Mindfulness and Kids. Words that don’t seem to go together naturally. But now, more than ever, as our children and teenagers are facing an epidemic of anxiety, we need to help our kids make mindfulness an EASY and EVERYDAY part of their lives.
Before we can do that, though, we need to understand what mindfulness is.
So what exactly is mindfulness? It’s a word that’s often thrown around casually, and paid lip service by many practitioners, without the What, the Why, and the How to actually make mindfulness a reality for children and adults.
The What of Mindfulness…
A quick search on Google for “what is mindfulness” shows over 200 million entries! Clearly there’s not a single definition that’s going to cut it. One of my favorite definitions is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way:
in the present moment,
In an effort to standardize the definition from a scientific standpoint for more consistent research, mindfulness researchers have defined mindfulness as:
The self-regulation of attention
with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
Let’s break this down.
Self-regulation of attention – the ability to STOP and THINK, to deliberately shift your attention and focus on something – whether it’s a flower you’re looking at, or the food you’re eating, or your breath as you inhale and exhale, or how your words or actions are making your friend feel. In fact, this ability to stay focused, and to stop and think BEFORE you act, also called “self-control” or “self-regulation,” is one of the biggest predictors of success for children across many studies on child development.
Curiosity – taking an interest in or having a desire to know more about something – in the case of mindfulness, taking an interest in what’s happening around and in you.
Openness – a willingness to be honest and acknowledge what you’re thinking, feeling and doing, without trying to hide or avoid, no matter how unpleasant or pleasant you feel.
Acceptance – receiving and embracing what is happening around you and what thoughts and feelings you’re having without judgment or self-criticism.
Mindfulness, then, is essentially the simple act of stopping, paying attention, and noticing what’s happening around you, and everything you’re feeling, thinking and doing in that particular moment with honesty and without judgment.
Simple, right? Easy – not necessarily…
In fact, a Harvard study found that we spend almost 50% of our time thinking about something else and NOT what we’re actually doing! Mind-wandering, and thinking about what ISN’T going on around us – like the argument we had last night with our kids or our partners, or the 20 things we have to get done by the end of the day – is a distinctly human trait, like multi-tasking, that does not serve us or our kids. Thinking about our shoulda coulda woulda’s more often than not leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. The researchers note that “Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities… Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness… In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
If mind-lessness makes us unhappy, then mindful-ness can be one of the paths to happiness. And if happiness isn’t enough of a motivator, understanding the many other health benefits of mindfulness should help motivate you on your journey to be a more mindful parent and your children to be more mindful kids.
The Why of Mindfulness…
The actual health benefits of mindfulness that have been researched and proven in scientific studies are almost too many to list, but here are just a few:
- Higher brain functioning
- Increased focus and attention
- Improved memory and learning
- Less anxiety and depression
- Better emotional self-regulation
- Stronger immune system
- Reduced inflammation
- Improved general health
- Improved mental clarity
- Increased feelings of connectedness
- Increased sensation of being calm
- Lower blood pressure and heartrate
And yes – there are even several studies that have looked at the benefits of mindfulness specifically for children that have also found incredible benefits including:
- Better emotional regulation
- Improved social skills and peer interactions
- Improved focus and academic performance
- Less stress, anxiety and depression
- Better coping skills
- Less aggression and behavioral problems in kids with ADHD
- Greater sense of well-being
- Improved emotional regulation, mood and empathy
- Higher confidence and self-esteem
- Increased RESILIENCE
OK, now that you’re convinced that mindfulness is something that you and your kids should practice, let’s move on to the How.
The How of Mindfulness…
I know – you’re wondering how on earth are you going to get your kid to practice mindfulness? You’re thinking “My kid can’t even sit still in class for 5 minutes, and now you expect her to sit in lotus position with her eyes closed for 15?”
Actually – no, I don’t…
Let’s first clear up some misconceptions about mindfulness.
Mindfulness is not the same thing as meditation. While meditation certainly incorporates mindfulness and can be a great way to practice mindfulness, meditation typically involves a seated practice (yes, often in lotus position) for a certain period of time. On the other hand, mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and anytime for any length of time.
Mindfulness is ACTIVE. It doesn’t just mean chilling out and zoning. Mindfulness is an active awareness and paying attention to what is happening around you, noticing what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing, and being aware of how you’re affecting those around you. It’s being fully present in whatever you’re doing.
Mindfulness does NOT take a long time. It only takes a moment or two. You don’t want to “force it” and make mindfulness feel like a chore. Let’s face it – some of our kids can’t pay attention to anything for longer than a minute or two. But as you practice mindfulness together, you’ll be amazed at how much longer your child can focus and pay attention.
Mindfulness takes practice. Don’t give up. Just a minute of idle time and many of our kids are shouting, “I’m bored” or reaching for their screens. Being still and mindful takes practice. In our tech-filled world, our kids’ (and our) brains have been trained to need constant stimulation. Our brains need to be “re-trained” to be still and comfortable in “being” rather than “doing.”
Stop, Look & Listen
Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, anytime…
(Even in a cardboard box! 😉)
There’s no right or wrong way to “do” mindfulness. Remember – there’s no judgment. But you and your kids will gain the most benefit if you make mindfulness a daily part of your life and practice it regularly.
One of my favorite mindfulness practices that you can start TODAY with your kids is called Stop, Look & Listen – a phrase already familiar to most children as they learned to cross a road safely and mindfully.
Stop what you’re doing, even for just 1 minute. Look and really notice what’s happening around you with all of your 5 senses – the sights you’re seeing, the sounds you’re hearing, the sensations you’re feeling, the smells you’re smelling, the tastes you’re tasting. Listen to your body and mind and notice everything you’re experiencing and feeling in that moment.
Stop, Look & Listen can be done anywhere, anytime, no matter what your child is doing. It’s a perfect tool to use when you’re enjoying a beautiful moment with your child and you want them to fully engage with the experience, or when your child is starting to get anxious about their exam tomorrow, starting to grumble about being “bored”, or squirming on their chair about to pest their big sister – anytime you want your child to re-engage, re-connect and re-focus.
Before you begin, explain what Stop, Look & Listen is to your child. You may need to walk your child through each step the first several times you practice together. And eventually they’ll be able to practice this exercise on their own, whenever they need or want to take a mindful moment for themselves. Remember – they can do this anywhere, anytime…
Let me share how Kenzi and I practiced Stop, Look & Listen, as she stopped to pick a dandelion and blow all of its seeds off to make a wish. Before she took that big breath and blew, I asked her to:
STOP. Give yourself permission to stop and pay full attention to what you’re doing for just a moment. Stop and be still. Start to notice your breath as you take a deep inhale in, and then a slow exhale out.
LOOK. Look all around and notice your surroundings. Look, and experience, with all of your senses what’s happening. (It’s often easiest to fully engage and be mindful to your senses other than sight with your eyes closed. So first have your child notice what they’re seeing, and then suggest that they gently close their eyes to notice what they’re hearing, smelling, touching, and even tasting). NOTICE:
- What you see. What does that dandelion really look like, from flower to stem? What colors do you see? What shapes can you find? Do you notice any patterns?
- Now close your eyes and notice:
- What you hear. What sounds do you hear around you? Maybe the leaves rustling in the wind, the birds chirping in the trees, the airplane flying overhead.
- What you smell. How do the seeds smell compared with the stem? What other smells do you notice around you, maybe the smell of the fresh cut grass, or even the shampoo you used that morning.
- What sensations you feel. How does the stem feel different from the seeds or the leaves? What do you feel on your skin? Maybe the warmth of the sun on your cheeks, or the coolness of the breeze on your skin, or the unevenness of the ground under your feet. What do you feel in your body? Is your stomach is growling because it’s almost lunchtime, or do you have a little tickle in your throat?
- What you taste. Do you taste the the toothpaste you used that morning or the snack you just ate (no, I don’t recommend licking the dandelion at this point! 😊).
LISTEN. Really listen to what your body and mind are feeling, what emotions are coming up, how easy or difficult it is to stay in the moment, where you mind wants to wander off to. Listen with openness, and without judgment.
And there’s your mindful moment…
Want even more ideas to spark your mindfulness journey for you and your whole family? There are so many fun and easy ways to experience and practice mindfulness with your kids. This article on Mindfulness Activities for Children is a great start. And be sure to stay tuned for Kenzi’s and Bodi’s low-down on their favorite Mindfulness and Meditation books, apps, and resources coming soon!