“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
When our parents told us to “take a deep breath and count to 10” before responding in the heat of the moment, they may have been onto something. Research shows that deep breathing and other “mindful” strategies can diffuse anger, frustration and stress and help calm our minds – and our kids’ minds!
Being more mindful of our feelings before taking action is an approach based on the philosophy of Buddhism (although mindfulness does not necessarily have to be religious or have spiritual overtones). A mindful approach to everyday events teaches that “your own wisdom is within you – you just have to awaken yourself to it,” explains Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D., author of “The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children.” Researchers and advocates of teaching mindful practices at home feel this approach is desperately needed in today’s society when many kids are cursed with feelings of helplessness and defeatist thoughts, such as “I can’t do this,” “Math is impossible” or “Nobody likes me.”
Helping kids find focus
This “awakening” occurs when kids learn to become more conscious of what’s going on in the moment. Parents are constantly telling children to “pay attention” or “focus,” but how often do we really teach our children how to do that? Teaching kids to be more mindful helps them learn how to focus on being in the present rather than mulling over the past (“I got a C on my spelling test” or “All the kids teased me because I missed the school bus”) or worrying about the future (“I’m so stupid, I’ll probably fail my math test” or “I’m so slow I will probably miss the bus again tomorrow”).
One of the best ways to help children become more mindful is to teach them to focus on their breathing. This is such a useful technique because our breath is always with us … we just have to become aware of it. Just taking a few moments to breathe in, hold it for two seconds and breathe out again calms the central nervous system.
For some children, active approaches to mindfulness are more effective. They may respond well to non-verbal miming (acting out their feelings using their bodies rather than words), visualization (imaging a quiet place where they feel safe and secure), journaling (writing down or drawing their thoughts and feelings) and movement (moving their body rhythmically to music or drumbeats). All of these techniques help kids to calm down and refocus their brains so they can behave more appropriately in stressful situations.
Encouraging mindfulness at home
Practicing mindfulness strategies in the home during these difficult times can improve many aspects of family life. Becoming mindful of her feelings and how she responds to those feelings can help a child handle disappointment constructively, control the urge to lash out at siblings and follow through on chores she may not enjoy. Research shows that children who engage in mindful practices at home during the day are better able to focus when distracted, respond less negatively to physical and social threats and are more compassionate and less judgmental of themselves. Adults experience similar payoffs.
Serena Keeney-Horsch, a Damascus mom of two, uses several “Feel Better, Do Better” pillows to help her children be more mindful. After reading about the idea in parenting expert Jane Nelsen’s book, “Power Struggles,” Keeney-Horsch set up several pillows in the corner of a room. When her kids get upset, they can go to the pillows to do breathing or other stress-reducing activities. One day, her 7-year-old daughter became overwhelmed by the difficulty of her homework. “The next thing I knew,” Kenney-Horsch recalled, “She walked over to the ‘Feel Better, Do Better’ pillow and started belly-breathing with her hand on her abdomen.” Before long, she was ready to tackle the homework. “In a total of 10 minutes, she had worked through it all by herself,” Keeney-Horsch says. This mom has even been known to use the pillows herself when she needs to be more present in the moment.
Mindfulness techniques for kids
Children as young as 3 years old can learn mindful practices, according to experts. Here are a few techniques that you can teach your kids (and try yourself!) in order to create a more mindful – and optimistic, productive, harmonious – home.
- Become aware of the breath. Teach your child to put his hand on his stomach and breathe slowly in and out, not only filling the lungs with air but filling the stomach so that his hand moves upward with each inhale. Then have him slowly breathe out, pushing all the air out of the body while the hand on the stomach falls.
- Feel the various physical sensations of stress. When your child gets upset, can you see physical changes in her body? Do her shoulders draw closer to her ears? Do her hands ball up into fists? Does the color of her complexion change? Pay attention and point these things out during a non-stressful time. You might say something like, “When you got upset today on the playground, I noticed your shoulders looked tight. I wonder if you notice any changes in your body when you feel upset.” You’ll be calling attention to the physical changes a body experiences during stress so that your child can begin to recognize the signs.
- Notice thoughts as they pass through the mind. Help your child pay attention to the silent (but oh so powerful) thoughts that run through his mind. After a particularly difficult situation, ask, “What does the little voice inside your head say to you when you feel angry?” Children will most often say they don’t know – because they don’t! If you articulate what the little voice in your head says to you when you are nervous, angry or stressed, your child will start to realize that everyone has thoughts that affect how they feel and behave.
- Pay attention to surrounding sounds. Teach your child to quiet her mind. Since children (and most adults!) don’t know how to do this, tell her to listen to all the sounds in the room. Once or twice a day, sound a Tibetan singing bowl or ring a chime to indicate the need for one minute of silence. During that time, everyone focuses on the sounds in the room.
Research shows that being more mindful reduces stress, improves memory and attention and releases endorphins (the feel-good chemicals) in the brain. Who doesn’t need a little more of those things?
“Still Quiet Place: Mindfulness for Young Children” (CD or MP3 Download) by Amy Saltzman M.D.
“Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children” by Thich Nhat Hanh
“Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being” by Thich Nhat Hanh
“Buddha at Bedtime: Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read with Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire” by Dharmachari Nagaraja