Parenting Tips

Teaching Mindfulness: 4 Tips for Raising Happy, Centered Kids

Practicing mindfulness makes kids less vulnerable to life's stressors.

By Jack Maypole, MD on January 4th, 2017

Little boy practicing yoga in the sand
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All of us, it seems, are zinging along these days at a million miles an hour. In many families, parents and kids sprint to keep up with what might be described as hyper-scheduled, overly connected, and perpetually rushed lives. When do we have time to stop and smell the flowers? Or to even be outside, let alone admire and think about the flowers? As research suggests and many families believe, it is important to counterbalance the rush by practicing mindfulness in our daily lives. Families and healthcare providers increasingly recognize its role in promoting healthy, resilient kids.

What is mindfulness? You may hear this word used often, but be unfamiliar with the meaning. This simple term captures what is an ancient approach to broadening one's awareness of the present moment through practices like:

  • focused concentration
  • relaxation
  • meditation and breathing techniques
  • movement techniques like yoga or Tai Chi
  • positive thinking
  • emptying the mind of stressful or difficult thoughts, such as in prayer

Mindfulness can promote self-regulation in those who use it, making them less vulnerable to stressors, setbacks, and illness. Children who learn mindfulness techniques who have emotional or physical challenges (such as anxiety, or say, wheezing) can develop approaches to help dampen (or even avert) flares in their symptoms. In addition, healthy children may demonstrate improved attention and the ability to recover more quickly from emotional setbacks or illness.

Mindfulness techniques can be learned quickly even by toddlers and preschoolers, practiced on the fly (say on the walk to school, or car ride to practice) and shared as a family. Here are some quick tips on how to get started.

1. Begin with Yourself
Take time. Make time. There are many ways to learn about mindfulness: read books, browse YouTube, or download an app for your smartphone. Personally, I try to open my mind when I run. Or, sometimes I'll pause between rooms on a busy, hectic day, and just breathe.

2. Age-Appropriate
For preschoolers and young elementary school children, use their imagination, and if helpful, use a toy or object to help them focus. I love one practitioner's approach with children to use a simple mindful breathing technique, whereby the child centers herself by noticing and counting her breaths. In this simple technique, calming happens: blood pressure lowers, heart rate slows, stress hormones decrease.

3. Daily Rituals
Parents can urge kids to use words to tap into the river of their thoughts and feelings. The idea is that we can merely reflect and think about our thoughts and our feelings, but we don't necessarily have to resolve them. The thinking is in itself the point. Many of us do these meditative behaviors daily with our families, such as giving thanks, saying prayers, or checking in. Making this a ritual that we practice will model it as the great, constructive behavior it is.

4. Tailor the Mode
Preschool and elementary school children may be able to spend 5 to 10 minutes doing a mindfulness approach: deep breathing, focusing on a happy thought or happy experience, or counting down when upset. Over time, children and older teens may benefit from longer sessions or combined activities. Yoga, martial arts, and dance, among many pursuits, may build on a child's skills, competence, and confidence. Squirmy or active children may need a kinetic activity. Take a walk outside. Describe what you see together. How does it make you feel? Calmer children may do well with a quiet place to meditate.

It may take some time to master. Be patient (and mindful!) that some children may need to start small and build. As in all things parental: keep things positive, offer praise for jobs well done, and understand that mindfulness is not a cure-all, but rather a coping technique for children to learn and ideally, use themselves.

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