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Meeting Meltdowns With Mindfulness

You are reading to your child. Your brain processes the words and your mouth utters them. But you have no idea what you have just read or how long you’ve been in this altered state. Parenting expert and clinical social worker Carla Naumburg not only knows your confusion, but as a fellow parent she feels it. Judging by the knowing nods so did the thirty women in the room that Naumburg was addressing.

These women gathered on a recent morning in support of Boston-based Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. Some of them were the mothers of special needs children for whom Gateways is a Jewish lifeline. Others were admirers of the organization that, now its in second decade, promotes a more inclusive Jewish community by serving children and families with disabilities and helps synagogues, schools and organizations develop skills and supports to facilitate inclusion. Among its many offerings, Gateways runs a weekly Sunday school and directs a vibrant b’nei mitzvah preparation program for students with disabilities, who might otherwise not have been able to claim that rite of passage.

For 45 minutes Naumburg related to, delighted in and even commiserated with the women in the room. After all, who among them hasn’t had a child melt down at the supermarket or a child who doesn’t sleep through the night? Naumburg is funny and forthright. Parenting is a tough, messy business that brings on feelings of pure joy, crippling guilt and utter confusion – oftentimes simultaneously.

For the past decade Naumburg has immersed herself in mindfulness behavior. She practices it as the mother of two young daughters and she explains it with humor and empathy in her two books on the subject. Her first book, “Parenting in the Present Moment: How To Stay Focused On What Really Matters”, is an accessible primer on the trials and tribulations of early parenthood. Her second, “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness With Your Children For Fewer Meltdowns And A More Peaceful Family” delivers on the book’s subtitle – teaching children how to focus and calm down. It explores the way parents mar the present by dealing with difficulties in the past or prophesying catastrophes in the future.

Having witnessed the many challenges of parenting in her private practice, Naumburg is certain that bringing mindfulness into one’s life can alter ingrained, self-defeating perspectives. She balances her dedication to the practice of mindfulness with the hard realism of someone who was initially skeptical of the practice. “I had a lot of judgments and misconceptions about mindfulness, but then I took a course with Jon Kabat-Zinn and it changed my life,” Naumburg said.

Kabat-Zinn is a luminary in the mindfulness movement. He is Professor Emeritus of Medicine and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. Studying with Buddhist mentors and practicing yoga, Kabat-Zinn almost single-handedly integrated Buddhist principles with scientific findings. He has had notable success in teaching mindfulness to reduce stress, and cope with pain and anxiety.

Naumburg has had her own parenting victories applying the principles of mindfulness. She notes that parents can “choose to pay attention to the present moment with kindness and curiosity so we can go on to select our next behavior.” Kindness and curiosity are words that often come up in the mindfulness community. They are frequently paired with concepts like acceptance and non-judgment. Naumburg deftly demonstrates how curiosity is often an important precursor to kindness. Step back for a moment, she gently advises, and investigate a meltdown. “When you do that,” she notes, “you can’t be curious and angry at the same time. Curiosity comes from the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, where things like planning evolve. Anger resides in the limbic system, an old part of our brain. The two can’t happen at the same time.”

Mindfulness can be a particularly powerful tool for parents raising a child with special needs. Naumburg notes, “You can come back to whatever your strengths are. You can also come back to who your child is and find that place of acceptance over and over again. You also evolve personally and professionally about being the best parent you can be.”

There were more nods of recognition in the room when Naumburg suggested that great parenting includes everything from “setting a limit to getting away as well as cuddling and being engaged. We’re constantly changing as parents. And with their development, growth and learning, our children change even faster. The best chance we have at getting this right is to come back to the present moment and get interested in it.”

Practicing is a precursor to mastering any skill. Gateways’ parents, in particular, know that using various parenting strategies, whether mindful or simply intuitive, cultivates an appreciation of the present and optimism for the future.

Judy Bolton has written about Jewish arts and culture for two decades. She is the culture reporter for JewishBoston.com

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