While we usually think of ‘mindfulness’ as a practice useful for overworked adults, the same exercises can be incredibly beneficial to our children. As a licensed marriage and family therapist Hanna Stensby, M.A., explains mindfulness helps to retrain our brain to remain objective in the presence of thoughts, feelings and body sensations by challenging us to stay in the present moment.
And though most of us learn mindfulness later in life and have to overcome the obstacle of calming our active minds, kiddos who begin earlier may reap more rewards. “For children who are just developing their sense of self in the world, autonomy, connection, and sensory experience, practicing mindfulness can help them to be non-judgemental and self-compassionate,” Stensby explains. “They will appear to be more calm and mature as they integrate the mindfulness skills into their daily lives. This curiosity can help to stimulate creativity and open-mindedness as well as to foster healthy relationships and self-image.”
Here, some easy, kid-friendly ways to integrate mindfulness activities into their daily routine:
Sit like a frog to become calm.
If your child is currently fascinated by animals, they would likely be excited to mimic them. As an introduction into mindfulness, teach them how to sit like a frog, recommends Dr. Alena Prikhidko, a registered marriage and family therapist intern at the counseling and Wellness Center of South Florida. This means sharing a story about how frogs can remain still for a long time and then move when they really need to eat or if they sense danger. “We can see how frogs breathe, and they are very good at observing everything that is going on around them, being aware and calm,” she explains. Then you can ask a child to imagine as if they were a frog and sit still. “While they are playing a role of a frog, we can continue telling them how frogs can transform into a prince or a princess, how they are alert and don’t judge, accepting what is going on right now,” she adds.
Blowing bubbles to teach diaphragmatic breathing.
You know when you are feeling the stress pile on, and you take a pause to take a big ‘ole breath in? That’s diaphragmatic breathing, and it helps to switch our bodies from the stress response sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. Stensby says we allow our body to rest and restore, giving our mind and racing heart a break when we do this. Because diaphragmatic breathing isn’t the natural way we breathe in and out, Stensby recommends using bubbles as a way to teach your children.
“Demonstrate how to fill up your belly by expanding it outward then push your air out, allowing the belly to collapse as you blow air onto the wand to create bubbles,” she recommends. “The stimulation of creating the bubbles helps the child to stay engaged for long enough to get the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. Help them remember to slow down and that if they want to create a bubble, they need steady gentle breaths so as not to pop the bubbles.”
After you have practiced, she says you can then refer to it as ‘bubble breathing,’ and they can use it when they need to self-soothe.
Sensory play to discover grounding.
When you are experiencing anxious thoughts, it may be because you are worrying about areas of your life that you can’t control or predict. When it becomes overwhelming, a grounding exercise can be helpful to bring you back to the current moment, according to Dr. Prikhidko. For children who are starting to learn about their five senses, sensory play can teach them this vital practice. To do this is simple. Just ask children to pause whatever they are doing and list the following:
- Five things they see.
- Four things they feel.
- Three things they hear.
- Two things they smell.
- And one thing they taste.
This forces them to focus on what’s happening right now and around them, rather than having a tantrum about tomorrow’s homework or a friend who wouldn’t share a toy.
Bedtime storytelling to foster hope and confidence.
If your kiddo tends to be a worrier who battles bedtime, future pacing could be a way to build hope and confidence for the day ahead. As defined, this is a practice that allows us to own who we want to be and then step into the energy of that empowered self, according to Sarah Vie, an energy healer, author and coach. What is it exactly? Much like it sounds: envisioning ourselves tomorrow, thinking happy thoughts and feeling hopeful emotions rather than anxiety.
To begin, Vie says to encourage your child to take some deep breaths. Then, ask them to tell you a positive vision that they’d like for themselves the next day or for a future event. “Encourage them to express all the details to you. What would this future version of themselves be thinking, doing or feeling? You can even joke with them about what they would be wearing,” she continues. “Just create the vision and let them be creative.”
Cloud thoughts to manage anxiety.
As Dr. Prikhidko says, thoughts can be intrusive and make kids — and adults — feel anxious. “We explain to children how thoughts can make them worry when they believe in thoughts; meanwhile, some thoughts may not be worth believing in them,” she continues. She recommends teaching kids to put these thoughts on a cloud to help children disconnect from these negative thoughts and diffuse their power. By closing their eyes and seeing the scary thought float away, it loses its ability to control their minds.
Glitter and water jars to build meditation skills.
Meditation can be problematic for children who are always moving, dancing and running around. The goal, though, is to find something that keeps and maintains their attention for an extended period. That’s why Stensby recommends a craft project to get them interested in the practice gradually. Find an empty glass jar or plastic water bottle and fill it with one to two drops of dish soap and glitter. Then, add water. Close the lid and shake to create a snow-globe effect. This is now your meditation timer!
“Utilize the metaphor of feeling like there is a whirling wind inside your body when you are experiencing intense emotions, and if you allow yourself to sit still and focus on the swirling, it will eventually dissipate,” Stensby explains. “The jar will create a visual representation of their inner experience of intense emotions.”
When you are ready to practice meditation, have the children shake up the bottle and then place it on the floor in front of them. Have them watch the bottle until the glitter has all settled into stillness on the bottom of the jar, signifying the end of the meditation. “The focus on the glitter gives them something to focus on to help anchor them to the present moment and provides a metaphor to help them understand the concept of observing one’s emotions without unconsciously reacting,” she adds.
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