Childhood and adolescence are marked by rapid change, growth and challenge—and they are often periods of high risk for developing anxiety. This is especially true today, when children of all ages are immersed in technology and constantly bombarded with stimuli of all kinds. When fears and anxious feelings become difficult to manage, one effective tool that may help your child is mindfulness.

Mindfulness exercises and meditations have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; calm anxious imaginings and negative thinking; improve mood and sleep; and help reconnect one to the world within and without. Mindfulness training has also been shown to correlate with overall well-being.

The cornerstone of all mindfulness exercises is awareness. Awareness requires paying attention, in the present moment and without judgment, to the unfolding of experience. Awareness brings us into the here and now, and helps us from anxiously reliving painful experiences or fearing future ones. There is a quieting of upsetting thoughts and difficult emotions.

Open-hearted awareness of moment-to-moment experience reminds us of the richness of life that is always unfolding before us. Securely grounded in the present moment, we can calm down and make plans for the future. Mindfulness can awaken and heighten our senses, as we bring into conscious awareness impressions and sensations we usually ignore.

Parents can share a wide variety of mindfulness exercises with young children, with the added benefit of rewarding time together. Additional exercises can be offered for solo practice to your more self-reliant tween or teen. Here are a few to try.

Mindfulness Exercises for Young Children

Young children may have difficulty articulating anxiety or practicing mindfulness on their own. Parents can engage their children in several simple activities. One of the most powerful is simply to sit still. Face each other and take a moment to focus on one deep breath at a time. Breathe slowly in, then breathe slowly out. Ask your child to notice how the air feels in their nose and chest, what breathing sounds like. Take a moment to appreciate that your body knows how to breathe every minute of the day, even while you are sleeping.

Mindfulness coloring books are widely available tools to help decrease anxiety and stress. Some coloring books have intricate mandalas that parents can color in with children. Candle gazing is another simple activity: focus on your breath as you watch the flame and the shape of the wax as it melts. Try situating color-changing tea lights around the room instead, so your child can relax while observing the shifting play of the lights. Or shake a snow globe and mindfully observe the swirls as they settle.

A mindful walk is a fun exercise to share. Take ten minutes and focus on the sensation of feet touching the ground, the breath, how the arms and legs move. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to awareness of the walk. This can also encourage an increasing awareness of nature, which may encourage a mindful state with little effort. Ask your child to pay attention to the shapes and colors of leaves, grass, and plants. Notice the aroma of spring flowers, the crisp scent of autumn air. Listen for the calls of birds, notice how wind feels in the hair, the whooshing sound of traffic, the warm sun. Extend awareness each time by focusing and not rushing.

Mindfulness Activities for Teens

A ‘five senses’ exercise is longer while still allowing your teen to learn how to anchor into the present moment. Ask your teen to breathe deeply and closely observe five things they can see around them, four things they can feel right now, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing you they can taste.

Teens can also try a body scan, which can last a few minutes or as long as half an hour. Rest comfortably on your back with your feet slightly apart and palms facing up. Focus on your breath, noticing the experience of breathing in and out. Gradually begin to pay attention to the feeling in the entire body, beginning with the toes, then the rest of the feet and legs, before moving up through the pelvis, stomach, chest and lower back to the arms, shoulders, and head. You can try adding mindfulness body movement, which can include stretches, simple yoga positions, or beginner’s tai-chi exercises. These movements can help increase awareness and relieve the muscle tension associated with stress. When practicing this kind of mindfulness movement, your child should keep in mind the words “relax, release, and lengthen.”

Overall, mindfulness is an effective tool for helping your child or teen cope with anxiety and other distressing emotions, a tool that can be used in different ways as they grow. Most people, whether adults or children, are not fully present in the moment. They are often distracted, multi-tasking, thinking about the past or planning for and possibly worrying about the future. The core feature of mindfulness, awareness, can pave the way for easing these tensions, and allow kindness, tolerance, self-compassion, acceptance and joy to surface.

Learn more about strategies for managing anxiety at Magination Press Family: Stress and Anxiety in Kids.

by Jill Neimark

This Article's Author

Jill Neimark is a veteran science journalist and author of adult and children's fiction. A former contributing editor at Discover Magazine, she also written for Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, The New York Times, NPR, Quartz, and Psychology Today. Her most recent adult nonfiction book, coauthored with bioethicist Stephen Post, PhD, was Why Good Things Happen to Good People