compassionate; and (3) developing and evaluating interventions that aim to cultivate compassion.
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