Can Children Practice Mindfulness? And Does It Work?

can children practice mindfulness

Takeaway: Research shows that mindfulness is a legitimate tool to change the way we deal with challenges. And the exciting thing is that it works with children, too. But you’ll need to use the right approach: Choose realistic goals, don’t force mindfulness on your child, choose the right exercises, and set a good example.

When was the last time you were truly ‘in the moment’? When were you last ‘mindful’?

Here’s what being in the moment looks like: You’ve just finished picking up some groceries and have checked it off on your to-do list. You have about ten more things to get through before helping your kids with their homework, but you pause for a second to appreciate the moment. You hear traffic on the road, smell freshly-baked buns, and feel a light breeze on your face. It’s not all pleasant, though. You feel that dull backache that’s been nagging you for a week, and the rumble in your stomach telling you to eat. There’s a lot happening in a single second, if you take the time to look. And this process of taking the time to look is mindfulness. It’s the willingness to be present in the moment — experiencing everything that’s happening to you, but not judging any of it. It’s a simple act that’s being shown to have huge positive consequences.

We assume mindfulness is about relaxing or calming down. But it’s about something more important.

You might notice that mindfulness soothes your nerves and makes you more open, friendly, and curious. But that’s not the goal. The real aim is to become aware of what’s happening within us. Because this ‘accepting awareness’ helps us heal and become a better version of ourselves. Try to avoid unpleasant feelings (or tell yourself to ‘relax’ and ‘think positive’) often makes us even more restless and anxious. You can’t order your mind not to think something. But by allowing those feelings to arise and by observing them, we’re making changes to our brain that go beyond merely feeling calm. Sure, mindfulness can reduce stress, but it’s also shown to boost physical health and our immune systems. It helps us become more compassionate (to ourselves and others) and empathetic. And it can help improve our attention span and how focussed we are through the day.

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist psychology, but it’s now a science-based style of therapy.

The American professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zin started researching mindfulness in the 90s, and developed his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). This involves 2.5-hour sessions conducted once a week for 2 months. And during each session, the participants practise mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga. And these in turn help them better explore patterns in their behaviour, thoughts, and emotions. Now MBSR has a host of offshoots like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (which helps combat depression) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (which is especially useful when dealing with trauma and life changes). So, why does mindfulness work? Researchers are still trying to figure it out, but one explanation is that it shuts down parts of the brain (i.e., the default-mode network, or DMN) that often trigger negative emotions. And these negative emotions are things that our children struggle with, too. Which brings us to the next question.

Mindfulness works with adults, but can it help children?

The great news is that it does work for children as well. Studies have shown that it improves their focus (for example, in children with ADHD), self-control, and compassion. And it reduces their levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. It does this by developing three vital skills: (1) Attention and memory, (2) Shifting between tasks, and (3) Social skills. We call these our executive functions, and they’re key in mental tasks like planning, reasoning, problem-solving, and interacting with others. But it takes a bit of know-how to use mindfulness and mindfulness-therapy with children.

The trick is to use the right approach.

Here are two things to keep in mind.

  • Be realistic about the goals. Teaching our children mindfulness is a long-term investment in their wellbeing, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to change overnight. You might still have to deal with tantrums and hyperactivity, but that’s okay. We’re building their self-awareness and showing them that they don’t need to be ruled by thoughts and emotions. Tranquillity is just a welcome side-effect of this ultimate goal.
  • Don’t force mindfulness on children. It’s an internal process and a journey each child has to take. So, progress happens only when your child wants it to. After all, she can sit quietly for five whole minutes without actually being mindful. Mindfulness is a great daily habit, but you won’t be able to enforce it like homework. Keep suggesting your child try mindfulness and see how she responds. ‘Encourage but don’t force,’ is a motto many parents find useful.

You could start by helping your child become more aware of her breathing.

Mindfulness exercises usually start with focussing on your breath. So you could teach your child the ‘belly breathing’ exercise where she focuses on expanding her belly slightly when breathing in, and contracting it when breathing out. After a few rounds of this, she can return to regular breathing. For younger children, you could put a teddy bear on their stomach so they can watch it rise and fall while they breathe. More advanced learners can practise ‘square breathing.’ Here, they’ll inhale for a count of four, hold their breath for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold their breath for a count of four, and then begin again. There are many ways to teach mindful breathing, so play around with the options you come across online. For starters, here’s a simple video to guide your child through mindful breathing.

Next, you can teach the ‘body scan’ exercise.

This is to help her become more aware of her body. Have her lie on her back and tell her to squeeze every muscle in her body. She’ll hold this for a few seconds, and then release all the muscles. As she’s squishing her toes, feet, legs, hands, and arms, the change in sensations and slight discomfort will grab her attention, helping her focus more precisely. And with practice, she’ll carry this body awareness with her through the day. And it’ll help ground her when she’s overwhelmed by emotions. (Here’s a great guided video session for the body-scan exercise.) She could try a variation of this when she’s just finished any strenuous activity — like a fun game outside with her friends. Now, rather than focus on her whole body, she’ll put her hand over her heart, close her eyes, and focus specifically on her heartbeat. She could try counting the beats, if that helps her concentrate better.

Now she’s ready to be mindful about emotions.

To manage her emotions, she’ll have to spot and name them as they arise. Ask her to think about when she was last angry, or sad, or happy. What does it feel like in her body? For example, does anger feel like she’s got ‘steam coming out of her ears’? Or does joy feel like her heart is about to explode? As she learns to recognise emotions as she feels them, she’ll be able to pay them attention without fear or judgment. And this will help her make better life choices. Just imagine her friend saying something mean to her without her instinctively reacting out of anger or sadness? If she could sit with those emotions and then consciously decide what she wants to do with them, well, that would be a superpower, right?

There are so many exercises and games to play with mindfulness, so have fun with the process.

Here are some of our favourites, but Google will find you many more:

  • The texture bag. Fill a bag with small objects that are shaped or textured uniquely. Have your child describe each object she touches, without taking them out of the bag.
  • The taste test. Blindfold her while she eats mystery food like raisins and cranberry. Ask her to identify the food and describe what it tastes like.
  • The listening game. Make a sound that fades gradually (ring a bell or play something on your phone) and get her to listen till it’s completely gone. It may surprise her to hear it last for up to a full minute! Alternatively, you can pause for a minute while you’re on a walk and get her to name all the sounds she can hear.
  • Spider-woman to the rescue! She could also imagine she’s spider-woman and use her spidey-senses to track everything that’s happening around her. This is a great one for superhero fans.
  • Gratitude time. Mindfulness is about building awareness of more than just our senses. It’s also about recognising the good things that happen to us every day. You could set up ‘gratitude time’ where everyone shares one thing they’re grateful for. No repeats!

What’s crucial, though, is that you practise mindfulness, too.

It’s important to explain mindfulness as simply as possible, and teach your child mindfulness games. But you’ll see the best results when you practise mindfulness, too. If she sees you set your timer and meditate for just five minutes a day, she’ll likely commit more seriously to her practice as well. By modelling this behaviour, you’re reinforcing the point that mindfulness is a way of life, not just another thing she has to learn about.

Is your child struggling with a challenge? Do you think mindfulness-based therapy will help? If so, consider consulting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

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