The Mindful Parent: Learning How to Let Go

flying balloonsThere are so many things we benefit from learning to let go of as parents—comparing our children to others, expecting them to be the people we imagined they would be, attempting to be a perfect housekeeper/caregiver/playmate/chef/lover (insert unrealistic expectation here), and, on some days, even expecting to take a shower!

How do we do it? Often I hear from people in the therapy room that this is one of the most difficult parts of being a parent—relinquishing control and the need for things to be perfect. We hold on so tightly, imagining that this holding on is the only thing keeping things, or us, from falling apart. And yet it is often this unrealistic desire for control that causes us (and then, inevitably, things) to fall apart.

What it comes down to, in my view, is the belief that we live in a friendly universe. Whether it’s true is irrelevant. We benefit from cultivating the belief that things are OK. That we and the people we love are OK. That even when things are not OK, it’s OK.

Our need for control is rooted in a fear that is far greater than the things we fear. We imagine that if we don’t clean up the house, not only will the house be messy, but the world will end. We fear if we don’t wash our children’s hands, not only may they get sick, but we will not be able to cope. We imagine that if our children fall behind in development, not only may they have delays, but their lives will be ruined. Often, the worst thing that can happen is far less terrible than the tragedy we imagine will happen if we let something go.

Cultivating mindfulness is a wonderful strategy for learning to let go. Being able to notice and observe what is happening in the present moment, in our bodies, our emotions, and our environment, without having to analyze or judge it as good or bad, is an important step toward feeling that things are OK. It’s easy to find five-minute mindfulness exercises online that are a good first step toward developing the ability to notice what is and take attention away from our thoughts, which so often lead us into trouble.

Often, the worst thing that can happen is far less terrible than the tragedy we imagine will happen if we let something go.

When practicing mindfulness, you will have thoughts that come and go. Sometimes you might think, “I can’t do this very well,” or get caught up in whatever thoughts happen to come to you. Observing the thoughts without judgment is part of the process. Imagine your thoughts as leaves floating by on the surface of the water of your consciousness. Even if you pay attention to them briefly, they will pass and you can again focus on what is happening in you and around you. Allowing yourself to be aware of your emotions without labeling them as good or bad lets you experience them and see them pass over time.

In your daily life, the ability to be mindful will help you to let go. When you get caught up in thinking about what you should be doing/not doing/doing differently, or find yourself focused on controlling things you really want to let go of, imagine your thoughts are a train passing by. You can notice the train, but you don’t have to get on it. Not getting on the train means not believing your thoughts, not trying to analyze, judge, or change your thoughts, and not drawing conclusions about them, such as “that thought is going to ruin my day.” Let the train pass you by, and notice the scenery around you. What you notice in the moment, however challenging, is really OK.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Meri Levy, LMFT, therapist in Lafayette, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Claudia

    April 13th, 2015 at 8:34 AM

    It’s hard for me and my daughter because she is my only one and I am not married so she is all I have. I don’t want her having the same things go on with her that I did at her age, I want her life to be better but I am not sure how to do that without maintaining that strict control. I know that I have to eventually let go of much of that but for right now it feels like the best thing to do to make sure that her life is better is for me to still play a strong role in her life.

  • Rhee

    April 13th, 2015 at 3:57 PM

    I could have used something like this when my youngest went off to college. I had such the empty nest syndrome that OI literally felt like I had lost my identity just as she was finding hers.

  • Juliet

    April 14th, 2015 at 5:20 AM

    I don’t think that there is as much of any issue for men with this sort of thing as there is with women. I personally feel that men will take the lead of the female in the relationship on how to parent and I also feel like there is less of a need to over parent with men as there seems to be with moms today. We have all sort of lost touch with letting our kids grow up and be themselves and have become far too concerned about micro managing every single thing that they encounter in childhood. I am not too sure when this started but I know that my own parents were never this way. They would always just kind of tell us to be safe and be home before dark.

  • pres

    April 14th, 2015 at 12:32 PM

    If there is this need to hold onto control, then you need to look very closely at what is driving this need. Is it something that you missed out on when you were younger? Did you have to be in control of every situation from the time that you were young? Or did you miss this from your own parents and wish to have control over your child to show him or her just how much you care? Anything can be taken to the extreme so I think that if you find yourself having problems with this then it could be a good idea to talk to a counselor and help resolve some of your own issues before continuing to have this stranglehold over everything that your child does.

  • Carlos

    April 15th, 2015 at 8:34 AM

    No matter how much you may want to or how strong the temptation to do so may be, you can’t control your kids’ lives forever.

  • genevieve

    April 16th, 2015 at 5:33 AM

    Sometimes it’s ok to let our children fail. I know that the instinct that we as parents have is to protect them everything that we can, but how are they ever going to learn to stand up for themselves if we never give them the chance to practice that and learn how?

    I don’t want my children to hurt any more than any other parent does, but there will come a time when you will have to make a decision about should i step in and protect or should I let him try to do this on his own?

    As much as possible I think that you loosen the leash a little and let him make some decisions for himself. Sometimes that is the very best way to learn, by failing, but then seeing that you just have to get up and dust yourself off and try again.

    That’s a lesson that isn’t learned if mom and dad always do everything for you.

  • shelby

    April 18th, 2015 at 12:30 AM

    twin boys are the life changer
    parenting them into adulthood is an awesome adventure
    communication essential
    comparing really hazardous
    creating ways to nuture their twinship
    path that i am seeking to encourage

  • Cal

    April 19th, 2015 at 6:47 AM

    As long as you of aware of the things going on around you, that’s good, but it is also good to think about the fact that not everything can or even needs to be controlled, that there are just those certain things that have to be left to happen on their own.
    Let the chips fall where they may.

  • Penelope

    April 20th, 2015 at 3:36 PM

    I really think that a parent who is mindful and aware of her child’s needs will see very clearly the times when they need to hold on a little tighter and the times when they could loosen up and let go a little.

  • Katherine Fabrizio

    Katherine Fabrizio

    April 29th, 2015 at 8:37 AM

    This is good stuff Meri- thank you for the reminder and technique. I find also that there is beautiful paradox to all this. When we allow all of our feelings in without having to control or fix them, we are in a better position to address the issues that are even painful to accept. In that way we increase awareness and are better able to actually effect change that makes things better.

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