Mindfulness may be the latest buzzword in parenting, but what does it actually mean? Is it so much new-age clap-trap or, in fact, a really useful tool for life? Read on to unravel the concept and see what it could do for you and your children.
The dictionary term for this form of simple meditation is…
‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.’
Quite simply, mindfulness is about being in the moment, rather than stressing about things that happened in the past or may (or may not) happen in the future. The essence of being in the moment comes naturally to younger children, but a part of mindfulness is about observing your thoughts before choosing to react, which can be particularly useful for children as they socialize and move through puberty into the teen years.
Introducing your children to mindfulness techniques can have welcome and tangible results. Research has shown that benefits include reduction or management of stress levels, heightened focus (helpful for learning) and improved sleep quality.
There is a growing movement for the use of mindfulness within families and increasing numbers of headteachers are implementing the practice in schools. The Mindfulness Foundation is even campaigning to have it included in the National Curriculum by 2022. If you needed any further encouragement, it’s worth noting that Willem Kuyken, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, recently stated that the spread of mindfulness among children could do for Britain’s mental health what fluoride did for its teeth.
WHEN AND HOW?
Interested in seeing how this could work for your brood? Try out some of the exercises below at home. Practise them yourself until you feel confident and then do them with your child or children. As for when you should practise such techniques – the answer is to make time whilst always ensuring it feels interesting and fun rather than a chore. Some exercises lend themselves to specific times or places. For instance, ‘mindful eating’ or ‘gratitude sharing’ are best done around the meal table. For exercises such as ‘breathing buddy’ or ‘the heartbeat game’, pre-bedtime can work well, as these activities promote calm and a sense of well-being. Whenever you choose to get started, here are some activities to try.
1. Squish and release
Lie down on your back on the floor. Ask your child to do the same. Invite them to close their eyes and starting at their toes and feet tighten the muscles in their legs, suck in their tummies, raise their shoulders, make fists with their hands and wrinkle their noses. Ask your child to hold that squished/tensed position for a few seconds before releasing and relaxing. This exercise helps your child to begin to feel in touch with their frame and to notice the difference between a relaxed and a tensed body.
2. Smell or touch and tell
This game is a great way to teach real observation. Pass something fragrant like a piece of fresh orange peel or a sprig of rosemary to your child and ask them to close their eyes and breathe in, focusing all their attention on how it smells. Alternatively, give your child an interesting object like a feather or a stone and ask them to focus on the way it feels.
Ask your child to close their eyes and sit on the floor with a straight, tall back. Now ring a bell or chime a triangle. Ask them to listen intently and raise their hand when they notice the sound has completely stopped.
4. Heartbeat game
This game is not one for bedtime. Stand side by side or opposite your child and together, jump up and down over and over for sixty seconds. Now sit back down and, closing your eyes, each put your hands on your own heart. Ask your child to close their eyes and feel their heartbeat. What else can they also notice about their body?
5. Breathing buddy
This technique is brilliant for helping your child feel calm and peaceful and makes simple meditation accessible and fun. Have your child lie flat on their back on the floor with their favourite cuddly toy placed on their tummy. Ask them to breathe in silence for 60 seconds and notice how their Breathing Buddy moves up and down. Tell them if any other thoughts float into their heads, they should imagine them turning into bubbles and floating away.
6. Gratitude practice
Teaching children to acknowledge and appreciate what they have instead of focusing on what they want or crave is very important. When seated around the dinner table, share one thing that you are thankful for.
7. Mindful eating
Ensure your children eat at a table and without other distractions such as TV, phones and even too much conversation. Instead ask them to chew each mouthful at least ten times and to focus on the way their food tastes and feels in their mouths. As well as teaching observation and appreciation, this is a great way to encourage good eating habits (ie not rushing food and ignoring the body’s natural ‘I’m full’ signals).
8. Noticing walks
Take your child on a stroll through the park or neighbourhood and try noticing things you haven’t seen before. Designate one minute of the walk to stand still and completely silent while you listen out to all the sounds you hear – birds, cars, a lawnmower….
9. Brain break
Teach your child to take a deep breath and calm yourself for three to five minutes to quiet their minds and focus. Notice your breathing, your emotions and your body sensations
A helpful way to teach children to get in the moment in order to avoid negative thinking or knee-jerk reactions to a situation. They should:
Stop what they’re doing.
Take a few deep breathes.
Observe what is happening.
Proceed with a calmer course of behaviour.
11. Stop, drop, breathe!
If your child is getting really stressed or angry, teach them to stop, drop to the floor and focus on their breathing until the negative feelings of panic or anger subside.
12. Friendly wishes
This activity teaches the spread of positive feelings. Ask your child to sit tall and strong in a chair, hands on legs. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine climbing a mountain. Once they can see themselves standing on the peak, they should send friendly wishes out to all the people and animals below. They could say these out loud. “I want you to be happy and healthy, to have fun and feel peaceful and safe. Alternatively you could use sticky notes and have older children or teens write out positive or motivational messages to themselves or their family members and stick them around the house.