‘If every 8yr old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation’ Dalai Lama
How often do we ask our children to pay attention or ask them to calm down? But have we ever taught them how to pay attention or how to calm down?
Two of the most important skills which we need to develop as humans is having the ability to focus our attention and to regulate our emotions – we assume that these come naturally to everyone – and yet these are skills that even many of us as adults have yet to develop!
We can teach our children these essential skills through their practise of mindfulness, to enable them to better understand what they are feeling, when they are feeling it and what they can do about it.
‘Children must be taught HOW to think, not WHAT to think’ Margaret Mead
Mindfulness is of great benefit to us in all parts of our life, not least our relationship to our children as parents. Mindfulness gives us the ability to be ‘present’ whilst parenting – allowing us to choose the optimum response, rather than the ‘knee-jerk’ frustrated reaction. Mindfulness for Mums and Dads (book)
But mindfulness is also good for our children! Research has shown that mindfulness can assist our children in improving their attention span, to calm down when upset and to make better decisions – in fact, mindfulness greatly helps in developing their emotional intelligence by improving their emotional regulation and cognitive focus. Mindfulness education in schools improves cognitive control, working memory, cognitive flexibility and achieves better grades in maths; increases optimism and happiness in classrooms; decreases bullying and aggression; increases compassion and empathy for others and helps children to resolve conflicts. Children report that it can help to overcome anxiety and frustration with homework – if the work is difficult or just because they are distracted and want to go out to play – mindfulness helps our children to be aware of these feelings and handle them in a better way.
Why it is important to practise mindfulness with our children
Acknowledging to our children that we are all in charge of our own thoughts and feelings is one of the primary benefits of teaching mindfulness from a young age. Amongst many things, Mindfulness most importantly teaches us how to turn towards difficult emotions, instead of ignoring them. When we have a physical injury we pay attention to it to make it better and our emotions should receive the same attention. Our emotions are not always as evident as our physical hurt, but if we don’t give our emotional wounds as much attention as we would a physical wound, then they could grow and fester in much the same way as an ignored cut.
We give our thoughts enormous power over how we live our lives and mindfulness teaches us that thoughts are just thoughts – just because we think something doesn’t mean it is necessarily true or real. Mindfulness shows us how to step back from our thoughts and understand that it is just a thought – not a fact.
Children can often feel that parents and teachers etc are all telling them how to behave, which leads them to believe that they are not in charge of themselves causing them to feel anger and frustration and behave badly. It is enormously empowering for children when they learn that they are in charge of their thoughts and feelings – mindfulness can help our children to control anxious or negative thoughts before they become recurring thought patterns and show them that whatever is happening around them, they have the skills to feel calm and relaxed.
‘Children have to be educated, but they have also to be left to educate themselves’ Ernest Dimnet
How to teach mindfulness to our children
Firstly we need to practise mindfulness ourselves: we all learn best by example and children are no exception. We cannot teach our children politeness when we, ourselves, are rude to customer service staff – children are exceptional imitators! Therefore we need to practise mindfulness ourselves in order to teach it to our children. Mindfulness for Parents (book)
Be aware and guard your expectations: the whole basis of mindfulness is letting go of expectations and this is nowhere more important than when teaching mindfulness to our children. It won’t totally stop tantrums, arguing, whining or stop our active children from running around – that is normal behaviour! Being quiet and calm are not the ultimate purpose, but rather to increase their awareness of their inner and outer sensations, to recognise their thoughts as just that – thoughts, to help them understand how emotions affect their bodies, to be aware when their attention has wandered, and to help them with the ability to control their impulses.
‘If you have told a child a thousand times and he still does not understand, then it is not the child who is a slow learner…’ Walter Barbie
Don’t force it: if they’re not interested in the activity/lesson, then leave it – it will not work if they’re not in the right frame of mind or tired or emotional. We need to practise our mindfulness then, to accept it’s not the right time and let it go!
Validate their emotions: how often do we say to our children ‘Stop crying’, ‘You’re okay’ or ‘It’s not that bad/important’ ? To our children it is important – they live almost entirely in the present moment and are therefore, in many ways, better at mindfulness than most of us! After all – they don’t generally have regrets in the past or worries about the future, which we as adults carry. Their feelings of anger, frustration, or fear are very real to them and we should let them know that it’s okay to feel this way, but then focus on what we do with that feeling.
Help our children to understand how their emotions feel: ask them how their body feels when they are angry. Teaching them to recognise how their emotions feel in their body helps them to become more aware of those emotions, even when they aren’t able to understand them yet.
Never make mindfulness a punishment: it should never be used as a penalty or to discipline our children.
Ways to teach mindfulness to our children
- We need to use simple directions – we can use words like noticing or awareness with our younger children. Explain that mindfulness is about noticing our thoughts, what we are feeling and hearing and is happening right now.
- Listen to the sound – our children can focus on noticing what they hear as a simple method of teaching mindfulness. We can use a bell, some chimes or even a phone app with sounds. Ask them to listen to the sound until they can no longer hear it – around 30-60 seconds is enough – and then clasp their hands in their lap. This will have a calming effect on them and teaches them awareness of their surroundings. Tibetan Singing bell
- Make bedtime mindful – this is a great time to practise mindfulness with our children. We can ask them to do a short body-scan meditation before bed, asking them to close their eyes and bring their awareness to their toes, feet, legs etc. It will help to calm them and bring their attention to their body at the end of a busy day.
- Give them a ‘breathing buddy’ to practise mindful breathing – younger children may find it difficult to understand how to pay attention to their breath. Instead, we can ask them to choose a stuffed animal and lie on their back with their ‘buddy’ on their stomach. We then ask them to focus on the rise and fall of the cuddly toy as they breathe in and out.
- Three ways to help our children with mindful breathing are: Noticing the breath – ask them to put their fingers under their noses to feel the warmth and moisture of the out-breath. Have them put their hands on their stomachs to feel the rise and fall as they breathe. Encourage them to know that when they are angry it can help to calm them down by focusing on how their breathing feels.Five-finger Starfish meditation – ask them to make a starfish with their hand and then use the finger on their other hand to gently trace the outline of the starfish hand, slowly going up and down each finger. Focusing on their hand, along with the soothing touch, can instantly calm them. Counting the breath – ask them to simply count their in-breath and out-breath. One breath in and out is 1 etc., up to ten.
- Show them a mindful jar – this can teach children about how strong emotions can take over and how to find peace when they do. It shows them how emotions can cloud our thoughts and encourages mindfulness by focusing on the glitter. We use a jar filled almost to the top with water and a large spoonful of glitter glue. We shake the jar and then ask them to imagine the glitter is like their thoughts when they are angry or upset. Show them how it is hard to see clearly when they whirl around and that is why it’s hard to make good choices when we’re upset, because we’re not thinking clearly and this can happen to us all. We then put the jar down and ask them to watch what happens when the glitter starts to settle and the water clears. Tell them that our minds are the same – when we’re calm for a while, our thoughts settle and we can see things much more clearly. Traditional glass ‘Made with love” jar Multi-coloured glitter
- Ask them to practise mindfulness whilst walking – children are naturally curious and often notice things we don’t anyway! Now we can expand on that and introduce a noticing walk, by deliberately noticing things we haven’t seen before. And we can have one minute of the walk where we remain silent and simply pay attention to all the sounds we may not normally hear – like the birds singing, a lawnmower, a dog barking etc. We do not need to use the word mindfulness, but that is what they are experiencing
- Practise feeling gratitude – teaching our children to appreciate the abundance in their lives is a basic principle of mindfulness – being aware of what they have, rather than the toys and sweeties etc that they want. Try to implement a daily, family gratitude practise, whereby each of us shares five things for which we are grateful.
- Give them a SpiderMan meditation – this teaches children to activate their spider-senses to focus on all they can see, hear, smell, feel and taste in the ‘present’ moment. We start by telling them that SpiderMan’s super powers is to use all his senses – for example, he can hear tiny noises and pay attention to them without listening to all the noisy thoughts in his head. So to activate their super powers like SpiderMan we first ring a bell and they pay attention as in the previous exercise. Do this 3 times and then their super hearing has been switched on! We then turn to their super powers of seeing, touching and smelling, by giving them a flower. Ring the bell again and ask them to touch the petals – how does it feel? Is it soft, rough, furry, prickly? Ask them to imagine their hands have the power to sense what the flower feels like – just like SpiderMan. Ring the bell again and ask them to smell the flower – breathing in deeply. What does it smell like? Is it sweet – does it have a smell? Now ring the bell again and ask them to look closely at the flower – is it smooth, bumpy, what shape is it, what lines, what circles? Ring the bell a final time and tell them the final super power is taste. Give them a berry or piece of cereal, raisin, or sunflower seed etc. Ask them to look at it and notice with their super powers how it looks, notice how it feels between their fingers and then ask them to put it in their mouth. How does it feel on their tongue? Ask them to slowly chew it – how does it taste – sweet, sour, savoury? Now finally ask them to swallow it, paying attention to how the taste stays in their mouths afterwards. Tell them that they have now activated all of their SpiderMan senses! And that they now have the power to activate these super powers whenever they want to calm down, relax and focus to take a break away from their busy activities.
- Show children how to squeeze and relax their muscles – ask them to lie down with their eyes closed and squeeze their toes and feet as tight as possible, then their legs, suck in their stomachs, squeeze their hands into fists and raise their shoulders up to their ears. Ask them to hold the squeeze for a few seconds and then fully relax.
- We can meditate with our children – when we sit quietly for a little mindful meditation our children may continue to play around us, but sometimes they may sit down and join us for a few quiet moments. Good Morning Yoga (book)
- Ask our children to describe their own personal weather report – ask them to describe their feelings right now. Is it sunny, rainy, stormy, calm, or windy? This will encourage children to be aware of their present feelings, without needing to identify their emotions. They can understand that they can’t change their emotions or feelings, anymore than they can change the weather outside – but they can change how they relate to them. It will help them to realise that they are not the rain, but just notice it is raining – they can understand that they are not a scaredy-cat, but sometimes they can have scared feelings inside them.
- Heart-to-heart – as our children become older we can ask them to tell us about their feelings. What do they feel? How do they know they are feeling those feelings? Where do they feel them in their bodies? Ask them to say what feelings they like best. Then ask what they can do to feel better when they aren’t feeling the feelings they like best and remind them that they can practise turning their thoughts into bubbles when they are upset; they can do the squeeze and release meditation if they need to calm down; the a few minutes to listen to their breath; or feel their heartbeats if they want to relax.
- The happiness jar – ask our children to briefly write down on some bright paper each time something good happens to make them smile, fold it up and put it in the jar. We can help younger children by writing it for them. It can be as simple as someone saying something nice to them. Then whenever they are feeling sad, angry or negative they can go to the jar, read a happy note and put a smile back on their face.
The primary thing to remember is to keep it simple and for the children to have fun. Giving them opportunities to practise mindfulness every day will benefit them greatly – not all will be a success – but it will be fun trying! Happiness jar
Mindfulness will give our children tools to calm down, slow down and feel better when they are upset. Imagine if all our children around the world learned these tools as children – what a change our world would experience in just one generation!
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