Hiking in the Dark: Becoming an Awesome Parent

Close your eyes and imagine that you are about to take a hike into unchartered territory…..In the dark.

While this sounds fear provoking enough, imagine you also have a heavy backpack on your back and a baby in tow.


No, this is not some survival challenge game show I am describing; this is the unchartered territory of becoming a parent.

Let me explain.

Becoming a parent is new. Similar to hiking in unchartered territory. We may have heard about the potholes, steep climbs and dangerous cliffs (e.g., sleep deprivation, strain on relationships, isolation); and maybe some of the highlights (e.g., squishy baby, fierce love, dressing the baby in cute outfits) of being a parent. But….we haven’t yet walked in these shoes and navigated this territory.

Standing at the beginning of this journey with no experience and having an overwhelming feeling of responsibility for a new life can be both exciting AND deeply fear provoking.  When we humans are challenged with something that is unknown (just like walking into the dark), our minds often replace those question marks with scary stuff… Because that’s what minds do (it’s a human thing).

When we get into our heads and our emotions are triggered, it is similar to carrying a large backpack around with us. It is tiring. As though having a new baby isn’t tiring enough, this extra weight can feel debilitating, maybe even reducing the enjoyment potential of this special time.

It is very common for new parents to find themselves getting very in their heads.

Asking questions to try to predict what it might be like: Will I be a good parent? How will I cope without sleep? Will my baby be ok? Will I manage the birth? How will our relationship go?

Being bombarded by negative head talk: I won’t be a good mum/dad; this is going to be terrible; I will lose my life, my time, my body; I will stuff it up; I am not a paternal/maternal person; My relationship may not survive.

Memories can also be invoked. Memories of perceived successes/failures; memories of own childhood experiences (either good – I won’t live up to the childhood I had; or not so good – I am scarred by my experiences).

This head talk coupled with difficult emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness and confusion can leave new parents feeling very heavy going into such a challenging and exciting time.


So, how might we prepare to navigate this new territory?

  1. Fostering an understanding of the normality and human-ness of carrying a backpack (holding your thoughts and emotions).

Having thoughts and emotions are normal human internal experiences. They are not something to be pushed away or be ashamed of. Thoughts and emotions are as human as having a heart that pumps blood around the body. When we view our internal experiences from this standpoint, we often drop the fight with them. This makes a big difference when managing your backpack. Helpful or unhelpful, strong thoughts and strong emotions are normal.

  1. Practice becoming aware of when you have been caught into your thoughts and emotions, and try something different.

With practice you can learn to notice when you get hooked by unhelpful thoughts or feelings. Take the time to get real with the head talk that is murmuring (or blasting!) in the background, and observe it, be curious of it. Rather than telling it to go away or engaging in a battle with your thoughts, pursue those thoughts and feelings – ask questions about the thoughts, notice the words or phrases your mind tends to repeat, can you turn towards the thoughts and feelings with kindness and compassion?

It can also be helpful to check in with: What kind of thoughts hook me in? When am I most vulnerable to falling into my thoughts (tired, sick, low support, low connection with partner?).

Once you are aware that you have been caught into unhelpful head talk, make an active choice to focus your attention on something that DOES matter to you (more on that in points 3 & 4!).

Observing your bodily sensations and emotions is also helpful for managing difficult thoughts and feelings. When a wave of emotion runs through your body, practice closing your eyes, taking a big breath in, and inviting that feeling to be there. Just for a moment. After all, all emotions (yes, even anxiety) are normal internal experiences. This encourages you to drop this fight with your emotions, which in turn can allow this human feeling to pass in its own time (although getting rid of the emotion is never the aim of this approach). 

  1. Having a one to one with yourself about what REALLY, truly, on a heart-level (not on a chatter level, e.g., I just don’t want to stuff it up), matters to you about the kind of parent you want to be

Questions such as: What do I love about how others parent, or my own experiences that I have had as a child?  Or, what do the difficult experiences I had as a child tell me about what matters to me as a parent? What do I want to to stand for in this exact moment (when faced with a challenge: i.e., baby crying, no sleep). What matters to me about how I treat myself during this time? The answers to these questions will differ for everyone; maybe it is honesty, connection, love and/or patience…this requires some exploration. Try to get clear with yourself about what your values are around being a parent. Imagine how you would want to be described as a parent. Make a list of those values to focus on what really matters to you.

4. Once you have some idea of what you THINK matters to you, ask yourself what small actions will take you closer to that, what are the actionable ways you can express those values as a parent?

Make a commitment to taking a small step towards what matters. Whether it be that you value your connection with your partner, so you commit to asking them how they are feeling about approaching this journey; you value your mental health and thus book an initial session with a psychologist to learn how to manage these thoughts and feelings. 

These are just examples, and how you express your values will be unique. Spend some time considering what your values would look like if you expressed them in the world.

The Summary

Being a parent for the first time is new and unknown territory. What is new and unknown can provoke much head chatter and difficult emotions. Rather than avoiding that difficult stuff, you can increase your awareness of it, remind yourself of the normality of it, and take active steps closer to what truly matters to you along the journey of parenthood.

Yes, the above is easier said than done. But it is possible. If you need some help navigating this journey, please get in touch. I would love to help you on your journey.

~Dr. Kimberley Nash

Feeling Shame in Parenting: Share Your Experience

By Julia Caldwell

“Are you sure she’s hungry again? Didn’t you just feed her?”

“Don’t you think your baby is wearing too many clothes? Won’t he be too hot?”

“You should put the baby down, otherwise she will never be independent”.

“You know, if you don’t teach her to share/sleep/have manners/eat healthy foods, he will never learn”

Being a parent is hard. Really hard. Nothing can prepare you for the intense joy and the equal degree of exhaustion that comes with having a baby. Advice on how to be a “good mum”, whether solicited or not, is everywhere. Look up a mums’ forum online and enter at your own peril. In the shame-filled pressure cooker of the early postnatal period, even well-intentioned advice (like the suggestions given above) can feel like personal attacks and criticism. 

Shame, in Gilbert’s model of compassion-focussed therapy, is defined as the negative evaluation of one’s self as bad, unworthy, inferior, or undesirable, and underpins a wide range of psychological symptoms. This is like a critical relationship that mums can have with themselves (internal shame), seeing themselves as a bad or not good enough mother. Perhaps, more painfully, we can also feel shamed by others (external shame), where we believe we are viewed as such in the eyes of other people – especially those we look up to, such as other mums who seem to have it “altogether”. Although mums can have internal and external shame, this isn’t the case for everyone. Although most mums can relate to an experience of being externally shamed by others, this does not necessarily mean they will develop an internal sense of shame as a mum.

The use of mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion is shown to powerfully counteract the poisonous effects of shame. Mindfulness and acceptance helps us to build present moment awareness, and attend to what is happening in the “here and now”, rather than getting “fused” with, or “hooked” by, shameful and self-critical thoughts about one’s capacity as a mum. Compassion allows mums to rest in kindness in the present moment, facilitating greater acceptance of shame-based thoughts and actions that might keep us stuck in a relentless struggle with our experience as a mum. From this standpoint of compassion and kindness, we can find it in ourselves to turn towards, rather than away from, the pain and shame that comes with caring deeply for others. We can then move towards compassionate, and effective, values-guided action on how we want to be as a mum, enriching our relationships with a sense of connection, warmth, and inclusiveness.

We are currently investigating the experience of shame, and the benefits of compassion, in Australian mothers. If you are pregnant (third trimester), and would like to be involved with our research project, please click here to find out more and to participate in our survey: https://survey.app.uq.edu.au/CompassionateMums.survey. We also encourage you to share the survey with anyone you know who is pregnant (third trimester).

How to Bring More Mindfulness into Parenting

By Marcela Costanzo

Have you ever wondered about what it means to be a mindful parent? You probably have heard that mindfulness means to be fully present in whatever you do, devoting your full attention to the present moment, without worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. So how can we incorporate this practice to the set of skills that makes us even better parents? Firstly, we should be realistic – our minds WILL worry about the future of our kids, and WILL sure as heck dwell on things we might, as parents, have done better. So first acknowledge this – it’s entirely normal, and completely human – next do our best to forgive ourselves, and then…

Here are three simple questions you can ask yourself to check that you are fully present with your child:

What is my child experiencing in this particular moment?

What does my child feel? How is s/he feeling right now?

What are my needs as a parent/carer right now?

If your mind is anything like mine, as you read the above, it will start telling you things like: ‘Life with children is busy and fast’, and ‘Raising children is challenging’, ‘I have so many things to do with cooking, driving them to activities’, ‘This is another thing I have to do now’, and so on. Then, don’t forget to thank your mind for reminding you of all this…. AND take the opportunity to think of the many advantages of mindful parenting, such as a stronger relationship with your children, a calmer state of affairs, and more enjoyment of parenting just to name a few.

So I would like to invite you to use mindfulness in your parenting more often. As therapists often say you can incorporate mindfulness in anything you do and a really great way to start is by paying attention to your breath. Why don’t you start experimenting what happens when you stop something you are doing, pay attention to your breath, and notice what your feelings are and where the needs of your child lay.

And remember your mind will wonder because this is what minds do, so when this happens there is no need to stress or criticise your practice, just notice, then bring your attention to your breath and notice what your child is doing. Remember to make room for your feelings and treat yourself with compassion. Happy mindful parenting!

Anxiety and Parenting

Courtesy of Dr. Nga Tran. Nga is a consultant psychiatrist working at the Brisbane ACT Centre. Get in touch with our friendly staff to  book an appointment with Dr. Nga.

Being a parent is probably the most important role your life.  It is frequently a time of great joy, love, wonder and gratitude.  From the images you would have seen and books you may have read, it certainly seems like these emotions are the ones that will be most prominent.

However it is also common to feel other emotions that perhaps you may think you are not supposed to feel.

Feeling down, sad, depressed, guilty, overwhelmed or anxious are also very common for parents.

Anxiety is a normal emotion that is vital in protecting us from danger. When we perceive a threat our body reacts with physiological changes including the release of large amounts of adrenaline and an increased heart and breathing rate. These changes prepare the body to fight or take flight from the threat. If you think about how fragile and defenceless a child is, then it makes perfect survival sense for the mother to be constantly on the alert for threats to its wellbeing.

Our brains are still wired like this to detect bears and tigers that may harm our children, or poisons in the environment that may make them ill.  You may feel restless, fidgety and constantly on edge.  Your sleep and appetite may be affected.  You may find yourself constantly thinking ahead to plan and organise to shield off any potential problems.  You may constantly look for the perfect response to every situation.  So many “what if” and potentially catastrophic scenarios run through your mind that you may not be able to make any decisions at all.  You may feel guilty and your mind may tell you that you are not a good mum, that you should know what to do, that everyone else except you can handle the situation.

You may respond to these emotions in a way that makes the problem get bigger rather than smaller, such as withdrawing from your family and friends, stop doing the things that normally give you pleasure, work harder in setting rules and schedules in order to get a sense that you can control the danger.

These strategies work well when there is a tiger outside about to eat your child.  But when the source of danger is diffuse and cannot be eliminated, such as worrying thoughts, these strategies actually teach you that you need to worry harder and exert more routine and control.  And the potential sources of worry are endless, so a vicious cycle is set up.  Reading multiple parenting books and websites can often increase the doubts that perhaps you are not doing things right and that you need to work harder.

This is not because you are in any way abnormal.  This is just how your brain, and most of our brains, work.  For a combination of reasons that may include your usual thinking style, the ways of coping you have observed around you, past experiences, your current situation, responses of others, and the temperament of your child, you have inadvertently found yourself in this vicious cycle.

ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is a modern form of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) that is very effective for anxiety.

ACT helps you to become aware of your anxious thoughts and emotions, not as automatic cues of danger but as events occurring in your mind and body.  In that way you don’t have to automatically react to your thoughts and emotions, but be able to step back from them and see them for what they are.  This frees you up to act in a way that is more in keeping with how you want to be as a parent and as a person.  It allows you to experience your unique child as he or she really is from moment to moment, a concept known as mindfulness.  In this way you can notice all the subtle cues that your child uses to communicate.  This more than any set rules or routine, forms the basis of the sort of interaction and care that will allow you and your child to thrive together.

An added benefit is that you can apply this to all other areas of your life on an ongoing basis.  So ACT is so much more than a treatment for depression or anxiety.  You gain a whole set of skills that help you to live a richer and more vital life, and can dip into this tool box time and time again throughout your life.

Mindfulness, Mothers & Babies

Last week I had the true pleasure and privilege of giving a 2 day Introduction to ACT workshop for more than 55 experienced clinicians at the Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health full week seminar series. Babies’ and mothers’ attachment needs in the perinatal period, and ACT processes of presence, purpose, acceptance and action made for a perfect fit. Mindful mothering, with our awareness grounded in the present with our baby makes it easier to notice our babies’ need, respond in a natural way, notice the rewards and also the struggles of being a Mum and be present with it all. Many perinatal nurses, psychologists and other clinicians from Brisbane and far beyond had already applying mindfulness based ACT principles and practices in their mother baby work, finding it a beautifully natural process.

Connecting mindfulness with the practical applications of attachment theory comes quite naturally. When mothers are more aware and open and able to respond to infant’s cues (noticing when is it appropriate to play, talk, comfort), and in doing so more attuned in their skin to skin touch, holding, and mutual eye gazing we increase our infants sense of security, comfort, and protection. In doing all of this mothers can assist their babies in experiencing their emotions in an open and expressive way. Secure attachment is also modelled in therapeutic context. ACT therapists strive always to be aware, open and engaged, attuned to the client’s needs, encouraging security and exploration. Indeed we learned ACT skills in the workshop by applying them to ourselves, so as to engage more fully, flexibly and effectively with our clients.

I had extraordinary help in delivering this perinatal ACT workshop from four wonderful women who were not able to be in the room. Koa Whittingham is a psychologist with specialisations in both clinical and developmental psychology, a research fellow at the University of Queensland and a mother, and has written “Becoming Mum” which is a truly unique self-help book. It is the first book written to support women, all women, through the psychological passage to motherhood, empowering them to become the kind of mother they wish to be. There has been a crying need for an ACT book for pregnancy and mothers during infancy, and Becoming Mum is IT! I cannot recommend it highly enough, and did so over and again to the perinatal workshop attendees, nearly all of whom purchased at least one if not 2 or more copies. Koa also writes a great blog,Parenting from the Heart.

Koa is in partnership with General Practitioner academic Dr Pamela Douglas who is developing a service to help mums and unsettled babies especially in the first 16 weeks, Possums Clinic. Pam also helped me in focussing ACT principles upon this uniquely sensitive area of human life. Emma Hanieh is a fantastic ACT therapist from The ACT Centre Adelaide who has a great half hourinterview on ACT and Attachment here, and gave me slides and knowledge from her Perinatal ACT Workshops to help me. Finally Louise Shepherd from The Sydney ACT Centre also provided inspiration through her great mindful motherhood blog posts. Koa, Emma and Louise are all very recent mums (Pam some time ago) and all display wonderful sensitivity, connection and scientific rigour in approach to their lives and work. Not only in ACT training, coaching, RFT and adolescent work are we blessed with superb talent in Australia, our perinatal ACT and mindfulness pedigree is deep and growing.

Koa is providing a Free Brisbane Public Mother’s Day Weekend Event this Saturday 10 May at Aspley for her book. If in Brisbane I encourage you to get along!

Becoming Mum ends with this simply wonderful paragraph:

“Take this lightly too!”

“You shouldn’t live your life by my advice. Don’t turn these concepts such as mindfulness into just another monster. Remember that the thought “I’m not practising mindfulness enough” is also just a thought, and sadness at not accepting your emotions is just another emotion to make room. So don’t start steering your ship by the words in this book; steer it by what you’ve always had in your heart. Steer your ship by your guiding stars – your values -and alter your course as necessary along the way so that you are doing what works for you and for your baby.”

Wise, mindful advice!