Mindfulness for Children
One of the most powerful antidotes to children’s everyday stressors is for them to develop the Buddhist notion of mindfulness, which entails paying full attention and being fully engaged in the present moment. Mindfulness often sounds like having a conversation with yourself. Here is an example of a teen mindfully preparing to take an exam. “I am getting ready to take a test; I feel butterflies in my stomach; I can feel my fingers getting tense; I hear the teacher passing out papers; I hear the students rummaging for their pencils; I am having thoughts about failing the test; I am so stupid; I will focus on my breathing; I am breathing in through my nose; I am breathing out through my mouth; ” The teen is observing everything in his environment including all his senses as well as his thought processes and bodily feelings. When he starts to perseverate and have worries about failing that are based in the future, he uses his breath to bring him back to the present moment. Mindfulness involves bringing non-judgment to his situation as well as loving kindness. While the teen may have automatic negative thoughts about himself, he is encouraged to notice them but not to identify with them or avoid them, but view them objectively, which ultimately allows for more clarity. To engage with such thoughts would often involve an escalating stream of increasingly negative judgments which would take him out of the present moment. To be kind to himself, he might say something compassionate such as “I am observing myself get stressed out about this test and saying mean things. I have studied a lot for this test and I will put my best effort forth. I am a hard-worker”
Children who are able to “live in the now” versus stressing about the future or ruminating about what has occurred in the past experience significant benefits. As a result, they are better able to regulate their emotions and avoid the extremes of being bored or depressed, or on the other hand, overwhelmed and anxious as their coping style. Children who practice mindfulness are better able to relax, show decreased levels of impulsivity, and handle conflict more readily.
All children have experienced “mindlessness.” For example, getting driven to a familiar place and not remembering passing any landmarks or exits on the way there. Similarly, many children go about their lives performing a series of very automatic routines that they barely notice. (i.e. getting up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, waiting for the school bus, being seated before the bell rings, etc.) where they go through the motions mindlessly. Interestingly, mindfulness is actually inherent in very young children. All experiences are new to them and so they attend to each new sensation and feeling. A 2 year old who stares at a dog’s shiny coat, runs her fingers through the dog’s fur, laughs when the dog licks her, and imitates the dog’s bark is engaged in the present moment. Hence, while mindfulness is present in the very young, it must often be cultivated and practiced with most school-age children and adolescents.
Mindfulness can also be developed through children’s unstructured play as kids unconsciously practice mindfulness when they are involved in imaginative play, which can occur either with peers or playing alone. However, as children’s lives become busier and filled with activities, mindfulness may dissipate. Children today spend much of their time in organized activities as opposed to the unstructured, creative play which dominated their free time in the past. Their lives are often filled with activities such as soccer games, music lessons, and after-school tutoring which leaves less time for creative, child-led play. Unstructured play has many well-documented cognitive, social, and emotional benefits. Parents can help their children to engage in mindful play by allowing them the time and space to do so while ensuring they are not overbooked with too many structured activities or schedule demands.
Even if you don’t teach your children any mindfulness skills, parenting with mindfulness can be very beneficial for yourself as well as your children. As parents, we are often overwhelmed with work, errands, and a never ending to-do list. Our culture values multi-tasking and efficiency, but unfortunately, we may inadvertently sacrifice being in the present moment with our children, as a result. We play with them while thinking about what to make for dinner, we talk to them while planning activities for the weekend, we drive them to school while worrying about upcoming bills that need to be paid, etc. Mindfulness may allow for a welcomed transformation in our own perspective, where we begin to experience the small parenting miracles that occur in our lives, as each moment unfolds
Exercise #1: Mindful Drawing Ask your child to select an item to draw from memory (a shoe, telephone, clock, etc.). Remind them that drawing ability is not important. Then have your child spend time looking at the actual object. Have them draw the object again. In most cases the second drawing will be more detailed then the first. Compare the drawings and have your child identify the details missing from the first drawing. Ask your child what it was like really looking at the object that they may have never noticed before.
Exercise #2: Mindful Eating: The Hershey Kiss Meditation
Place three Hershey kisses in front of your child (you can do this with any type of food such as grapes, apple slices, carrots, etc. as long as it is something that your child enjoys eating). Ask your child to pretend he or she has never seen a Hershey kiss before. You may do the exercise along with your child. Read this script in a calm voice:
Let’s look at the Hershey kiss and pretend that we’ve never in our whole lives seen a Hershey kiss.
Pick up the Hershey kiss. Think about how it feels between your fingers. Notice its color. Notice any thoughts you might be having about it. Slowly unwrap it and listen to the sounds that makes. Feel the texture of the foil paper and think about that sensation. Lift the Hershey kiss to your nose and smell it for awhile. Now slowly bring the Hershey kiss to your lips, trying to notice everything you are thinking, feeling or smelling. Notice your arm moving your hand to position the Hershey kiss correctly. Notice your mouth salivating as your mind and body anticipate eating it. Take the Hershey kiss into your mouth and chew it slowly, experiencing its taste. Hold it in your mouth. When you feel ready to swallow, notice if your body automatically wants to swallow it. When you are ready, pick up the second Hershey kiss and just eat it as you normally would if you weren’t practicing mindfulness. When you finish, practice mindfulness again with the third Hershey kiss, eating it as you did the first.
After you complete the exercise, discuss with your child:
- What it was like to eat something mindfully?
- Did the Hershey kiss taste any different than it normally does?
- What did you notice when you were doing this exercise?
- How does this compare to how you normally eat your food?
Exercise #3: Mindful Breathing
Breathing is one of the fastest ways to bring your attention back to the present moment. Stress and worries often take place in future moments while guilt or upsetting thoughts often transpire when we reflect on past moments. Therefore, when we are living in the present moment, our emotions are often more centered. The practice of becoming more aware of your breathing results in slower breathing and increased feelings of calm, as it triggers the relaxation response. Take 5 to 10 minutes to practice this exercise with your child. Have them practice mindful breathing in a comfortable environment where they can sit or recline in a relaxed position and without any distractions. Explain that you are going to do a relaxation exercise with them and that this may be helpful for them to use at a later point when they are feeling angry, upset, or stressed. It would be helpful if you do the exercise alongside with them. Together, take a deep breath in, for about 3 to 5 seconds and slowly let the air out, for about 3 to 5 seconds. With each inhale say, “In” and with each exhale say, “Out”. One breath cycle is made up of one inhale and one exhale. Instruct your child that their mind will often wander away from their breathing and that’s okay. When it happens, they should simply return their attention to their breathing.
In order for them to be able to use this exercise when they experiencing strong, negative emotions, they must become skilled at it during more relaxed times. Try and practice this exercise several times a week with your child
- Count how many breath cycles you each can do mindful breathing without getting distracted
- Compare who had the most distracting thoughts and what were those thoughts typically about
- Compare how many times during the week you used mindful breathing, beyond the practice sessions, to become more relaxed and in the present moment
Exercise #4: Mindful Nature Walk
Pick a beautiful area to take a nature walk with your child. Discuss in advance how the purpose of the walk is to experience and enjoy the walk by using all of their senses. Tell them when they have thoughts that are unrelated to the walk, to observe them and then refocus on the nature around them. Alternate between allowing quiet time for observation and giving them prompts/questions to guide them. Here are some examples of guiding prompts that you can utilize to enrich their experience:
- What do the clouds in the sky look like today?
- Can you spot any living creatures?
- What colors do you see?
- What else do you see?
- Can you hear any wind?
- Do you hear any birds or insects?
- What do our footsteps sound like?
- What else do you hear?
- Do you smell any flowers, grass or leaves?
- Can you pick up the scent of any animals?
- What else can you smell?
- How do these rocks feel?
- How does this flower petal feel to you?
- What objects would you like to touch? How do they feel?
- What do your feet feel like as they touch the ground
- How are you moving your arms?
- Is your body moving in a rhythm as you walk?
- Can you feel the weather on your body (i.e. the sun, wind, rain, etc.)
- What thoughts were going through your head on the walk?
- Were you distracted by your thoughts?
- Were you able to refocus on the walk?