Do you feel frazzled as a parent? Wish you were calmer and less reactive? Want to help your children to re-connect with their natural sense of calm? Over recent years, mindfulness has become increasingly popular as a means of reducing stress, improving resilience and enjoying more balance in our lives. While children tend to be naturally more mindful (especially at a young age), mindfulness practice can help them to maintain their natural presence and to boost their emotional resilience in this increasingly fast-paced world. Research shows that regular mindfulness practice can improve children’s mental, physical, social and emotional health.
Children are increasingly busy and stressed, both with pressures at school and commitments at home. The regular practice of mindfulness gives children space to pause and return to the natural joy they find in the present moment. They learn to slow down and become more aware of themselves and others. Their concentration improves and they become better at calming themselves down when they are upset. They learn to relate to others with more kindness and compassion. In a nutshell, they’re able to respond more skilfully to the joys and difficulties of life, establishing a firm foundation for resilience as they move through childhood and towards adulthood.
If we want to help our children to be more mindful, we need to start with ourselves. Developing our own mindfulness practice can be beneficial on many levels, including reconnecting with our natural sense of calm, and enhancing our relationships with our children. A good teacher can be invaluable, although there are plenty of apps and books as a starting point. It can be difficult to learn a new skill while juggling all the balls that come with parenting, but small changes can make a big difference.
I’ve practiced mindfulness for years but didn’t realise quite what a game changer it can be until I became a mum. For the first few months after my daughter was born, my practice lapsed and I struggled with anxiety and insomnia. Gradually, I rebuilt my practice, snatching ten minutes a day when my baby napped and bringing mindful awareness into my everyday activities (the constant laundry and dishwasher loading became part of my practice). Now my practice is non-negotiable, and I really notice the change when I occasionally let it slide; mindfulness helps me to stay more present and less reactive and my children reap the benefits.
It’s important to make practicing mindfulness with children fun - not just another activity to tick off the to-do list. Encourage their natural openness and curiosity, focusing on the experience rather than the result. Little and often is the best way to build up an effective practice, starting with exercises that take as little as five minutes per day. As children start to feel calmer, the practice should begin to feel more natural and effortless. (Remember to switch off all distractions including the TV and your own phone!)
Mindful eating is a great way to start. Any food will do, but raisins or chocolate work well. Children can imagine they are aliens who have never seen or tasted food before. They can look closely at the food, feel it, smell it, notice any reactions or thoughts that come up, then eat it slowly, focusing on taste and the physical sensations of chewing and swallowing. They will never look at raisins in the same way again!
Mindful mirroring is wonderful for children who find it difficult to sit still. You can take it in turns to lead, one moving while the other closely mirrors their movements. See if you can move in slow motion, closely sensing how each movement feels. Explore imitating animals or trees. This is a great way to mindfully connect with your child and can be very funny! (This is my favourite activity with my four-year-old daughter).
Mindful play can be great for younger children and those who like to keep moving. Choose a calming activity such as finger painting, collage or playing in the sandpit. Guide children to be fully present by encouraging them to focus closely on the sensations of the activity; the feel of the paint or sand, the sound of scrunching collage materials, the sparkle of glitter… Allow them to explore on their own, beware of micro-managing the activity!
Take 5 minutes of quiet time every day to simply stop and do nothing. It can be surprising how many children enjoy sitting or lying calmly for a short time! Children can experiment with focusing on different things to calm their mind. These could include following the breath, listening to the sounds around them or calming music, looking closely at a special object of their choice, or feeling the sensations in different parts of the body. If following the breath, you may like to suggest keeping one hand on their tummy and the other on their chest, or you might like to ask them to silently repeat ‘in’ and ‘out’ as they follow their breath cycles.
Encourage children to pause regularly throughout the day, particularly whenever they start to feel stressed or overwhelmed. Take attention to the breath for a few moments and notice how they’re feeling at this moment. If they don’t like focusing on their breath, they can experiment with focusing on how their body connects with the ground instead. These short pauses should help to take their awareness away from their busy mind so they will feel calmer and more grounded.
It can be great fun exploring these activities together and can really improve our connection with our children. Remember to keep things fun and simple! Different activities will appeal to different children so explore and experiment with an open mind. For a wider range of exercises for primary school aged children, check out the book ‘Sitting Still Like a Frog’ by Eline Snel, which comes with a guided CD.
I thoroughly enjoy making time for these quick activities with my children and I can see that it improves our relationship – they are more responsive and I feel that we are more of a team. I also try to make sure that I give each of my children my undivided attention for a few minutes when possible, particularly straight after school and nursery. I practice listening to them carefully and without judgement, and they really respond to being heard. This is a work in progress; I still often find that I feel frazzled after a long day, but overall, mindfulness is a real support for all of us.
Prominent mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn (father of three children) has described mindfulness as an ‘adventure in living’ and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s not always easy to find time to reconnect with each other and with the present moment, but I promise you that it’s worth every second. Let the fun begin!