One of the things that was most helpful for me as I began managing my own anxiety and panic attacks was becoming mindful of my thoughts, my body, and my breathing.
Getting outside of my head and paying attention to the right-here and the right-now.
Becoming aware and present in the moment and moving away from thoughts of the past and fears of the future.
Many of us spend so much of our time preoccupied with a clutter of thoughts, and worrying about past and future events that we are never fully present in the current moment. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever arrived at your destination and couldn’t remember the drive there.)
This affects our attention, impacts our emotions, and creates stress.
Most tips and articles on mindfulness focus on adults, but children can absolutely benefit from learning about being mindful. They go through their days on auto-pilot, being told what to do, where they need to be, racing to the next place they need to be, going through the motions.
Learning to practice mindfulness can help children of all ages learn to be more present and aware.
What is Mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines it as “The awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Or, put another way – as Carla Naumburg defines it in her book Ready, Set, Breathe, “the practice of choosing to pay attention to whatever is happening right here and right now, without judging it or wishing it to be different.”
Mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety, calm the mind, help with concentration, reduce negative thoughts, help reduce muscle tension, and slow breathing and heart rate by removing us from the cycle of reliving past moments or prepping for future ‘might happens’.
What Mindfulness is Not:
It is not meditation. Unlike meditation, mindfulness is not about achieving some other state of consciousness. It’s about increased awareness of your present moment, not pulling away from it. Mindfulness can be a part of meditation, but mindfulness on its own is not meditation.
It is not religious. Although mindfulness has roots in Buddhism and Hinduism (through contemplative practices) and can certainly have a spiritual component to it, mindfulness isn’t about promoting a set of beliefs and can be entirely secular.
It is not relaxation. Mindfulness can help us calm down and relax, but it’s actually about awareness, not tuning out as we tend to do when we are relaxing. Being aware is active, not passive. Being aware activates senses and activates parts of the brain that can stimulate it.
Mindfulness Techniques for Children
The important place to start is with yourself. Teaching children about mindfulness starts with practicing it ourselves, and leading by example.
It’s counter-productive to try to teach our children how to be present when we aren’t willing to try to do it ourselves. We, as adults, need to take the time to learn how to be mindful first.
Mastering mindfulness before we start teaching our children how to do so is not important. What is important is that we start the journey ourselves and then invite – don’t force – them to be on it as well.
There are many ways to teach mindfulness, but here are some basic techniques to get you started:
Mindful breathing: Mindful breathing is about being aware of your breath. Noticing the rise and fall of our chest and tummy as we inhale and exhale, being aware of when our breath is becoming shallow. A simple way to start is to have your child place their hands on their tummy while inhaling and exhaling for three deeps breaths. Have them notice the slow rise and fall of their hands. (We practice several breathing techniques in our home, which you can find here.)
Mindful walks: Before starting out on your walk, take a couple of mindful breaths. Set out with a slow pace. Feel your feet on the ground, hear the sound of the earth with each step, listen to the birds, smell the air, see the leaves and surroundings. Your entire walk does not have to be spent this way. Take time to enjoy a conversation together, point out things you see, talking about how your day is going. The point is to take a minute or two out of your walk to stay quiet and pay attention.
Mindful eating: Not only is mindful eating helpful for learning about mindfulness, it can also help children make healthier food choices. The premise is to engage all senses: Look, Smell, Taste, Touch, and Listen to your food. This helps children tune in to what they are eating (and choosing to eat), and experience it. A helpful script for mindful eating can be found here.
Glitter Jars: The visual aspect of the glitter jar is what makes these pretty little jars a good technique to get started with. A simple explanation might be as follows: The glitter represents your thoughts and feelings. When the glitter jar is shaken, all of those thoughts and feelings swirl around, unsettled, and cloud the water. This might represent our feelings when homework is forgotten, we are prepping for a talk with a teacher, or a friend hurts our feelings. Focusing on the glitter slowing down and falling can help refocus the mind. The clearing and settling of the water and glitter represents our thoughts and mind clearing as well. You can make your own glitter jar with direction found here.
A few final tips and thoughts:
Mindfulness can be practiced anytime; eating, walking, painting, having a conversation.
Teach the techniques for the first time during a period that is calm for both you and your child.
When getting started with your child, especially if your child is young, keep it short. Try to keep it to no more than a minute or two for very young children, five to 10 for older children and teens.
It should be noted that mindfulness can sometimes actually be uncomfortable and can cause us to notice things that cause us guilt or regret. This is something to be very aware of for yourself and as you work with your child.
As with any practice, don’t expect it to help or feel helpful right out of the gate. When I first started doing yoga, I was a hot mess – I am one of the most inflexible people you’ll ever encounter. After more than a year of practicing, although I still can’t touch my hands to the floor without bending my knees, I’ve experienced great benefits from it, both on and off the mat. Success with mindfulness practice might have the same slow start, but keep at it, and keep encouraging your child to practice it.
The important thing is to trust the process. Know that you are giving yourself and your child a gift. The gift of being present and attentive to all of life’s experiences.