Take a minute right now to pay attention to what’s going on around you. What do you hear or see? Do
you notice anything new? Now, turn your attention inward. What are you thinking, and how do you feel?
Mindfulness—as you just experienced—is tuning into yourself and paying attention to the present moment without judging or analyzing what you are thinking or feeling. Although it seems quite simple, it is not easy. Our busy minds are constantly darting and drifting, telling stories about what has happened in the past and what might happen in the future.
For children and teenagers, mindfulness is a powerful tool that can enhance many aspects of well-being. As parents and professionals, we can encourage children to be mindful, to cultivate emotional intelligence through their senses, and to reflect on what they learn.
Linking Mindfulness and Emotions
In order to connect mindfulness to our emotions, we can use the idea of “visiting” our feelings. We can encourage children and teenagers to sense, explore, and befriend all of their feelings with acceptance and equanimity. Emotions and feelings are neither good nor bad, neither acceptable nor unacceptable. Rather, they are simply present-moment experiences of felt sensations.
Instead of trying to suppress or undo feelings, we invite children to explore their feelings with their senses and even converse with them. Awareness of how feelings can lodge in the body, as conveyed by common expressions like “a pit in the stomach” or “a lump in the throat” is a form of emotional intelligence. This awareness helps children and teenagers handle any feelings that may arise with equanimity. It also helps them mindfully gain sensitivity to their bodies as rich kaleidoscopes of information. They can cultivate this emotional intelligence through their senses by learning to explore the range of emotions they encounter within themselves on a daily basis.
Physical practice includes yoga, tai chi, martial arts, and even mindful
Mindfulness can take many forms. Physical practice includes yoga, tai chi, martial arts, and even mindful
walking. In fact, any activity can be done mindfully—for example, brushing your teeth, putting on your socks, or practicing the piano. There are many simple exercises you can do at home to help teach your child to be mindful.
Reflection activities can be introduced seamlessly into your family routine. Remember: “Short times, many times” is ideal, both in terms of cultivating a mindful brain and fitting practice into busy schedules. For example, before a family meal, have each person at the table name three things they are grateful for. Discuss where the food came from and express gratitude for all those who helped along the way. Practicing gratitude provides a sense of meaning and connection, and increases our overall sense of well-being.
Try this well-known exercise: Hand your child a raisin, and ask that she use all five senses to explore the raisin before even putting it in her mouth. You can do the same. See how many adjectives you can come up with to describe the raisin’s appearance, taste, touch, smell, and even sound (squish it close to your ear). You can try this with a bite-size portion of any food. For a fun variation, have everyone at the table close their eyes and hand them something unknown to experience and describe.
Mindful breathing practices help regulate the nervous system, which kicks into fight-or-flight mode when we are stressed. There are many simple exercises that can be done at home to encourage mindful breathing. Ask your child to imagine a balloon expanding and contracting while counting his inhales and exhales, or place a small stuffed animal on his belly and ask him to “breathe” the animal to sleep.
Here’s another simple exercise borrowed from yoga practice that combines breathing with a visual cue:
- Have your child make a fist and breathe in through her nose. Count to five out loud for her, or have her count it out in her mind.
- Next, instruct her to put up her hand with five fingers spread wide.
- As she breathes out through her nose, she counts backwards from five, putting down one finger at a time down with each count.
- Repeat this pattern one to three times.
More Ways to Encourage Mindfulness
Cognitive exercises also encourage mindfulness. Reflection, insight, and empathy are essential skills
that are often under-emphasized in formal education. To help develop these skills, try these exercises:
- Ask your child to tune in and count five sounds, five body sensations (e.g. warmth, tingling, pulsing), or five objects in the room that start with the letter “b.” This is good practice for identifying but not acting on feelings and impulses that arise in the body.
- Encourage your child to change her own personal TV channel in her mind. When she practices switching from her favorite show to something she doesn’t like or to a neutral show, she is strengthening her ability to direct her attention.
- Ask your child to watch his thoughts like a parade passing. Ask him to notice whether the thoughts are big or small, loud or quiet, single or repetitive. His job is to keep watching the parade, rather than being swept into it—that is, caught up in his thoughts.
As newborns, we were more fully engaged in the world of the senses through voices, scents, colors, and, of course, internal sensations of hunger. As we mature, however, verbal skills enable us to label our emotions, so that joy is often deemed “good,” while anger or sadness is considered “bad.” Motor skills enable us to flee from or act out our emotions. We have all witnessed this in a child’s full-body temper tantrum. As our children become acculturated to our busy pace and constant moving and doing, they gradually forget how to simply be. Practicing mindfulness can help us get back to the present.
For children and teenagers, practicing mindfulness can help develop insight and empathy, or what Dr. Dan Siegel, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, has termed “mindsight.” Mindsight can actually transform the brain, creating new neural circuits and promoting reflection. Mindfulness can become a way of approaching life, one that fosters resilience and ultimately promotes well-being in the larger community. The emotional insight children gain will help them as they navigate their teen years and adulthood.
As you develop a mindfulness practice with your child or teenager, you might want to explore the benefits of parent-child yoga or develop a basic breathing practice. You can also explore mindfulness books for children available from Magination Press.
Related Books from Magination Press
Visiting Feelings encourages children to treat their feelings like guests — welcome them in, get to know them, and perhaps learn why they are visiting. Through this purposeful and mindful exploration, Visiting Feelings harnesses a young child’s innate capacity to fully experience the present moment and invites children to sense, explore, and befriend all of their feelings with acceptance and equanimity. A Note to Parents provides more information about emotional awareness and mindfulness.