It begins with you.
Wherever you are, pause for a moment and take a deep breath, in through your nose and out through your mouth. How did that feel?
Now try it again, but this time take five deep breaths, pushing every last bit of air out from your lungs in between each one, imagining your stomach like a blow up mattress that you are trying to deflate and stuff back in its teeny bag, exhaling so deep that when the air comes rushing back in through your nose and refills your lungs it feels like the breath of life. Feel free to close your eyes.
What you just did was an exercise in mindfulness. By focusing your attention solely on the internal experience of breathing, you invited a moment of pause and reflection, a practice that has proven bountiful health benefits, including reduction in depression and anxiety.
Perfecting the art of mindfulness requires discipline, patience, and the maturity necessary for contemplation – all qualities that most parents would love to see more in their children. There is some debate amongst the scientific community about when is the right time to start teaching mindfulness to your child based on cognitive development, but many agree the best time is now.
Though children may not be prepared to sustain a daily practice, the best way to begin teaching children about mindfulness is by your own example. Children learn best by watching others, as explained by Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, and observing your ability to move through life’s challenges and triumphs with grace and ease will encourage children to mimic your persona.
In addition to setting an example for children in your life, albeit at home, in school, or your community, we have com
piled a list of simple methods to teach children mindfulness in help children develop tools to manage stress, anxiety, and even curtail depression.
- Practice Breathing
As we experienced at the beginning of this post, taking a few deep breaths can help you to slow down and align. Teaching mindful breathing to children begins with simply having them pay attention to their breath. In this video, Daniel Goleman teaches the “breathing buddy” exercise to a classroom of second graders.
- Practice focus
Ring a mediation bell and ask your child to listen for the sound as long as possible. This practice hopefully imparts a sense of calm upon them and brings attention to their surroundings. You can also try out the “Spider-Man Meditation Practice” which invites children to practice focus by honing in on their own superpowers.
- Practice full-body awareness
Have your child lie down and begin by asking them to curl their toes and squeeze the muscles in their feet. Have them hold this pose for five seconds, then release. Next, move up to their calves and ask them to squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, and then release. Continue this as you progress up the body to the thighs, stomach, arms, hands, and face, calling the child’s attention inward to their own immediate, physical experience.
- Practice engagement
Have your child close their eyes and present them with different objects to smell (like coffee or candy) and feel (like a feather or a rock), and ask them to actively describe what it is they smell or are holding and to share whatever thoughts are brought to mind. These exercises will teach the child how to engage with and isolate their senses. Bonus: scent is a helpful tool for reducing anxiety.
- Practice thoughtful expression of emotion
You do not need to dive into a full on psychotherapy session to get your kids to talk about their feelings or to share more about their day other than that it was “good.” Inviting your kids to actively think about and explain their feelings (including the physical manifestations of them, i.e. asking, “Where do you feel anger in your body”) on an ongoing basis teaches your child to be mindful of how thoughts and feelings interact and influence one another. You can use these moments to share tools to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Practice gratitude
Teach your child how to invite gratitude into daily activity by asking your child once a day (whether at dinnertime, before bed, or during the car ride to school) about one thing that they are grateful for. Calling attention to what is right instead of what is wrong can reduce stress in children of all ages.
- Practice positive reinforcement
Whenever your child is practicing any form of mindfulness, be sure to give energized recognition and appreciation to your child. If you catch them smelling a food before eating it, give credit to them for purposefully invoking their senses. If you notice your child take a deep breath when they are angry, praise their utilization of a calming tool. As with any instruction, lessons that begin small will eventually blossom into the embodiment of the knowledge you are hoping to impart.