Responding vs. Reacting – Kabat-Zinn, Mindful Parenting

In the inevitable difficult moments of parenting, we can find ourselves reacting automatically and unconsciously to something a child says or does.

Our reactions can range from  mild irritation and annoyance to intense emotions of anger, frustration, or fear.  These reactions can lead to behaviors that are not in our child’s best interest, nor in our own.  Through mindful awareness we can choose more intentional and appropriate ways of responding. (Kabat-Zinn)

The cultivation of mindful awareness is best practiced when we are not emotionally hijacked by stressful emotions.

Our February blog summarizes three of four mindful parenting practices presented by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn in their Seattle workshop:

  • Dropping in on the Present Moment
  • Awareness and Presence with Children
  • Practicing Acceptance

The fourth practice, Responding vs. Reacting, builds on the foundation of these three practices.

Responding vs. Reacting

angry momSome of the most hurtful things that happen between parent and child are angry words spoken impulsively.  After the storm passes, we can be filled with regret as we question what came over us. The Zinns explain that when we react in inappropriate ways, “we are often in the grip of deeply engrained and often destructive patterns of thinking and feeling that may stem in part from our own experiences as children.” They propose that “the cultivation of mindfulness helps us navigate the inner landscape of our own fears, anxieties, and judgments in key moments with our children.”

Mindfulness Practice

The following practice includes excerpts (in quotes) from the Mindful Parenting workshop handout by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, 1.25.14.  The full practice can be found in their book, Everyday Blessings, The Inner World of Mindful Parenting.

“It can be very helpful to distinguish between the times when you react automatically and unconsciously to something a child says or does, and when you respond with greater mindfulness and intentionality.  Can you bring attention to what is happening in those moments when you find yourself reacting mindlessly?”

  1. Notice
    Notice how your body feels when you begin to react.  What are your stress signals?
  2. Stop
    As soon as you notice you are reacting, put a STOP to it.  Put verbal reactions on hold and be silent.  This allows you to regroup.
  3. Drop-in
    “Take a moment to settle yourself by becoming aware of your body and your breathing.  Include bringing your curious, open, gentle attention to whatever thoughts and feelings may be coloring that moment.  Notice whatever is arising, and experiment with breathing with the thoughts and emotions that are present — neither holding on to them nor pushing them away, nor thinking more about them — but simply, as best you can, embracing them in awareness and with some degree of kindness.”
  4. Allow
    Do not jump to fix or change the situation, even if you have the strong impulse to do so.  Give yourself permission not  to act.  Push the pause button and ALLOW the space for new insights and openings to unfold.


While this practice can be quite challenging in emotionally charged moments, it is often illuminating and helpful.  At the very least, even though we don’t necessarily know what to DO, we don’t do the same old thing.  We choose not to go down that habitual path.  We get “stupid” when we act impulsively — our survival brain’s fight/flight reactions are in the driver’s seat and we lose access to our executive functions.  Connecting back to ourselves allows the brain’s CEO to go back on-line, which gives us creative options.  Quiet reflection allows space for the love and wisdom of our heart to lead the way.

How do we work with situations where we are our worst selves?  We back up and begin again.  “If you find yourself carried away emotionally and unable to change course, you might try taking a few moments afterward to reflect on what happened.” As a parent, you will be given many opportunities to practice breaking free of habitual reactive patterns!

It is natural for most kids, especially teens, to take advantage of our reactivity when we are tired or stressed.  Kids know where our edges are and sense the “crack.”  This gives them our pin number — I can punch into mom’s anger and she responds like a puppet!  What if they punch in your pin number and you don’t react? You take back your power.

Through the practice of mindful awareness, we gradually learn not to lose touch with ourselves when we are upset.  We tap into our inner wisdom and are able to respond (be response-able) to our child in more loving and appropriate ways.

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