Mindfulness is becoming a way of life. As I sip my morning coffee, I see meditation in the headlines of mainstream news stations. Local bookstores carry more self-help books than ever before. We are in an age of information, and more people are taking advantage of readily available tools and methods for a better, more connected life.
If you are a parent, you may be wondering how to bring more peace, presence, awareness, and compassion into your child’s life. Mindfulness is a wonderful way to do this. Regardless of whether you were taught how to take care of your mental and emotional health as a child, it’s never too late to begin a mindfulness practice, and it’s never too early to share these practices with your children.
Mindfulness is defined as paying attention to what’s happening in the moment without judgment, which helps us view our experiences with kindness and curiosity. It can be further understood as a compassionate lens through which you view your life.
Some benefits of practicing mindfulness:
Decreases stress & anxiety
Mindfulness practices can help soothe the nervous system, alleviate stress, and manage feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.
Supports positive relationships
When we are self-aware, we can engage mindfully with others. Conflicts are easier to manage and resolve, and we can find compassion for ourselves and others.
Mindfulness helps us become aware of ourselves and our lives through a judgment-free lens. We can accept ourselves exactly as we are. Change freely comes when we stop resisting what is in front of us.
By practicing mindfulness, we notice when our mind wanders away from the present moment. We start to notice when we worry about the future or reminisce about the past. Noticing our distractions helps us build our focus muscle and ultimately allows us to concentrate more by bringing our focus back to the task at hand.
In moments where we act in a way that we later regret—i.e., having an outburst of anger—we’re operating from a part of our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for responding to dangerous stimuli. We need to operate from a different part of the brain to respond instead of reacting, called the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain helps us pause before responding. Mindfulness practices help us effectively utilize this part of the brain. Practicing mindfulness and sharing it with your child can positively impact your family in so many ways. Below are five ways to teach your children to be mindful and live in the present.
1. Help your child name their emotions.
When we name our emotions (or someone helps us name them), we can access a different part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex, as described above) that allows us to tame our emotions. By accessing the prefrontal cortex, we can see the big picture, empathize, and understand cause and effect.
Since the pre-frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until about 25 years old, children need our support in helping access that part of the brain. As parents, we want to fix our kids’ problems and give advice. When witnessing our child have a hard time, we might say, “you’re fine!” or “calm down!” We can better support our child by saying something like “it looks like you’re upset” or “That must be frustrating, am I right in saying that?” Simply helping our kids name their emotions allows the brain to switch gears so that they can move through and manage whatever they are feeling.
2. Breathe through your nose.
Nasal breathing releases nitric oxide, which helps oxygenate your cells, and activates your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to enter a state of rest and recall information. These effects help to alleviate physical stress.
Anything we do, our kids are likely to model. When your child witnesses you being intentional with your breath, breathing through your nose to access a state of calm, they will likely begin breathing the same way.
Breathe with your child. Pick a time where your child has their main needs met. Don't try to teach intentional breathing while your child has a big emotion. Tell your child, “Today, we are going to practice breathing before bed." You can sit up nice and tall when you are in bed and tell your child to do the same. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Tell your child to "notice how it feels to rest your hands on your body in this way.” Narrate the practice for your child. "Breathe in through your nose and fill your belly and chest up with air. Breathe out and let your belly and chest soften." Repeat 3-5x. Ask your child, "what did you notice?"
The goal is not to get your child to feel calm all the time. The goal is to get them to notice their internal experience and understand that this practice is always available to support them in challenging moments throughout their day.
3. Notice Nature.
As humans, we are so accustomed to resisting change and holding onto experiences that feel “good.” This makes it challenging to live in the present moment. Nature can remind us that everything moves in cycles. When we remember that everything has a season, it helps us move through the changes in life with more ease.
Take a moment outside with your child. Notice what’s happening all around you. Look for clouds; notice your environment's colors, textures, shapes, and patterns. What stage of growth are the trees and plants around you? Notice the sound of birds chirping, the wind blowing, or the sensation of your feet on the earth. Point out one of these things that you notice to your child and ask them what they notice, too. Encourage your child to appreciate and take notice of the wonders of the natural world.
4. Engage your senses.
Engaging your senses is a quick and straightforward way for you and your child to drop into the present moment. This practice is fun for kids (think of it as a mindful eye spy) and super grounding for adults.
Notice 5 things you can SEE
Perhaps you draw your awareness to the patterns in a leaf, the colors of the trees, the shape of your pillow. Observe them with a fresh and curious perspective and try to notice things you may not have before.
Notice 4 things you can FEEL
Draw your focus to your tactile sense, such as the feeling of your bare feet on the ground, the soft fabric of your blanket, or the bark on a tree.
Notice 3 things you can HEAR
Listen for sounds far away from you, like a plane in the sky or sounds close by, such as the hum of your appliances or the sound of your breath.
Notice 2 things you can SMELL
Can you notice things you don't usually smell? The smell of laundry, food in the fridge, or flowers in the garden.
Notice 1 thing you can TASTE
Take a sip of water or notice the taste in your mouth without changing anything.
5. Regulate Yourself
Our child’s nervous system is modeled after our own. While it’s entirely normal for us to go into a heightened state of panic during moments that feel unsafe, our goal is to be able to share a sense of equanimity with our kids most of the time.
The best way to do this is to practice regulating our nervous system by allowing ourselves to feel our feelings. As parents, we are often concerned more with the well-being of our children than our well-being. However, the two are directly related. If we can start to bring compassion into our own lives by noticing our feelings, honoring them, and giving them space to breathe, we will have an easier time showing up for our kids in their challenging moments. For example, you can show your kids that you are self-regulating and practicing mindfulness by letting them know when you have a big emotion. You might say something like, “I am feeling frustrated right now. I need to take a deep breath.”
The most important part of sharing mindfulness with your kids is practicing your mindfulness. You can’t teach what you don’t know. When you embody your practice, you can attune to yourself and better adjust to your child’s needs.
The practices instilled in children become the habits and patterns of adults. The earlier we can share these practices with our kids, the better equipped they will be for dealing with their feelings. Let’s teach our children what so many of us wish we learned when we were young: how to be compassionate, self-aware, and socially and emotionally conscious human beings. Let’s teach our children how to be mindful and live in the present moment. If you are a busy parent or caregiver hoping to learn more about mindfulness and how to inspire the next generation, visit nestfulminds.com.