Feel calmer, more focused and less stressed by practicing mindfulness
In our busy daily lives, who wouldn’t want to find a way to feel calmer, more focused and a little less stressed? Mindfulness can help both kids and adults achieve this in the moments when it’s most needed and in life overall. It’s a tool families can practice and learn at home together, and here’s the especially great part: many of the related activities can be an easy addition or simple adjustment to what we’re already doing daily and in our family activities.
Dr. Valentina Cimolai, child and adolescent psychiatrist, and Kristen Norton, social worker, share what they’re asked most often about mindfulness and some easy ways families can start practicing this together.
What is mindfulness and why is it important?
Mindfulness is defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” In other words, being mindful means being fully present – doing one thing at a time and on purpose, aware of where you are and what you’re doing. When you’re mindful, you’re not quick to react and you don’t get overwhelmed by your thoughts, feelings or what’s going on around you.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation practice (approach to training the mind) that’s been part of traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism for thousands of years. About 30 years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn, now a world-renowned medicine professor, brought mindfulness to the United States. In doing so, he joined lessons from his Buddhist teachers with Western medicine and developed the highly regarded Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Since then, mindfulness has gained widespread popularity and has become a tool that’s recommended by medical professionals for a number of different conditions.
Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness – which involves doing activities that promote “being mindful” – can actually change parts of our brain involved in learning, memory and how we handle emotions (emotion regulation). This can help us be calmer, more focused and better able to cope with stress.1-5
How do I explain mindfulness to my child or teen?
If you have a young child, rather than focusing on defining the term, it may be better to invite your child to feel the experience first through the activities we recommend below. You can tell them that the goal is for them to find their “quiet place” to help them deal with their emotions.
If you have older children or teens, explain that mindfulness activities are a way to “train their brain,” the same way they train and strengthen their muscles with exercise. With a stronger brain, they will be better able to focus and cope with stress.
How do you learn to be mindful?
The ability to “be mindful” improves over time with practice. As with most skills, the more you practice, the better you become and the more you appreciate the benefits. Start by dedicating a few minutes a day to do a mindful activity together and increase the amount of time spent doing these activities as you are able.
Over time and with practice, the goal is to become more mindful and present throughout the day, outside of the dedicated practice. You can also use mindful activities as needed when you’re having a hard time or feeling overwhelmed, angry or anxious. Be sure to share this option with your child as they learn the activities so they’re aware they can try mindful techniques as needed too.
What are mindful activities I can do with my child?
Find a quiet space in the house or outside in nature that you can devote to this, somewhere you won’t be disturbed. Explain to your child beforehand that it’s completely normal to get distracted and for their mind to wander during the activity, and that if this happens it is their opportunity to train their brain! Encourage them to be kind to themselves, and not to feel bad for getting distracted, but to gently bring their attention back to the activity they were doing if they notice their mind wandering.
- Mindful breathing: If you have a younger child, have them lie down with a stuffed toy on their belly. Encourage them to breathe in through their nose (like smelling a flower) and out through their mouth (like blowing out candles) while they watch the stuffed toy move up and down. Repeat three times.
If you have older children, ask them to find a comfortable seated position and put their hands on their belly. Encourage them to breathe in through their nose and out of their mouth, paying attention to their breath, the warmth/coldness of the air coming into their lungs and the up/down movements of their belly. Repeat three times.
- Mindful eating: Take a piece of food and encourage your child to use all five senses to eat it. Ask them to describe how it looks, what it smells like and how it feels on their fingers. Encourage them to pay attention to the sound it makes when they bite it. Give them a minute to savor it, appreciate how it feels in their mouth and how it tastes before they swallow. Fruit, nuts and dark chocolate are some good options to try for this, but really it can be any food your child likes that’s age-appropriate and can be swallowed safely.
You can also organize a mindful meal for the entire family where everyone stays silent and is encouraged to pay attention to all sensations brought up by every single bite of food they put in their mouth.
- Mindful walking: Take a walk with your child, possibly in nature. During the walk, encourage your child to pay attention and describe what they see, hear and smell around them. Help them focus on the sensation of their feet touching the ground or their hand holding yours.
- Make a mindfulness jar: Fill a mason jar or plastic water bottle to the top with water. Have your child pick glitter to represent their thoughts and drop a few pinches into the water (which represents their mind). Seal the jar then shake it up and invite your child to observe how the water clears as the glitter settles on the bottom, the same way that worrisome thoughts can settle in their mind with the practice of mindfulness. Watching this as it happens is mindful and calming too.
Are there apps or books that can help?
There are helpful mindfulness apps you can download and videos you can watch on your phone or iPad. Most can be tried for free and some, including InsightTimer and Cosmic Kids, currently offer free playlists and videos. A few of our favorites are:
Books and other resources for kids related to mindfulness include:
- Yoga & Mindfulness Practices for Children Card Deck by Jennifer Cohen Harper
- Mindfulness for Teens with ADHD by Debra Burdick (includes skill-building workbook)
- The Mindful Dragon by Steve Herman
- Breathe Like a Bear by Kira Willey
These are especially difficult times and being mindful and more present can help decrease the level of anxiety related to things we can’t control in this stressful and chaotic world.
By Dr. Valentina Cimolai, child and adolescent psychiatrist, and Kristen Norton, social worker
Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter DensityBritta K. Hölzel et al. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30; 191(1): 36–43.
Mindfulness Interventions with Youth: A Meta-Analysis. Lisa Miller, et al. Mindfulness April 2015, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 290–302
Mind-Body Therapy for Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Anne Herbert et al. Children (Basel). 2017 May; 4(5): 31.
Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Attention and Executive Function in Children and Adolescents - a Systematic Review. Roslyn N. Boyd et al. Mindfulness February 2018, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 59–78
Mindfulness Training Reduces Stress and Amygdala Reactivity to Fearful Faces in Middle-School Children. Clemens C. C. Bauer, Camila Caballero, Ethan Scherer, Martin R. West, Michael D. Mrazek, Dawa T. Phillips, Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, John D. E. Gabrieli. Behavioral Neuroscience, 2019.