Why Is Practicing Mindfulness Important for Children?
When you look at your child and take a glance into childhood, what is it that you see? Do you see unending curiosity, innocence, and whimsy or maybe you see the metaphorical blank canvas that is just waiting to be splashed with the colors of life.
As you, the parent, navigates daily life and all of the stress and struggles it contains, chances are you might look at your child with a little envy of the stress free simplicity of their lives. What you, like most parents, might be surprised to realize is that growing through the stages of childhood is actually quite difficult and stressful in its own right.
The truth is that children feel stress and a range of emotions, both positive and negative, similar to that of adults. The difference is that as adults, our minds and bodies have matured enough to be able to use learned coping strategies, primarily mindfulness, to bring us back to centered place that resides in the present, not the past or the future.
As parents and caregivers of children of all ages, we have a responsibility to help our children learn to cope with stress and emotions by teaching and demonstrating mindfulness to them.
“What”, you may ask, “is so stressful about childhood?” Well, to begin with, a certain level of stress is normal for everyone. It helps us grow and develop and teaches us how to react to and process certain situations and circumstances. Think for a moment about what causes you stress, anxiety or unpleasant emotions.
For most of us it is a matter of things not going the way we had intended, experiencing changes, relationships and pressures to perform at work or to live up to expectations at home. Children have many of the same stressors in their lives. For the child, who is so enmeshed in the present, the slightest thing going wrong can cause an upheaval. The same is true when they experience separation anxiety, changes at home or to their routine, academic pressures and begin to discover the complexities of personal relationships.
Without techniques to help them cope, emotions can run wild and the child ends up feeling sad, miserable and defeated. By helping your child experience and practice mindfulness, you can help them navigate these difficult and delicate situations. Mindfulness can turn a stressed and anxious child into one that is happy, content and in control of their emotions.
When left to its own, our brains all respond to stress and anxiety triggers the same way, regardless of age. The things that bring us away from mindfulness are processed by the brain in the Limbic system, which is the area of the brain where the system of nerves controls our moods and instinctual actions. It is the powerhouse of emotion and memory.
When we practice mindfulness, we also engage the cortex, which is the part of the brain that bestows us with the ability to perform higher thought. By that, we mean that this is the part of the brain that controls our perception of stimuli, and the way we react in response. This part of the brain is also connected to speech, memory and the approach we take to solving problems, both big and small.
Concentrated mindfulness allows the cortex to influence the Limbic system and as a result we achieve a state of calm, purposeful thought that helps to guide us through the emotions that we are feeling. The point is not to totally take away the situations your child is experiencing trouble with, but instead help them learn how to cope, which is a valuable lifelong skill.
Benefits Of Mindfulness With Children
Practiced mindfulness can help your child in the following ways:
- Mindful children experience less stress, anxiety and sadness
- Mindful children are better able to cope with change and other stressors.
- Mindful children have better sleep habits
- Mindful children feel more connected to the people around them
- Mindful children are more compassionate
- Mindful children have more confidence in themselves and their decisions
- Mindful children tend to perform better academically
- Mindful children understand, feel and express gratitude more freely
- Mindful children are better able to focus and concentrate
- Mindful children are more resilient
- Mindful children are all around happier and more content
Learn more about how mindful practice can help your child.
The Goal of Mindful Awareness: Enlightenment, Not Control
A ren’t children supposed to impulsive with their thoughts and actions? Isn’t that the way of childhood, to live only in the moment and learn the benefits and consequences of those actions? Will teaching mindfulness to my child deprive them of these experiences? Will I turn my child into a controlled robot? These are questions that stem from common misconceptions about mindfulness teaching and children. Mindful awareness doesn’t take away the impulsiveness and freedom of childhood. Actually, it encourages creative thinking, problem solving and individuality.
While having an angelically behaved child can make parenting easier, the goal of mindfulness in children isn’t about controlling them and their emotions. It is about giving them the tools to be able choose options other than anger, fear, anxiety, stress and disconnectedness. It is helping them notice the difference in how they feel when they focus mindfully on their thoughts and emotions. Practiced mindfulness allows your child to more freely enjoy the pleasures of childhood.
When To Practice
On this note, it is important to stress that there is a right time to encourage mindfulness and a wrong time to enforce it. By this I mean that mindfulness practice should never be used as a punishment or a response to your own frustrations. If you have a child that is in the midst of a tantrum or some sort of emotional turmoil, the best response is not to order them to their quiet place and practice mindful thought for ten minutes, like a time out. A better option is to first sympathize with the situation that the child is in, even if they are technically “in the wrong”. Once you are feeling compassionate towards your child rather than frustrated, you can help them practice mindfulness, even if that means spending time in a quiet place with them or participating in other mindfulness promoting activities.
Keeping Mindfulness Fun
Y ou want to help your child when they are having trouble, just as any parent does. I feel that it is safe to say that most parenting experts would agree that treating your child and their feelings with respect is incredibly important to their development. The thing is that as adults, we sometimes forget how to engage with the younger mind.
We talk our children through their troubles as if they were a close friend sharing coffee and confiding their troubles. We may attempt to reason with them on a level that is too advanced for them to effectively process. On the flip side of this, we may tend to try to help them by minimizing the issue. When your child is upset because they feel they have been betrayed by a friend, be it a five year old taking a toy without asking or an adolescent sharing what was meant to be a secret, as parents we may tend to brush the incident aside with a hug and a few well meaning words meant to soothe.
These solutions might both let your child know that you care about them, but neither is really the best method of helping your child through the situation.
The first thing that you need to do is practice mindfulness yourself. Before you jump in to offer comfort, advice or a solution, think for a moment about just how important this must be to your child for them to be experiencing this reaction. Put yourself in their place and feel compassion for them. Next, be your child for a moment. Think about how to best approach a toddler, an eight year old or a teenager. Each approach will be different, and needs to be in order to be most effective. When you are able to relate on the same level as your children, teaching and practicing mindfulness is accomplished easier and becomes more enjoyable for them to learn.
I think it is the case that most of us learn best when we are having fun, or at the least not feeling like learning is a chore. This is even more true with children.
The best educators know how to present new information to children in a way that they are most likely to learn, retain and practice. The same mentality should be used for teaching mindfulness. That last thing you want is for mindfulness to feel like work, possibly adding additional stress to your child. You want to keep it fun and light whenever possible. Of course, the ways of doing this will depend upon the child’s individual personality and also their age.
Age Based Tips
Here are a few age based, fun ways that you can help your child achieve mindfulness:
Toddler: Try blowing bubbles. This is potentially the most difficult age to teach mindfulness to, however the sooner you start the better it is for your child. Children this age have only a little ability to control their emotions and think of consequences. It is your responsibility to help teach and guide the child through this very sensitive age. When your toddler is upset one of the easiest ways to calm them down is simple distraction. But rather than changing the environment or distracting with a toy, bring the child to an area where you can blow bubbles. As you blow the bubbles, wave and say something like “good bye sad” or “fly away tears”. This simple gesture connects the bubble blowing with a sense of letting go. The young child will take some time to grasp this concept, but something like this gives you a foundation, one that is also fun for both of you.
Five to Eight Year Olds: This is a very sensory dependent age where major developments in personality and emotion control take place. The child begins to associate what they feel and experience with themselves and begin to realize that they actually control over themselves. This is a perfect age to practice calming mindfulness activities, such as a calming jar. You may have seen this concept in various places on the internet, but it is most often referred to as a time out jar. Most children associate the term “time out” with punishment, which is why I have renamed it for this activity. It is simply a jar filled with water and glitter. When the child needs to practice mindfulness, they simply sit in a quiet spot, shake the jar and watch as the floating glitter settles to the bottom. This gives the child not only a chance to calm themselves, but the opportunity to spend some time with their own thoughts while enjoying the almost magical quality of the floating glitter.
Nine to Twelve Year Olds: At this age children are still impulsive, but have a certain understanding of how their behavior and reactions affect others, as well as the beginnings of understanding of how they choose to feel can make a difference in perception and general contentment. This is a good age to begin the practice of short, guided meditative sequences. Sit with your child in a quiet, undisturbed setting and have them close their eyes and relax as you recite a guided meditative visualization created specifically for children, or create one that is tailored to your child’s specific interest. The guided meditations tend to take your child on some sort of journey where they either metaphorically conquer whatever may be bothering them or in some sense let it go.
For an age appropriate guided meditation for a child, you would first want to make them comfortable and as relaxed as possible. This usually involves a soft place to sit or rest their head and the removal of shoes. A familiar blanket or stuffed animal can add comfort and induce relaxation if the child requires it. Have the child close their eyes as you slowly recite a guided visualization such as this:
“Now that you are relaxed, I want you to take a deep breath and notice how it feels. Now take another, but this time think about how you are feeling in your heart and in your head. As you blow out this breath, I want you to blow out the any color that you see. Pretend that as you breathe out you are creating a bubble of color that has all of your feelings in it. It is a safe place to put your fear and anger, or anything else. Only you know what is inside the bubble, it is your secret. Your bubble can contain what you don’t want in your body anymore or it can contain thoughts that you want to send out into the universe.
With each breath, grow it bigger and bigger, until it is so full that you cannot fit anymore in it. Now that your bubble is full, take one more really deep breath, feel the breath all the way down in your tummy. Now breathe it out and blow your bubble far, far away.
Now that your bubble is gone, think of a color that brings you happiness. Picture a beautiful, fluffy cloud of that color that comes down and surrounds you like your favorite blanket, keeping you safe and protected.”
Teenagers: For teenagers, who are blossoming adults, it is important to recognize and respect their autonomy. There will be times when your teenager needs you to guide by your actions rather than instruct them. This is a good time to introduce how to sit and reflect with certain music. The style of music that helps each person come to a place of mindfulness is highly individual, so it is important to respect that. Ask your teenager to spend ten minutes in the morning just listening to music and focusing on the direction of their thoughts. You can also appeal to the pleasure sensors while coaching mindfulness in teens by introducing (and using them yourself) and number of apps that are available to guide meditative and reflective thought, many of which are geared towards a younger audience.
So, there were just a few ideas of ways to show how helping children and young adults to become mindful can be fun and enjoyable. This also brings about another important point and a question that many parents ask.
How Early Can I Start?
That is, what is the best age to teach mindfulness to a child and when is it too early or too late to begin? The answer to this is that whatever the age of your child is the perfect age to start. Even babies, who cognitively are not capable of that type of control over their emotions can learn soothing techniques, such as a gentle massage, or swaying to help calm. And a teenager who has never practiced mindfulness can appreciate how the concept can help them deal with the pressures of their daily lives and take those lessons with them into adulthood. The best time to introduce practiced mindfulness to your child is right now.
Introducing Mindfulness to Your Child
A s a parent, you want what is best for your child. If your child is having extra trouble coping with their emotions and gaining a sense of control over themselves and these difficulties are manifesting themselves in negative ways in your child’s life, then you may feel more of a sense of urgency to help your child get started on the path to mindfulness. But, let’s say your child appears to navigate the stressors of childhood with relative ease. Are mindfulness techniques still beneficial and why? Also, how do you go about introducing mindfulness to a child? The answer to the first question is that mindful practice is beneficial to all of us, regardless of age, temperament or life circumstances. Mindfulness is not a magic cure that is meant to erase all of the troubles from our lives, but rather a tool to make us more aware, more present and more compassionate.
Tailor The Practice
Secondly, there are many different ways to introduce mindfulness to your child, and the technique may be individualized depending upon your child and the stage of life they are at. For instance, a young child may need periods of quiet and rest sitting in your lap, while you gently calm them and illustrate compassion, while an older visually stimulated child may benefit more from the calming jar or something as simple as swirling food coloring into a bowl of milk and focusing on the patterns and color changes as they do so. One child may be able to easily calm their mind by simply sitting in a quiet room and thinking about pleasant things, while another child might actually need some sort of stimulation to induce calmness.
You know your child better than anyone else, and you will be able to notice which techniques are helpful and which are not.
Adjust the techniques as needed, but also remember that adjusting to mindful thinking takes time and repetition. Do not switch techniques without being sure that you have given it ample time for your child to adapt. And, most importantly, do not give up. Practiced mindfulness is one of the most important skills that you can give you child.
With that said, you need to know how to get started. Following are important first steps and techniques for introducing mindful thinking to your child.
First of all, practice it yourself. This is potentially the most important thing that you can do the help your child become more mindful and aware. Children are natural observers and when you practice mindfulness, them learning it will seem like second nature. If you’re new to mindfulness or want to freshen you practice you can check this link for free guided mindfulness meditations from UCLA Health. They offer online classes for adults as well.
Take advantage of the quiet times. Mindfulness should not be made into a big deal, especially in the beginning when the concepts are new. The best way to introduce mindfulness is by practicing it in the moments when your child is calm and not stressed.
One way to start is by simply talking to your child. Ask them how they are feeling, if anything has upset them recently and show compassion, no matter what their answers.
Unplug from technology and spend time together. Go for a walk and point out things to your child that they may not have noticed before, and have them point out things to you. You might notice the different shades of pink of your neighbor’s flowers, but never once noticed the crack in the sidewalk that your child looks at each time they cross it. Chances are your child sees the pebbles and random blades of grass that spring from it. They likely also know that it is a favorite spot for ants to scurry through. Your child notices an incredible amount of detail every day. Help them realize it by stopping to experience it with them.
Use periods of calm and quiet to help your child get in touch with their senses. Play sensory games on a quiet afternoon, like a mystery grab bag where each item has a unique texture and have your child try to guess what it is. At the end, ask your child what their favorite item was and why. Was it the soft feather that gently tickled their fingertips or was the smooth rock that felt cooling against their hands? Learning what sensations your child likes will help you find items to bring into your child’s mindfulness practice. The same is true for other senses. You can use a blindfold and explore different smells or experiment with different types of music and how they make you feel.
Tell a story. Use down time to have your child sit back and close their eyes while you tell them a story or guided meditation. Tell them that while their eyes are closed that you want them to imagine that they are actually in the story while you are telling it. When you are done ask them how they felt and what they saw.
Help them to recognize their emotions. This might seem too simple, but it is actually an important first step in teaching your child mindfulness. Of course your child recognizes their emotions when they are at extremes. But, how are they are recognizing the feelings that lead up to the extremes? You can help them become aware of these subtle changes in mood and emotions. A good place to start is when your child is happy or content. Ask them how they are feeling, but take it further. Talk to them about how their body feels. When they are excited about an upcoming trip, ask them if they feel butterflies in their stomach or how their face feels when they can’t keep their smile off of it. Later, use this same technique when your child is upset. Ask them how their stomach feels, how the muscles in their body feel. Help them discover where in their bodies that they physically feel emotions. As your child becomes tuned into these subtle body changes, they will be able to recognize them before they reach an unpleasant extreme.
Teach them to breathe. We all breathe, it is vital to life, but how often do we stop and concentrate on our breath? This is a single act that helps a child break themselves away from the stressful situation, even for a moment. When you take a moment to stop and think about something that is so natural and instinctive, it causes a change in how your body is thinking and processing almost instantly. This is also one of the first techniques that you should teach because it can be done anywhere, at any time. This like the other techniques should first be introduced when your child is calm. Show them how to breathe in deeply, hold it for a second and then slowly let it go. If you have a younger child, or one that is influenced by imagery, you can add the visualization of blowing a certain color out when letting go of the breath. For example, if the child is angry they can blow out red (or whatever color they personally associate with anger); if they are feeling peaceful maybe they will blow out pink or purple. Have them place a hand over their chest and stomach and feel their own breath coming in and going out of their bodies. This beginning awareness will be helpful as eventually you teach them how breathing can bring them calmness and awareness.
Talk to your child about mindfulness. You don’t want your child to feel as if they are being tricked into this. Keeping open communication is very important. Once you have introduced some of the basic concepts during times when your child is calm and content, you can begin discussing with them how they can use the very same techniques to help calm themselves, make them less sad and afraid while making them more compassionate and connected. Once you have begun this process begin to use the techniques when you see your child beginning to struggle. How you approach the subject will depend greatly on your child’s age and emotional development. For example, you can have quiet open conversations about mindfulness with an adolescent on a level that a younger child is just not going to understand. A younger child will relate more on an emotional level, especially when you approach it from their point of view. Here’s a post on how to explain mindfulness to children.
How Will I Know It’s Working?
Get some feedback. There are two main ways that you will know how mindfulness practice is affecting your child. The first is by your observations. The second is by asking the child how they feel before, during and after practicing mindful awareness and techniques. Do not be discouraged if at first your child seems negative, or just plain unimpressed with the idea. Changes take time, but it is extremely important to understand where they are coming from so that you can help them to move forward.
Mindful Activities and Techniques
O nce you have begun the introduction of mindfulness into yours and your child’s life, you can then begin to introduce more concentrated activities meant to specifically bring your child to a more centered place when they are experiencing any type of distress. Here are a few ideas of mindful activities that are suitable for a wide range of ages:
The Quiet Place: We all need a place to go, where we can be alone with our thoughts, especially when we are upset or troubled. Children are no different. Have a designated area in your house that is a quiet place. Do not confuse this with a time out punishment place. The quiet place can be an area created just for mindfulness, or just a place where your child feels the most comfortable. If possible, fill the space with items that promote mindfulness. For example, soft blankets and pillows if you child wants to sit or relax while they calm themselves, or a music player with ear buds loaded with relaxing music or prerecorded meditative scripts. Fill the area with calming colors and textures, and anything that your child has indicated brings them to a more peaceful, centered place. Make sure the quiet place has an open door policy. No matter what is going on, let your child go to the quiet place if they need to, without question.
Take the Quiet Place To-Go: You will not always be at home when your child needs to practice mindfulness, and your child may not be at the point where all they need to do is breathe and center their thoughts. For these cases, it is good to have a mindfulness kit. This can be just a small bag that contains age appropriate mindfulness inducers, such as music, essential oils, sensory items or even a journal to write in or draw through their emotions.
Breathe: If you have already introduced breath awareness to your child, this one is easy to implement. Help coach your child through guided and relaxed breathing, helping them see how their emotional state changes through the process. Do this anywhere and everywhere so that your child will recognize it as a strategy that can be used at any time.
Get Artsy: This is a simple technique that appeals to all ages. Present your child with some art materials and help or encourage them to show how they are feeling through art. This might be erratic scribbles for a young child to simple clay sculptures for an older child. This works for a couple of different reasons. First, it helps the child focus on something other than intense negative feelings and emotions. Secondly, making feelings into something tangible makes them more real and when something is real, we can more effective cope with it. Third, you can keep your child’s art and show them the difference between their art when they are upset and their art when they are calm and mindful. Help them to see how they were able to move themselves from one place to the next.
Do Regular Meditative or Guided Readings: This is especially helpful for highly creative and visual children. Short meditative scripts will not only relax them and provide them a much needed break from stress and worry, but it will also imprint a scenario in their minds that they can return to when they feel the need to center and become mindful.
Help Others: Getting your children involved in helping other, even in small ways, helps them to develop an awareness about themselves that extends further than just their immediate needs, wants and feelings. Compassion is a big part of mindfulness, and it is also a concept that must be demonstrated, practiced and learned.
Develop Mindful Routines: Help your child to commit to mindful practices, even when they are not feeling stressed. For example, some quiet mindful awareness at the beginning or end of the school day can make a tremendous difference in an adolescent, especially when done on a regular basis, while taking some time to hold your child’s hand and breathe with them each night before bed can be just what a tense or hyper younger child needs to get a relaxing, good night’s sleep. When something is routine, it becomes familiar and when we are stressed we turn towards what we know. Turning towards mindfulness will eventually become instinctual.
Practicing What You Preach: Mindful Parenting
H ave you heard of the term “emotional contagion”? Emotional contagion is the ability for two or more individuals to synchronize their thoughts, actions and emotions simply by being in close physical or emotional space with another person. In other words, your children will do what you do, not what you say. Emotional contagion is a very real and very important concept, and children are especially affected. Your child, and how mindful they are, is formed by you and your experiences with them. Here is a great link that explores emotional contagion.
Even the teenager that seemingly wants nothing to do with their parent, is still looking towards you for guidance and direction, even when they are not totally aware of it. This is why your own practice of mindfulness is so important.
Practicing mindful parenting does not involve any complicated techniques, rather it is more about being instinctual in your parenting style. So many times we find ourselves as parents to be rushed, over burdened and over tired. Our fuses are short and what we want is the simplest and quickest solution to the problem. This is why many times when a young child is upset, we may be quick to dismiss by drying a tear and saying it isn’t that big of a deal, or don’t worry it will get better. Your child may exhibit an improvement in mood, but the issue is still within them, unresolved.
Mindful parenting means that we have to stop being dismissive and take the time to really understand what our child is going through, even when they have done something wrong. It doesn’t mean that you will no longer discipline your child. But it does mean that along with disciplining them when appropriate that you are also helping them to realize how they got to this point in the first place and how to prevent it from happening again. This means that you have to become more aware of your own thoughts and emotions as your child is always watching you, keeping mental track of how you react and behave.
Mindful parenting can be achieved though simple techniques such as practicing the same strategies that you expect from your child, practicing being more compassionate and patient, giving your child ample love in the form of words and actions, helping them to see that they are not alone, and being the first to admit when you haven’t acted in a mindful manner. It is difficult to be mindful all of the time, let your child see this in you and let them see what you do to make it better and bring about calm and mindfulness in yourself. You and your child are in this together, for life. You can help each other grow, learn and thrive through mindfulness.
May you be happy and healthy!
This guide is a collaboration between Chris Bergstrom and Angel Woodard. Let us know what you think.
UPDATE: Many parents have asked us for more fun exercises to help keep practice fresh and engaging. Here’s our answer… we hope you like it!
Book: “102 Playful Mindfulness Activities For Kids, Teens and Grown-ups”
Childhood is meant to be a carefree time, full of fun, whimsy and abandon. Childhood is also a time of amazing growth, physically, but also emotionally. You may have noticed that your child, or even other children, seem to be having a more difficult time navigating the many changes that take place during these formative years. As a parent, it is easy to think of your own childhood and recall the “simplicity” compared to your life now. This might leave you a little out of touch with how to best approach and help your child during their periods of struggle. The truth is that children today do have more to cope with on a daily basis than many generations before. Their world is made larger by virtual communities and social media, there is more academic pressure put upon them, family structure is ever changing and we live in a world where turmoil and danger sometimes seem just a fingertip away. As a parent or caretaker of a child, you want to know how to best help them through these unfamiliar growing pains. This is where “102 Playful Mindfulness Activities” can enable you to help and guide your child.
Mindfulness for children isn’t a new, passing scheme or fad. Instead, it is about helping your child to connect to the world around them, helping them learn how to handle their emotions and how to become a more compassionate, aware human being. Practicing mindfulness with your child will help to reduce child anxiety, stress, meltdowns and disconnection. The ultimate goal is to give your child the tools they need to live fulfilling lives as adults. This book will show you that there is no complicated process to achieving this, but rather a series of small adjustments and activities, meant to bring both you and your child to a more mindful, peaceful and content place in your lives. Reading this book and following the advice within, is one of the most important things you can do for your child now and in the future. Sign up below to be notified when the book is available.