So you have heard about mindfulness, perhaps used it yourself, and you think it would help a child you are either parent to or work with. I have written here a very brief, step-by-step guide to using mindfulness with children, based on my experience using mindfulness in my work with children and adolescents for the last 6 years. Below are two definitions of mindfulness. The first is my own definition, and the second is the clinical definition. After this, you will find my step-by-step guide:
'Mindfulness is listening to yourself and your environment with compassion, curiosity and acceptance.'
'Mindfulness is the regulation of psychological and autonomic arousal by increasing perceptual distance from somatic pain and maladaptive thoughts and emotions.'
- The first most important step is that you ideally would not be recommending mindfulness unless you practise it yourself. If you are clearly struggling with an aspect of your own mind, be it stress, anxiety, low moods, et cetera, then the child will likely find your suggestions of mindfulness hypocritical, and they will resist. Children are much smarter and intuitive than most people give them credit. So, if you are interested first in learning mindfulness yourself, you can get in touch with me, find an MBCT, MBSR course near you, or use the excellent Headspace app. Here is a brilliant animation by Headspace which explains mindfulness practice.
- Once you have a practice in place, and you can truly know from personal experience the benefits of mindfulness, you will be more able to mindfully check your expectations. If you are hoping that this is going to be a miracle cure, stopping tantrums, bringing A-grades at school, whatever, then you are likely to be disappointed. It is also very likely that the child in question will be picking up on your frustration with them, and internalising it, creating inner conflict. You may well find that simply practising mindfulness yourself will have the amazing knock-on effect of making the children you are concerned about more calm. I can tell you this is a very likely outcome.
- Having said this, there is a large and growing evidence-base for the benefits of mindfulness with children. Here is a good overview.
- It is vital to remember that children are naturally mindful. I am sure you have seen a child fully absorbed in sensory play with a simple object. Well, this is our natural state of mindfulness, our heritage.
- But children lose touch with their natural mindfulness, especially in the modern world, as their attention gets divided and their minds get clogged up with information.
- To bring children back to their natural state, play is the way. It is not necessary, and is in fact counter-productive, for children to be forced to sit down for lengths of time, eyes closed, trying really hard to focus. This kind of approach just adds another layer of adult neurosis into their sensitive, rapidly forming brains. One of the most effective mindfulness tricks I have used in the last years has been the very simple and fun Noise Game. In this game, you simply have the child, the group (yes...that's including you) jump up and down and make as much noise and movement as possible for one minute. After a minute, you shout STOP, and get the child/ren to be as still as possible for one minute. You can talk them through this second minute, getting them to notice their heartbeat, feet on the floor, sounds in the room. This is really a variation of musical statues, which again, can be turned into a mindfulness exercise in the same way.
- Most games can be turned into exercises in mindfulness if you ask the right questions in the right way. Just getting the child to tune into their senses whilst playing any game makes mindfulness something fun to do, rather than another chore, like doing homework.
- This is especially true in nature. Simply by noticing things in nature with our senses, the children naturally learn from us, and we subtly encourage them to do the same. Of course phones will ideally be switched off.
- For adolescents, the only real difference is that they may not be so keen to play games with you. In this case, I have found it really helpful to engage adolescents through tapping into their own interests. Whether they like sports, dance, singing, reading, most interests and activities can be enhanced with a dash of mindfulness. Engaging their senses, or getting them to notice the rise and fall of their breath, before, during or after these activities they love will enhance their enjoyment of the activity, and is also likely to improve their performance.
- If you are very concerned about your child or teenager's mental health, and these simple playful exercises are not enough, then please get in touch for a free consultation. At the moment, there are no mindfulness for children programmes that I know of in London, other than programmes delivered in schools by .b (I am a qualified .b teacher) and other similar organisations. I can offer a tailored mindfulness programme individually or as a group, depending on the needs.
- So, the key lesson from this very brief guide is that mindfulness is our natural state, and that generally children and adolescents can tune back into this state easily, if they are encouraged in a playful, accepting, and compassionate way, by somebody who practises mindfulness themselves.
I am very happy to offer an initial consultation to explore mindfulness further with you. Alternatively, should you wish to explore this in your own time, here are a couple of resources I can vouch for:
However you decide to implement mindfulness with the children you have in mind, may you all find peace in the process.