There has been an explosion of interest into the subject of ‘mindfulness’ in recent years, and dozens of studies have been conducted into its effectiveness demonstrating a wide range of benefits, such as reduction of stress and anxiety, improved behavioural regulation and increased positive emotion. But what is ‘mindfulness’ and how can we as parents introduce the concept and practice into our families lives, so that we too can experience these benefits?
Jon Kabat-Zinn (the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society) defines mindfulness as ‘openhearted, moment-to- moment, non-judgemental awareness’. It involves bringing our attention to the present moment by deliberately and non-judgementally focusing on different elements of existence, such as bodily sensations, breathing, thoughts, feelings and impulses. The idea is that focusing our attention onto these things as they unfold in the present, helps us to switch from the ‘doing’ mode of the mind to the ‘being’ mode of the mind.
One of the most amazing things about young children is their ability to live completely and fully in the present. They watch the world around them in awe and bask in the wonder of all they are experiencing in each moment. Somewhere along the way as we age though, we start to live more in our heads than in the moment, playing memories, fears and stories on loop. By living in our thoughts, we lose so much time to the future and past instead of living fully in the moment. These days the pressures from the pace at which the world is moving and the expectations put on children, means that they too begin to lose the ability to live consciously in the present much earlier in life. The stresses they are feeling disrupts their inner balance and calm, which prevents their mind from flowing and thinking freely and creatively.
The purpose of teaching mindfulness to our children is to give them skills to develop their awareness of their inner and outer experiences. This is achieved through helping them to recognise that their thoughts are “just thoughts,” and their interpretations rather than necessarily reality. Mindfulness also supports children towards being more conscious of what they focus their attention on and when it has wandered, understanding how emotions manifest in their bodies and provides tools for impulse control. Through the practice of Mindfulness, as we pay attention to what we are thinking, feeling and experiencing in the present, we can begin to see and reflect on ourselves, our thoughts and the world around us more clearly. By living in this way we can help ourselves and our children to develop inner balance and make choices from a place of greater calm and clarity, rather than succumbing to knee jerk reactions that might be inappropriate. We are able to see that our thoughts are just thoughts and that focussing our attention deliberately, learning, investigating and striving to see things more clearly, not as we perceive them to be, enables us to be more conscious and respond in creative and healthy ways to new challenges.
How can we teach these important skills to our children? Firstly, establish your own practice. To authentically model and teach mindfulness to your children, you need to practice it yourself as you would any other skill. There are a number of excellent programmes and books available for you to learn more about the practice of mindfulness. A core concept of mindfulness is based around daily meditation, allowing time for you to stop ‘doing’ during your busy day and instead ‘being’ present in the moment, by focusing your mind on the here and now. There are a wide range of different meditation practices, two of the most popular being mindfulness meditation and TM (transcendental meditation). It is important to learn more about them and choose a practice that works for you. These days meditation is a very popular and a much talked about subject, making it very accessible to everyone. There are many books on the subject, courses available, phone apps, audio downloads and online videos. A good place to start is with a short-guided meditation, which can be easily found on line or through a meditation app on your phone. There is much research demonstrating the benefits of meditation and many highly successful people have a daily practice that they say plays an integral part in maintaining and supporting their emotional wellbeing and health. I practice TM for 20 minutes twice a day, which I find invaluable in helping me to return to a calmer and more centred mind.
Mindfulness is a big word for young children to understand. Keep your explanations and Mindful based activities with children simple and light. Mindfulness is simply awareness. It is noticing our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and anything that is around us and happening right now. If your children don’t seem interested in your lesson or activity, don’t force it. This is a good time for you to practice non-attachment to outcomes. Part of being mindful is to live in the moment and the experience itself and not get too obsessed with or attached to the outcome that you may have envisioned. Having a mindset like this enables flexible thinking around situations, which supports us towards moving forward and learning from our experiences in a healthy and positive way, rather than falling into unhealthy thinking traps and letting the circumstances or outcomes define us. It isn’t about the event itself, but our interpretation and how we move on from it that counts.
Make your walks mindful. Encourage your children to pay attention to their surroundings and the sensations their body is experiencing, such as the cold wind or warmth of the sunshine on their skin. Play games such as eye spy, notice how many different animals or flowers you can see, share the different noises you can hear and scents you can smell. This is a great way to practice and incorporate mindfulness into your daily life, making your walks even more fun and therapeutic.
Establish a gratitude practice. Gratitude is a fundamental component of mindfulness. Teaching our children to appreciate the abundance in their lives, as opposed to focusing on what they feel is lacking or what they want or crave, is a really positive and healthy mindset to have. You could do this at any opportunities during the day when you sit down together as a family, or even at bedtime as one of the last things you focus on and share. Taking turns to speaking out loud the positive affirmation, “I am grateful for….”, is a lovely way to end the day and leaves you resting with a happy and abundant mind.
Try meditative techniques with your children. In schools that practice Consciousness-based Education, children start the practice of mediation at four years old. They focus on their ‘Word of Wisdom’ in their heads for five minutes, whilst going for a silent walk together outside each morning. The older children do fifteen to twenty minutes of mediation each morning before their first lesson. This helps the children to calm their mind and start the day more focussed and calm. You can introduce these kinds of mediation at home to your children.
Introduce breathing practices and techniques. Focussing on your breath alone can be a very calming experience that helps to release emotions and re-centre the mind and body. Try resting a small light object such as a teddy on your child’s stomach whilst they lie down and asking them to breath in and out of their stomachs enough to make the teddy rise and fall. Deep diaphragmatic breaths, which can also be called belly breathing, encourages full oxygen exchange. This lowers the heartbeat rate and stabilises blood pressure, which helps us to feel calmer, more relaxed and clear minded. In times of stress or upset we tend to shallow breathe which limits the diaphragm's range of motion. The lowest part of the lungs doesn't get a full share of oxygenated air, which can leave you short of breath and anxious. Deep breathing techniques are therefore a very healthy and beneficial practice to understand and use.
The Heartbeat Exercise, is another technique towards drawing your child’s attention inwards to their body and pulse. It involves asking your children to jump up and down in place for one minute. Then have them sit back down and place their hands on their hearts or on their pulse on their wrist. Tell them to close their eyes and feel their heartbeats, their breath, and see what else they notice about their bodies.
Practice mindful eating. During meal or snack times, ask your children to really focus on the flavours they can taste and smell. If it is a hand held snack such as fruit, ask your child to also focus on what it feels like. This is a staple of mindfulness education, coming back to and appreciating what we are sensing and experiencing in the present moment.
Talk regularly and openly about your emotions and feelings. The more we name and articulate our own feelings to children, the more aware they will become of the wide range of feelings we experience each day. Ask your children to tell you about their feelings. Can they name and describe them, where do they feel them in their bodies, what may have caused those feelings and do they like them or not? Validating your children’s feelings allows them to know that it is ok to feel the way they do and that you want to support them. We want our children to learn that all feelings are ok, but how we sometimes behave because of them might not be. It is therefore important that we model and teach our children different techniques that help them to work through difficult emotions, such as breathing exercises, taking time to calm down or enjoying something that helps them to relax, in order to feel better and get to a calmer frame of mind.
Children absorb much more of what we do than what we say, this is why what we model to our children is so important. Stay present, put your phone down, turn off the T.V and give your child your undivided attention. Model what good listening is, be considerate towards others, celebrate and be grateful for the people in your life and take time to slow down and just be. One of the most valuable things we can do, is to model to our children the type of person we hope they will be.
Life is continually changing, moments pass by without us realising what we missed. Slow down and allow you and your children to live consciously in the present and enjoy the way life is unfolding right now. When things are going well, enjoy! If life feels like it’s spiralling and things are falling apart, remember it won’t last forever. Practicing mindfulness brings many benefits to both our own and our children’s lives. It promotes healthy behaviours and nurtures health and wellbeing. When events occur that might otherwise have provoked a strong emotional response, we learn to sit with the emotion as it arises and make choices about our response. Switching from doing to being helps us to see through the clutter of thoughts and feelings, which so often get in the way of what we are trying to do. By living fully in the moment and being aware that our thoughts are just thoughts, helps us to stay more conscious and appreciate what’s important in life.