Adults often idealize childhood, but kids face challenges, too. Children have little control over their own lives. They have to go to schools they may not like, spend time with kids who may bully them, and follow rules they didn’t choose. The pressure to excel at school, get along with siblings, get into college, and juggle endless extracurricular activities can exact a toll on their well-being. One recent survey found that teens are actually more stressed than adults. Teaching your kids to practice mindfulness can be a particularly effective way of helping them cope with stress.
Mindfulness, a simple form of meditation, can help kids cope with stress. Mindfulness can reduce the risk of depression and anxiety, help children become more emphathetic, increase children’s focus at school, and may even improve their health. So how can kids and parents get started?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply a state of increased awareness. Cultivating mindfulness means working to live in the present moment rather than being distracted by negative thoughts, future goals, or the stress of wanting the current moment to end. So a child cultivating mindfulness might not fixate on how bored they are at school. Instead, they would notice everything they could about the current moment, sharpening their attention and helping them remain psychologically present.
“The classical definition of mindfulness is both a stance of attention and a road to transformation,” said Susan Kaiser Greenland, founder of Inner Kids, a mindfulness program for the whole family, and a former clinical team of the Pediatric Pain Clinic at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital.
“Through mindfulness, children develop a set of life skills and insights that foster attention, balance, and compassion, what I call the ABCs. While not an entirely linear progression, the ABCs develop sequentially starting with attention, leading to emotional balance, and culminating with compassion. The road to transformation through mindfulness starts with the development of focus — a powerful and necessary tool for children’s academic, emotional, and social toolboxes. When kids develop flexible and strong attention, they can use it to steady themselves even if the situation they’re in is chaotic,” Greenland said in an email interview with CareDash.
How does mindfulness help children?
“Mindfulness can help children become champions of their emotional health, giving them a way to work with their emotions and confidently handle whatever comes their way. Research has shown that mindfulness can strengthen a child’s emotion regulation skills, which includes awareness of their emotions and the ability to influence how they are experienced and expressed enabling them to relate positively with others,” said Jamie Price. Price is a wellness expert and co-founder of Stop, Breathe and Think and Stop, Breathe and Think Kids, an app which instructs users on mindfulness.
Price says that mindfulness can help children become better people by promoting attitudes of empathy, awareness, and gratitude. It may also improve their executive functioning, which refers to a group of skills related to controlling oneself, ordering one’s life, and cultivating structured thoughts. Disorders such as ADHD can undermine executive function.
“Mindful attention helps kids better understand not only what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling but how other people think and feel, too. By bringing gentle and mindful awareness to their own and other people’s life experiences empathy, compassion and a more nuanced understanding of how the world works evolve naturally, the logical consequence of which is that children and teens are better able to move through the world with greater, age-appropriate, wisdom and compassion,” Greenland added.
Other benefits of mindfulness may include:
- Better working memory
- Less fixation on negative thoughts and feelings
- Less impulsive behavior
- More cognitive flexibility — a style of thought that refers to the ability to be self-reflective, think critically, and change one’s mind in response to new evidence
- The ability to more rapidly process information
- Better relationships
When can children begin practicing mindfulness?
Children engage in mindful thoughts before they can even talk. Indeed, babies may be masters of mindfulness, remaining present in each moment rather than distracted by technology, worries, and thoughts of the past.
Price says that teaching kids mindfulness should begin with modeling the practice. That means parents need to stay present, instead of constantly seeking distractions from phones, computers, TV, and other escapes.
“Kids are like sponges, and parents can start modeling mindful behavior when they are babies. Children as young as 2 can start with very simple exercises like belly breathing and can engage with more involved activities a few years later. Our app is designed for children between the ages of 5-10, although we do have parents who use it with their four-year-olds,” Price explained.
Let your child’s maturity and interest level guide you. Some three-year-olds might be ready to try mindfulness, while some six-year-olds might need a bit of time before they are ready. Present mindfulness as a fun activity or a new skill your child can master to make life a little easier. Don’t force mindfulness or punish a child for refusing to cooperate.
Mindfulness Exercises for Children
Price says mindfulness activities need to meet children where they are, developmentally. “For example, our app offers activities that involve movement, like ‘Frog Jumps’ or ‘Shake It Up’ and those that key into their sensory experience like ‘Fading Tone’ where they listen to sounds, or ‘Butterfly Body Scan’ where they pay attention to the different sensations in their body. This is also a great time to support them in developing kindness and a big heart,” said Price.
Some simple mindfulness activities to try with children include:
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Help your child tense and then intense each muscle in their body, working their way from feet to head. This helps your child gain more control over physical and emotional tension, and increases mindfulness of their body.
- “Spidey senses”: Ask your child to act like a superhero by turning on their spidey senses. How much do they notice about the present moment? How do they feel? What do they smell? How many tiny things can they observe?
- Stay-present challenge: Ask kids to try only to think (or talk) about what’s physically in front of them for five minutes.
- Naming thoughts and emotions: Older kids often have a wide range of simultaneous thoughts and feelings — about the school, family, and random topics such as volcanoes. Ask your child to spend five minutes calmly noticing each thought, then letting it go. If your child is younger, ask them to name all the things they’re thinking and feeling, and to slow their breathing while they do.
- Yoga for kids: A number of programs offer kid-friendly yoga. Yoga encourages kids to notice their breathing and how it affects their bodies. This is a great way to cultivate mindfulness in energetic kids who love moving.
- Visualization: Many kids are strong visual thinkers. Ask your child to visualize their thoughts happening. For instance, you might encourage your child to see anxious thoughts moving across nerve cells through the brain, and then moving into the fingers to cause fidgeting, and into the stomach where they cause butterflies.
- Games and puzzles: Mindfulness doesn’t have to be labeled as such. Games that demand your child’s full attention are inherently mindful. Steer clear of online games, which may be riddled with advertisements and other distractions. Instead, try challenging games such as chess, puzzles, or word games — whichever your child likes best.