Introducing Mindfulness to Children
THE AIM AND BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS
Are you struggling with some parenting issues? Are you trying to help your child without resorting to or relying solely on medications? Or perhaps you need help gaining better traction with your child's cognitive therapy. Maybe you are in a field working with children and want an edge with developing children or giving them the fullest opportunities in their life. There are more options now to do so. And in various formats, mindfulness is an emerging tool for children and our society (with research and statistics to back it up).
But where do we begin with this tool? For starters what is it? Is it meditation? How do you incorporate it into your life, your child's life or in a career dealing with children?
Mindfulness has been described in a number of ways. The best way to understand it is to actually experience it. There are many organizations and practitioners available to help you discover it for yourself. My upcoming article on how to cultivate mindfulness will address this with more resources too. You may already be experiencing mindfulness but just not know you're doing it and with some guidance, you can do it intentionally. It can greatly benefit you and everyone in your life. For the sake of getting you started on your journey and deeper into this story, here is an easy way to dive into mindfulness.
Mindfulness involves having a non-judgmental awareness of both internal and external experiences, moment to moment.
US medical professor Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced Americans to mindfulness in the 1970s to cope with stress. Kabat-Zinn says “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgementally.” This fruitful level of awareness empowers one with more insight and choices for how to experience and respond more purposely to the world happening in, around and through them.
Professor Mark Williams (a recently retired professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University) is one of the pioneers of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in the UK. His 8-week course is taught around the world to cultivate mindfulness. He explains it in these terms, "It's a preventative treatment - that's what makes it different." Williams says, "People usually seek treatment when they're depressed or anxious, and cognitive therapy is one of the major success stories in treatment. But cognitive therapy is used when people are ill. What we wanted to do was extend this to teach people skills to stay well that they could use before depression threatens."
Williams shares a good example of how mindfulness can help you in your life:
"A good example of how it can work is when you're kept awake at night thinking. You toss and turn and you get angry because you can't sleep. The anger doesn't help, but you can't seem to stop it. Mindfulness isn't about suppressing those thoughts, but about enabling you to stand back and observe them as if they were clouds going past in the sky. You see them and you cultivate a sense of kindness towards them."
We've all been there, right? The idea is not to just watch the clouds pass, but by applying mindfulness in that situation, your mind will clear and your body will relax allowing you to fall back asleep. To keep things simple, note that mindfulness differs from meditation in that instead of asking people to clear their minds, it invites them to investigate and acknowledge their thoughts. However, it is the practice of meditation that empowers one to more effectively achieve mindfulness. And most importantly, mindfulness allows one to develop the capacity to maintain an emotional balance within any particular life moment.
Teaching children about mindfulness is critical in their early developmental years because it is a time when they are open to an easier way to live. Research shows it puts them on a path for health, better relationships, and academic success. Here are two eye-opening research results:
1) Middle school students exposed to relaxation and meditation techniques over a three year period scored higher on work habits, cooperation, attendance and had significantly higher GPA's than non-meditating students. (Source: Benson, Journal of Research And Development in Education 33 (3) (2000)
2) 48 children who participated in a 6-week meditation program showed significant improvements in behavior, self - esteem, and relationship quality, with an average 35% improvement in ADHD symptoms. Of 31 children taking medication for their ADHD. 11 were able to reduce their medications. (Source: Harrison, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 9 (4) (October, 2004)
I work in an adolescent treatment center and am saddened by the number of children and teens suffering from depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, and low self-esteem. They deal with their pain by not eating, overeating/binging, purging, cutting, and attempting suicide. I often find myself wondering, “How did it get this bad?” “How did it get this far?” and “What went wrong?”
I work with these children to help them find a new way of living, a new way of being though mindfulness. I encourage them to look for the light within them even though I know these kids are living their lives in a very dark place. They spend their days feeling alone, unwanted, and unworthy of anything good in their lives.
My only hope is that they will trust me enough to follow me into the light. I introduce them to a side of themselves that is safe, comforting, loving, warm, and encouraging. I ask them to listen to the voice within them that speaks words of kindness; quieting that self-critical, defeating voice they hear all day long.
These children may or may not have come from loving families, but one thing is for sure, they were never introduced to the power of mindfulness and the powerful force that lives within them, walks beside them, and is there to guide them through their purposeful life.
This guided work encourages children to put mindfulness first, to be considerate of others, and to be aware of how their actions and behavior impact their own lives and the people around them.
The Aim of Children Practicing Mindfulness:
1. Learn how to better connect to themselves and to others.
2. See the world through different eyes… without fears, insecurities, low self-esteem, and anger.
3. Discover the part of them that ignites the power, imagination, and creativity within.
4. Embrace the part of them that is love, compassion, and understanding.
5. Tap into the part of them that is clear, focused, intelligent, and imaginative.
6. Trust the part of them that is confident… where they can go when they need courage.
7. Find freedom from the paralysis of fear.
8. Tune in to their own breath, giving new life to their body and soul.
9. Discover their gifts and inner desires.
10. Learn how to focus on one thing at a time; great for children with ADD and ADHD. Improving focus and concentration.
11. Allow communication with a higher power of their understanding.
12. Tap into the part of themselves that is unconditional love and acceptance of who they are. Find the kind of inner peace that we are born with, the kind that creates worlds; loving relationships; inspired actions; purpose, passion and the perseverance to carry out their dreams.
People go their entire life never knowing who they really are, the power that lives within them, or the friend that lives inside them. There is so much more they have access to but are unaware of.
What would our kids be like if they were practicing mindfulness and operating from this place all day long? In practicing mindfulness, children can create a safe and powerful place within them that they can draw upon and access throughout their day when they need it.
The Benefits of Children Practicing Mindfulness:
1. The ability to access their love and compassion when someone else has hurt or upset them.
2. The ability to forgive when they feel someone has wronged them.
3. Courage to share their feelings, their sadness, anger, and frustration when they are in the moment. They will feel that it is safe to share and OK to feel what they may without fear of anybody judging them.
4. Effective communication skills. They will be able to communicate with themselves by getting to the root of their emotions and being honest with themselves so they can improve upon their shortcomings. They will then learn to communicate with others and build upon their relationships.
5. Discovery of their inner desires and ambitions.
6. Knowledge of the tools they have and how to use them to accomplish anything they set their minds to.
7. Self-confidence and the strength to ward off potential bullying, a problem facing many schools today. In my work at adolescent treatment centers, I have seen many young children turn to drugs, alcohol and self-harm after experiencing the terrorizing effects of bullying.
8. Inner-happiness, reducing the need to fill voids with drugs, alcohol, and self-harm.
9. Caring and compassion to help another in need, from consoling a sad friend, to comforting someone who may have been left out or is having lunch alone.
10. The mindfulness to acknowledge their own mistakes and say, “I am sorry” when they are wrong.
It's never too early to work with children toward mindfulness. You could be working with toddlers on their breathing to relax them, for example. Don't wait until a child is in the middle of a crisis to begin this effort, you will be met with strong resistance. One can also start by having them tune in to their bodies. The prime age to begin with more involved work starts at about 5 years of age. For more about applicable techniques and programs for discovering mindfulness with your children, come back soon for my second article “Applying Mindfulness to Children," outlining specific ways to apply mindfulness.
My work in teen rehab centers has taught me the importance of practicing mindfulness in my home and introducing my children to this way of being at a very early age. I've also learned that no teen from any socio-economic-ethnic background is immune to the kind of trauma that lands children into rehabilitation centers. This could happen to anyone's child regardless of how perfect or stable a home a parent creates.
Parents and guides for children practicing mindfulness will benefit from this work too. In fact, much of what drives children to dark places is their parents' own shortcomings. By practicing mindfulness together, both children and parents can create new bonds of trust, love, and understanding and open up their family to experience new levels of possibility.