How Can Mindfulness Help My Child?
Perhaps you’ve noticed your child struggling with difficult thoughts or feelings, whether it be anxiety, sadness, anger, stress or irritability. If this is the case, they may benefit from practicing a skill called mindfulness.
First, let’s talk about what mindfulness isn’t. It isn’t meditation. It isn’t simply sitting crisscross-applesauce while chanting a mantra. It isn’t just about relaxation. It isn’t trying to clear our minds of every single thought. It isn’t trying to change our thoughts to something different. It isn’t about positive thinking. So, what is it then?
Mindfulness is the act of intentionally and deliberately focusing all our attention on the present moment. Consider explaining to your child that their mind is like an excited, little monkey. It hops from one thing to another all day long – swinging from branch to branch – thoughts changing by the second. Now unlike our bodies, our monkey minds can time travel. Our monkey mind can time travel to the future - thinking about what has yet to happen. Our monkey mind can also travel to the past - thinking about things that have already happened. But, unfortunately, our minds have a negative bias - meaning that we have a greater tendency to think about negative things rather than positive things. So, when our child thinks about the future, their minds may be more drawn to worrying about what might happen if they don’t make the dance team or worrying what mom and dad will say when they bring home a failing grade – causing feelings of anxiety and stress. When our child thinks about the past, their minds may be more likely to recall the memory of when they tripped and fell in front of the whole classroom, rather than remembering the time they aced their book report – leading to feelings of sadness or anger.
So, mindfulness can be a useful skill to practice, as it essentially tames the monkey mind to stay in the present moment.
There are 3 easy steps to practicing mindfulness:
- Choose an intention to focus on
- Notice when your mind has wandered away from this intention
- Gently and nonjudgmentally refocus your mind back on the intention
What type of intention should I choose to focus on?
Well, since our physical bodies are always in the present moment, the easiest or most readily available intention is to focus on some aspect of our bodies, like our breathing. Breathing is a great thing to start practicing mindfulness with because you can’t go anywhere without it! Try focusing on as many details as possible: the coolness of the air flowing in through your nostrils, the warmth of the air leaving your mouth, the rise and fall of your chest or belly. Can you hear your breath? What does it sound like?
We can also choose to focus on whatever activity we are currently doing at the moment – like eating perhaps. Most of us tend to “switch off” when eating because it is such a routine task. Try to keep your awareness on the flavors and sensations you experience while eating. First, inspect your food. Notice how it looks – the different textures and shapes. Notice how the light reflects off the smooth surface of your apple. Then, smell your food. Do you notice an increase in saliva in your mouth? Can you notice the strong urge you have to take that first bite? Chew slowly. Notice the different textures of foods – crunchy, soft, crumbly. Notice where on your tongue you taste it the strongest. Notice which muscles in your mouth, tongue and neck are needed to help you eat your lunch.
Have fun with your child trying to come up with all sorts of intentions and activities to try to do mindfully! Handwashing, tooth brushing, taking a walk, petting the dog, focusing on our heartbeat – just to name a few.
What should I do when my mind wanders away from my chosen intention?
Well, first, it’s important to know that all minds wander. It’s just what minds do. However, our job is to notice when it wanders and simply refocus it on the previously selected intention without beating ourselves up about it. When first practicing this skill, we may need to refocus our mind dozens of times. Our minds may tell us things like: “This is boring,” “What’s that noise over there?,” “I’m hungry,” “Oh, I just remembered I have extra math homework to do tonight,” or “I wonder if Jenny can come play this weekend.” But over time and with practice, our minds will strengthen and will be able to stay focused for much longer.
How often should I practice mindfulness?
Well, your child probably already has a skill that they’re very good at – perhaps volleyball, art, reading or playing the guitar. But I bet they didn’t get good at playing the guitar just by reading about it, talking about it or watching other people play. No, they improved because they practiced hard. The same goes for the skill of mindfulness. The more we practice, the easier it will become. First, try setting aside just a minute or two each day. Then, when it becomes easier, try gradually pushing your mind to stay focused for longer.
Is it possible to practice too much mindfulness?
Yes! We don’t need to always be “in the moment.” There are plenty of times when we need to plan, think about the future and consider things that have already happened. It only becomes a problem when our monkey minds get stuck in thinking about negative things from the past or the future – so much so that we miss out on what’s going on around us right now.
And remember, the younger the child, the shorter the duration of time devoted to mindfulness is expected. Even a few seconds of really being “in the moment” is a good start.
Learn more about Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology at Ochsner.