Mindfulness in Children

Jill Bertelsen
What is Mindfulness?

Have you ever gotten to the grocery store and can’t remember what color of cars parked next to you? Or have you ever watched an entire show and can’t remember what was going on around you? We go into a sort of automatic-pilot mode. We do the same things over and over again at home, at the daycare, everywhere we go. We have routines, and naturally, we switch and just go through the motions, not really paying attention to things that are going on around us, or taste we are eating, or we look around, but we don’t really see.

As humans, we remember and can dwell on the past, future, or even hope for the future. However, mindfulness is being in the present moment without judgment. But really taking in the things and feelings that are surrounding you. Dr. Karen Hooker defines it this way, “Mindfulness training emphasizes focused attention to internal and external experiences in the present moment of time, without judgment.”

Often we may get caught up in the day-to-day routine that when something bad happens it could feel like the world is ending. However, this quote from the Dalai Lama really helps put things into perspective for me. “Afflictive emotions-our jealousy, anger, hatred, fear-can be put to an end when you realize that these emotions are only temporary, that they always pass on like clouds in the sky.” - Dalai Lama, 1999
In this series I am going to talk about the benefits of being mindful, being mindful yourself, how to make it successful for children, and end with some activities. Before moving on, I want you to do an activity. Stop and write down 2 things you see, 2 things you smell, 2 things you taste, 2 things you are touching, 2 things you can hear. Did you notice those things before? What if every moment of every day was like that, present in the moment. Stay tuned to learn more about mindfulness in children.

Benefits for being Mindful

In the first blog of this series, I described what mindfulness is. I ended by asking you to do an activity, if you haven’t done the activity, take a few seconds to do so. Write down 2 things you see, 2 things you smell, 2 things you taste, 2 things you are touching, 2 things you can hear. Did you notice those things before? One of the first times I did this exercise I was in college on campus just right after a course I had where the concept of mindfulness was just being introduced to me. I had not realized the things around me in that way. My advisor recommended that the whole class do this every day for a whole month. I found that a lot of times as humans we don’t stop to take in the moment or take a breath until we are either: 1, relaxed and thinking about it or 2, so overwhelmed that someone reminds us to breathe. But doing this exercise every day for a month will help develop the habit of being mindful in normal everyday activities, not just the stressed-out ones. I encourage you to take the time to recognize 2 things about each of your senses every single day.

In this blog, we are going to talk about the benefits of being mindful and why it is important. Dr. Katherine Weare points out “When well taught and when practiced regularly, it has been shown to be capable of improving mental health and well-being, mood, self-esteem, self-regulation, and positive behavior and academic learning.” But let’s go through some of these and others one by one.

  1.     It has been shown to decrease stress and chronic pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s program, Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Which is an 8-week course done in groups focused on mindfulness and mediation coping strategies was created to help the group be more mindful of their bodies. Allowing themselves to feel the stress and pain and to fully acknowledge it. Through this program, people have said that taking time to be mindful has decreased their stress and pain levels.

  2.     Mindfulness has been even used to treat borderline personality disorder.

  3.     Has been used to treat anxiety. Anxiety stems from worrying about the past or planning different scenarios about the future. Mindfulness can bring a person back into the present moment and help them to see what is right in front of them, what they are experiencing. Anxiety also manifests by avoiding situations or feelings by focusing on different things. Mindfulness is a great practice to help people not avoid and really focus on the moment and not avoid it. “Through mindfulness, the anxious person learns to identify emotions, be aware of them, and accept them, whether they are positive or negative.” - Karen Hooker

  4.     Helps with depression. Realizing the hopelessness a person feels and then redirecting their attention to other things in the present moment has been shown to help people be more positive at the moment. Like what are they seeing, hearing, tasting, and feeling?

  5.     Mindfulness also has been shown to help with eating disorders and addictions. These certain individuals are often focused on thoughts of future things they are going to do or actions. They may binge eat because they have such a strong self-criticism or purge, or even turn to drug use. Hating their bodies leads them to hate their life. Mindfulness helps to focus the attention on the present feeling and not being judgemental or being too critical of themselves. For example, being mindful or doing a mindfulness activity when a person may feel the tendency to purge, binge, or use drugs would allow them to realize what cues or triggers leads to an episode and get curious about it. Why is it coming up? Where did it come from? What are other ways to deal with this? The tricky thing here is to not be self-disgusted and trigger shame because they had these feelings but to sit with them and be okay with the feelings that come up. Just to be and to accept the feelings that come and learn the triggers that come right before those feelings.

  6.     Improves memory, children forget things. Why? Because they aren’t paying attention. If they were aware of what is happening in front of them, they would have a better memory.

  7.     Mindfulness improves Concentration

  8.     It also helps lessen aggressiveness by promoting self-control and self-management.

  9.     The last benefit I will touch on is that mindfulness has been shown to bring a better self-understanding because they are taking the time to process the world around them. Which children often do not usually take the time to do or even know how to do.

As we can see through research, teaching children to be mindful, and being mindful yourself has many benefits. It is important to be mindful ourselves BEFORE we try to teach it to children.

For meditation and mindfulness to be effective it needs to be conducted by someone who strongly believes in and does the principles of mindfulness themselves. Now being mindful is not just doing meditation. Because “The goal is not to achieve a higher state of consciousness or to distance oneself from the present experience, but rather to have an increased awareness of the present moment.” (Mallet) But you can do mindfulness meditations to be more aware and observe the changing internal feelings and external stimuli all around you.

Another myth about mindfulness is it is just being relaxed. However, someone may be relaxed and still not be mindful of the things going on around and inside themselves. But it can work the other way around where when someone is being mindful it can relax them as a result of it. If you would like to try a meditation where they walk you through some mindfulness techniques check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVSkYKj26qg It is a 15 min video of meditation for beginners.

Making Mindfulness Successful for Children

Many people may think that children are so mindful because they are involved in the moments, they focus on eating, playing, talking, sleeping. They are all in. But they still have their autopilot moments too. They live in a world where they are always told what to do. When to wake up, when to eat, when to play, when to sleep. This encourages children to be in a mindset and become passive. They too can turn into an autopilot life. Ask children what they ate for dinner last night. They may not know because they weren’t paying attention at the time because it was just placed in front of them to eat.

In the world around us obesity, violence, academic performance, substance abuse, etc are developing and becoming more and more common among younger children. Mindfulness can help them not only be less passive but take control and recognize what they are feeling and deal with those emotions.

Mindfulness is a feasible and effective method for building resilience in children and youth. Greenberg and Harris, the authors of “Nurturing Mindfulness in Children and Youth” said, “Interventions that nurture mindfulness in children and youth may be a feasible and effective method of building resilience in universal populations and in the treatment of disorders in clinical populations.”

The entire purpose of mindfulness is to be aware and fully in the moments and to have an open and accepting mindset toward your experience of being present. For this to happen you as the caregiver or teacher need to be in that mindset and show compassion towards them. Don’t be judgemental when things surface (either positive or negative), the whole point is to just feel and do.
Doctor Katherine Weare has a theory of progression of mindfulness when teaching it to children. She mentions first, it is an awareness of the external environment, to be able to see and recognize things around them. The second is awareness of themselves being in the environment that they feel around them. Third, awareness of their body. Lastly, this is where a mindfulness meditation exercise that features attending to the cognitive process could begin. Knowing the order can help you as the guide to walk them through it.

Let’s move into how to teach mindfulness to children. One suggestion is to start with about 5 minutes worth of a mindfulness activity. I will give you some ideas of activities that you can do later in this blog. But just keep in mind that we want this to be successful for them and for them to enjoy it.

Another tip is to remember that children take things very seriously and literally. So be very clear and descriptive in the instructions, no wiggle room. But in the same breathe they like to imagine and be creative. Again, make sure that you are comfortable and used to being mindful before trying to teach it to the children.

I would suggest starting out by explaining what you are doing to the children. It needs to be discussed with older children before you just go and do it. Ask what they think mindfulness is, and get rid of misperceptions of it. Some misinterpretations of it could be that it is only for holy men, it's only a religious thing, it is to relax, only used to help you fall asleep, only used to calm down when you are mad. Explain to the kids it is more than just relaxation it involves being focused and aware of things around you.

People, especially children may get anxious while doing a mindfulness activity. It is because they are uncomfortable paying attention to themselves so attentively. They may recognize sensations they didn’t know were there like their worries, fears, etc. Walk them through and put a name to their emotions so they can recognize what they are feeling. Then encourage them to keep trying. As a caregiver try to notice what part of the exercise gave them anxiety and try to avoid the part that causes anxiety. We want it to be successful for them.

One last tip that I would give to you as a caretaker is to enjoy the moments with your children and to not hyper-focus on something. For example, is it more important for children to be in a straight line or to criss-cross with their legs that you yell at them to do so, or for them to have fun and relax while sitting down to be mindful? It can be hard to help children all be comfortable and not fighting, let alone try to get them all to be still for 5 minutes together at the same time.

But keep in mind that the point of the practice is to help them come to the present moment. The more you do it with them, the more it will feel more natural with them to do again and again. Becoming more natural and more effective.

The following are some ideas or activities that you can try with children of different ages to help them be mindful:

  •     Yoga: Regular yoga practice has been found to help children with respiratory problems, attention difficulties, or anxiety because of the controlled breathing exercises found within yoga. Researcher Mendelson evaluated a yoga-based intervention program to reduce social-emotional and behavioral problems in an underserved urban population. Inner-city fourth- and fifth-grade students were randomized to a control group or a 12-week yoga intervention four times a week, which included yoga postures, breathing techniques, and guided mindfulness meditations. Compared to controls, yoga students reported decreases in involuntary stress responses, including lower scores on the subscales of rumination, intrusive thoughts, and emotional arousal”

  •     The Raisin Meditation - taking time to use all 5 senses, this activity takes about 5 minutes. Click the link to read all of the directions.

  •     Have the children choose an object in the room and draw it. Then have them spend 1 minute staring at the object, picking it up, and really observing it. Then draw the object on a separate paper again. Talk through the differences between the drawings/paintings.

  •     Play a game where you have the children get to the other side of the room by walking and moving each muscle slowly. Walk them through what they are feeling and to feel each muscle in your leg lift and then lower.

  •     Breathing: first, just notice it. Air coming in cold and leaving warm. Then count to 3-5 breathing in and counting to 3-5 to breathe out. Being aware of the breath brings them to the moment. Focus on a short exercise, don’t take too long. We want it to be successful for them. Once they are familiar and comfortable with being aware of breathing you can remind them to do this when they are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or angry, or before starting a task like homework or eating. You can walk them through it a little easier.

  •     Walk them through simple meditations, to be in the moment. One that I really like is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6CRlK0zm_Y (5 min). Try doing this on your own first before introducing it to them. These same people have started a YouTube channel called “My Calm World” you can subscribe and find more at https://www.youtube.com/user/livewellseries

There are many benefits to being mindful. First, you need to be comfortable with being mindful and then you can create a safe atmosphere for children to take time to check in with themselves. You are an essential part of teaching the new generation how to be still, be mindful, and recognize what they are feeling.