Mindfulness is a technique that is used to calm us and focus our minds. It can also help people overcome anxiety and depression. More recently it’s been promoted as a way to help kids with their attention span and improve challenging behaviour.
So what is it? Does it work? Or is mindfulness for kids just another thing to pile on the guilt heap of perfect parent stuff we’re supposed to squeeze in?
What Is Mindfulness for Kids?
Mindfulness is a simple form of meditation inspired by Eastern practices. The most simple explanation is that it helps you pay more attention to the present moment.
This technique may help improve mental well-being. It can provide a break from worries that constantly swirl around in our heads. Mindfulness encourages present feelings and sensations that take the pressure off.
A lot of us live in our minds, dwelling on what went wrong or worrying about what comes next. It could be work problems or general everyday stress. Practising mindfulness might help you take a break from that exhausting merry-go-round. It’s a lot like ‘taking time to smell the roses’.
When it comes to kids the concept is the same. After all, kids worry and have difficulties too. By showing them how to live in the present moment, we can help them break out from a cycle of worry or destructive behaviour.
What Realistic Benefits Does Mindfulness Have for Children?
Mindfulness may help children manage their emotions and have fewer tantrums. It may even stop them asking for unhealthy treats all the time. This happens by breaking the tunnel vision that leads to ill health and challenging behaviours. Children that realise they are in control of their thoughts also realise that they can use techniques to calm themselves. Some practitioners say this helps children to feel empowered, and that’s why behaviour improves.
Even schools are beginning to pay more attention to mindfulness. This is because it may improve behaviour in the classroom and boost results. A 2015 study of 10-11 year old students found those taking part in a meditation programme improved in many ways. The students benefited from improved mental flexibility, emotional control, memory and did better in Maths.
When it comes to impulse control, mindfulness is also beneficial. A 2016 study showed that it could help prevent obesity in children. This is achievable by correcting imbalanced brain connections. Researchers say that the brains of obese children function differently to children of a healthy weight. Thus, the mental techniques of mindfulness can realign connections and encourage healthy eating.
Practically speaking, parents may find talking to their child a great help. This can be as simple as asking them to concentrate on the look, flavour, smell and texture of their food, like a raw slice of bell pepper. This helps them move away from an immediate ‘that’s disgusting – give me beige nuggets’ reaction. Ask for a description, not a reaction. They might want to use words like sweet, crunchy, soft, bright red, smooth. That way children concentrate on the sensations and live in the present moment.
This can potentially lead to a big increase in what a picky child may eat. I’ve realised as I’m writing this that I’ve been unconsciously practising mindfulness with my son. It has worked well on extending his vegetable palate!
Really tasting their food can help a child to eat slowly. This can help them recognise when they feel full which can manage overeating too.
Interesting – But How Is Mindfulness Done Exactly?
Don’t worry. There are no mantras or hippy chanting – unless you feel like it!
Mindfulness is like quiet time, praying, or a timeout. Counting to ten as a way of controlling a temper is not new, and mindfulness isn’t far from that.
The simplest way to be mindful is to sit quietly and appreciate the taste and heat from a cup of hot coffee. Thoughts should be gently pushed away as they appear. However this doesn’t work well for most children who can’t even watch an episode of Peppa Pig without getting distracted. Children’s techniques include:
Ask your child to lie down and fold their hands on their stomach. They should focus on how their hands raise up and down with their breathing. Older children can be encouraged to sit quietly and pay attention to their breathing for a few minutes.
We’re Feeling the Superheroes
Ask your child to think of their favourite superhero and use their powers. For example Spiderman’s extra sensitive touch, smell, taste, and hearing. This encourages them to focus their attention on the present environment.
The Sparkle Jar
Fill a jar with water and glitter. Your child shakes the jar and watches the glitter settle when they feel upset or angry. The sparkle jar helps them find peace from strong emotions. It brings them to the present by concentrating on what they can see in front of them.
The Thankful Exercise
Just before bed ask your child to think about the things they are glad for. If you do this every night it can help break an ‘I can’t sleep’ cycle or episodes of insomnia. It moves them away from stressful thoughts and brings them to a positive state of mind.
These techniques may help your child manage difficult emotions. They can find peace from thoughts and behaviours that are upsetting or inappropriate. Everyone needs a coping strategy, even children.
What Do the Experts Say?
There isn’t a lot of evidence out there when it comes to children and mindfulness. Practitioners also don’t need any qualifications, but the NHS and NICE suggest it can be helpful.
There are encouraging signs which suggest mindfulness can help children. However it’s not necessarily a replacement for medication or a healthy diet.
Mindfulness isn’t for everyone. We’re all doing the best we can with the time we have available. Trying to teach your excited kid to meditate might not be an essential on your to-do list. That said, it might be worth a go if your child is struggling with emotions. It may be especially helpful if your child is sensitive, obese or prone to difficult behaviour.
My feeling is that if we encourage ‘mindfulness’ in kids now it will help them deal with their worries longer term. It will build strong teenagers and adults capable of managing their emotions.
I just wish mindfulness didn’t have such a wishy-washy name. Calmness or resilience might be a better way of putting it. The term ‘mindfulness’ just makes a sensible technique sound slightly odd, like an alternative medicine or pointless parenting angle. When in fact it’s a simple slowing down, noticing and concentrating exercise that can help everyone.