Mindfulness for children (Part 2)
This post includes a selection from an article on "being a mindful family," but I thought I would offer a two of my favorite techniques first. Concerning the article, I can say that my major point of agreement with this article is that children learn mindfulness from watching their parents--or else, they learn the opposite. The "opposite" in children looks like defiant, immature, inattentive behavior, and a devaluing of school/learning.
1) I teach children the "4 Elements" exercise, and actually give them a little wristband to remind them of it. I believe it was created by the son of EMDR's founder. The four exercises, easily remembered as "elements," are:
-"Earth": Put both feet flat on the ground, and look around the room. Notice three new things. (This requires getting back into the body and ceasing mindless ramblings.)
-"Air": This can be any simple breathing exercise. I ask children to take three deep breaths very slowly, and then to visualize the air going into their lungs--how it feels, what "color" it might be, whether it's hot or cold, etc. Then I ask them to imagine all the little oxygen molecules nourishing their body, traveling all through the arms, legs, and so on. (This reverses the stress response by making breathing slower, regular, and deeper.)
-"Water": Children are simply asked to make more saliva, or to take a sip of water. (This reverses the stress response by "turning on" the digestive system, which is an organ system that shuts down when there is a threat--ever notice how public speaking gives you a dry mouth?)
-"Fire": I help children develop a "calm place" by using EMDR techniques, but it can be done simply with guided imagery. Ask the child what their ultimate calm place would look like--being on a beach, being at a favorite park, etc.--and then rehearse and amplify this with them in a back-and-forth, getting the child to give more detail using the five senses. Then we pair emotions called up by this calm place with the imagery, and perhaps give the place a name. The child can use the name to call up the feelings and imagery (with practice), and calm themselves. (This is a mindfulness practice in and of itself.)
2) A simple exercise for children is the "spiral technique," which is an exercise in "thinking about thinking," and rising above one's emotions rather than being mired in them.
-First, I ask the child to picture whatever negative emotion they are feeling as a roaring spiral or tornado, and use a back-and-forth descriptive process to increase a sense of tension, pairing the spiral with the emotion.
-Then, the child is asked what direction the spiral is turning in, clockwise, or counterclockwise. In Ericksonian terms, this is called "pattern interruption," and interrupts the zoned-out trance we all get caught in when overwhelmed with emotion. The question snaps the child out of the emotion.
-The child is then asked to "use their mind" to slow the spiral and turn it in the opposite direction (whatever that is). The emotion will usually decrease or disappear, and at the very least the child may not be as caught up the whirlwind. Incredibly, this technique consistently produces good results in my office not only for children, but for adults. Pattern interruption is certainly related to mindfulness.
Here is part of the article, the part that pertains to children specifically. For the whole article, click here.
Raising the Mindful Child (and Parent)
Small children are so present with their experience that they usually don’t need help connecting to the moment. As children grow older, though, the complexities of social engagement, the pressures of school, and the distractions of technology play a significant role in their daily lives. They, like us, need all the help they can get coming home to themselves with awareness and compassion. What they’ve learned from their parents over the years can make a significant contribution to their ability to do so.
It is difficult to separate raising a mindful child from raising a mindful parent, since we are often, without even realizing it, passively teaching our kids to be mindful or mindless. We can be so focused on “teaching” our kids how to be responsible and compassionate adults that we forget that they’re learning the most by watching how we are being in the world.
If you’re staring at your phone while answering your child’s questions, you’re teaching them that fully listening isn’t that important. If you’re hyper-stressed and snap at the driver who just cut you off, you’re teaching them that acting out aggression is a healthy response to perceived slights. On the other hand, when you stop to help someone who dropped something on the street, you’re teaching them to give thought to others, the root of compassion. When you’re willing to talk openly about emotions—both yours and theirs—and you treat yourself with kindness in difficult times, you inspire emotional intelligence and self-compassion. When you rebound from your mistakes instead of spiraling into shame, you’re modeling resilience.
There are also more active ways we can teach our children mindfulness. We can find creative ways to inspire it in them—not trying to impose it but simply planting the seeds. You can start by working with mindfulness of emotions. Even when children as young as two are upset or happy, you can nurture self-reflection and emotional intelligence in them. You can help them identify and label their emotions and where they feel them in the body. That will lay the foundation for doing this on their own. That may take a while, so just remember—you are simply planting seeds. Be sure to take it slow and check in: How are you feeling right now? How do you imagine your child is feeling?