Simple mindfulness tools for children
*Guest Post* from Jenny at Mindfulmeschool
I’m a mindfulness coach for children and I get asked all the time if I have any tips for parents.
My job is to mentor children aged 7+ in mindfulness techniques to help them develop self-awareness and self-soothing skills, which help them pay attention to their bodies and be aware of their mental health. In terms of being a mindful parent, without doubt the first step is to be aware of how our children's brains work, as often adults expect children to operate on a level they are emotionally incapable of.
Knowing how the brain operates can help us manage our children in a way that releases us from feeling frustrated or inadequate. Understanding that our child’s brain has an “upstairs" and a “downstairs" mechanism and that the upstairs is far more evolved and the downstairs far more primitive, is a great eye-opener in terms of dealing with undesirable behaviour.
How the brain works
The upstairs brain is all about high order and analytical thinking, e.g. decision making, planning and empathy, and the downstairs brain is all about instinctive behaviours, e.g. fear, anger, breathing. Often young children can get stuck in a state of disintegration between the two floors (it’s not until we are in our late teens that the brain begins to integrate the two floors). The part of our brain responsible for this reaction is called the amygdala; an ancient part of the brain which acts as our safety mechanism for us when we feel under attack or frightened in some way.
In making mindfulness a part of your child’s daily life you'll be providing them with a back-up plan for when the amygdala starts to take control and they're heading into a zone of anger and frustration. Valuing mental health from a young age is the key to a happy, calm and hopeful life and a key skill to teach children is to slow down and listen to what their body is telling them.
Fitting mindfulness into everyday life (for you!)
A great place to start is by creating a ritual. A ritual is a promise to make time and space to do something important. If you’re a tea drinking mummy like me you're already involved in a mindfulness ritual unbeknown to you! Tea has been associated with mental health benefits for a long time including: improved attention, mental clarity and relaxation. Making a simple cuppa is a great start to becoming a more mindful parent because it offers us a wonderful opportunity to pause.
Tea became the cornerstone of my mindfulness journey as I began to incorporate 3 minute mini-meditations into my busy life and I learnt that my kettle boils in - 3 minutes!
Meditation really can be that simple.
I began to use the process of tea making not just to revive me but as a coping mechanism. As time has progressed and I have found more space for formal meditation practice in my daily life, I still use tea as a tool, and being able to be mindful with my children often involves me filling the kettle.
I’ve realised that the tea making process forces me to take a few minutes to concentrate on me whilst I gather myself for the task ahead, whether that be bedtime, a homework session or a discussion on the merits of social media. Essentially I’ve used my tea drinking ritual to give me the clarity to cope, particularly when the onslaught of the bedtime routine is ahead of me!
It takes time and practice
Learning to be mindful takes practice and persistence (as does any ritual) but has a great pay off.
Mindfulness behaviour trains the brain to lift our worries off our shoulders.
One way to start the conversation with our young ones can be to discuss what thoughts are and what thoughts look like. Some children like to describe or draw thoughts as trains, bubbles or even clouds. If we can encourage our children to notice their thoughts and recognise repetitive thoughts and feelings (both good and bad) we can begin to create a ritual of paying attention to our body. We can explain that we're not trying to stop our thoughts or change ourselves; we are simply noticing how we feel.
More importantly we want to teach our children not to judge their thoughts, to notice but not to label them as either right or wrong. Not labelling allows us the freedom to release and not 'cling' to negative feelings.
This letting go can help prevent a critical or unhelpful thought pattern before it even starts.
Breathing and visualisation techniques
Breathing is a huge part of being mindful. It underpins our ability to not judge our ourselves and to be able to reset ourselves when we feel overwhelmed or upset.
Breathing allows an inwards focus in order to become more aware of unconscious thoughts and feelings. Once your child has a visual representation of how their thoughts look (be it bubbles or trains) we can then focus on the process of encouraging them to come and go.
By pushing the bubbles or trains outside an invisible space helmet (or any other visual aid your own child may come up with) rather than becoming hooked by them, the thoughts will slowly start to calm and then cease to exist. This is the part that takes practice and is helped by creating a mindfulness ritual.
In my home, our routine is to work with a breathing practice before bedtime.
I like to use my bedroom as the space we associate with "brain breaks” or "meditation time". We have a fireplace which we use almost like an alter to which we pay mindfulness homage to! We light candles and use blankets on the floor and bring things that make us feel calm (teddies and a dolly for young ones) to create a tranquil five minutes of quiet reflection time before bed.
It’s a routine we manage to stick to most of the time and especially if there is any extra cause of stress for any of them at that time.
This routine is a comforting and predictable practice that the children have come to associate with switching off from their day.
My work at Mindfulmeschool is all about teaching our children how to self-soothe. This involves giving the children tips and techniques to recognise when they feel upset or “wobbly”, and to make a plan as to how they can navigate their way out of that negative mindset or scary place.
Another great tool to use is Hand Reflexology. I am a reflexology fanatic, so much so I’m now training as a therapist in this amazing complimentary therapy with an emphasis on the children’s practice. Reflexology is steeped in history dating back to Egyptian tomb drawings from 2330 BC and it became popularised in Britain in the 1960’s. The principle being that, like mindfulness, we use our own body to heal ourselves.
An easy reflex for children to find and work on is the solar plexus reflex point on the hand. This is found below the third finger under the knuckle in the palm of the hand. By applying pressure with our opposite thumb to this point for a few breaths we can tap into our own nervous energy and release tension for ourselves. This is an amazingly useful technique for young children. This also useful for children who are sitting tests or exams. It’s actually something we tend do naturally when we "wring our hands with worry”. We just don’t know we’re doing it!!
Journaling is another great tool which can be very cathartic for older children who tend to keep their thoughts private and hope to work their feelings out alone. Helping them to understand that journaling can be a great way to externalise thoughts and therefore release any attachment to them is a concept that many older children find helpful. It's often worth discussing with your child how moods can be likened to weather patterns and how recording our moods from day to day like a forecast can highlight just how easy a mood can shift and lift.
Connecting through play
Write your child’s fun recipe. This sounds something like:
”What do we need to make a happy Charlie this week”.
It can be a useful technique if behaviour has taken a tumble and the family have found one member particularly challenging to deal with. I like to lie down on the bed together and then create a list of yummy ingredients - the things that make Charlie the happiest go into the recipe! Knowing your child’s key happy components is a simple way to establish why a good day may have turned bad and how to get things back on track.
If we can find our favourite means of playing whilst creating our recipe that’s even better. For some older children this can be more difficult, particularly for those who are involved with using screens. It is very well researched that the power of play is undeniable when it come to maintaining a high joy factor in our lives, essential to brain development and maintaining a positive mindset. Encouraging children to engage in pleasureable activities with no particular end goal is the key to developing their play muscles.
As we all know, sleep debt has consequences for our mood and can make us irritable and impatient, it can also undermine our judgement, critical thinking,organisation and relationships. Sleep is also one of the most important tools for fighting anxiety and stress, and for this reason it is part of a strict routine in my house which I rarely deviate from. 8pm is clocking-off time and this is non-negotiable and essential for my own sanity! I have three children and although their sleep requirements vary, I stick to this routine to avoid negotiating when I’m too tired too win.
One revelation in my own household which has also been mentioned during my coaching classes, is the need for some children to complete a bedtime routine of their own. This is something you may be unaware of but can be critical to your child’s ability to relax and switch off and stay in bed!
For example, my son is very time-conscious on a morning and the process of laying his belongings out the night before seems to calm him down. Knowing he is organised for the next day promotes a restful attitude before bedtime. Similarly my daughter insists on putting dollies (there are many!) to bed every night. This can and has caused much disruption and I’ve learnt this process needs to start well in advance of actual lights out. This is her ritual which she has developed and I’m respectful of her need to follow it through - before 8pm!
A really important factor for us all to consider is time spent on screens before bed. At night when it’s dark, our brain secretes more of the hormone melatonin, making us sleepy; the opposite of during the day when we secrete less to feel more alert. If we want great sleep it’s essential to lose the screens at least an hour before bedtime as screens supress our natural production.
Take little steps
The key to becoming a mindul family is to introduce mindful ideas and reflections to your family little by little. This way you'll build your child's capacity for awareness and, as they get older, their ability to regulate their own emotions.
I guess it goes without saying that this all begins with us as parents. The ability to model being present, breathing and conscious awarness go a long way towards helping children to learn these skills too.
And if you're feeling overwhelmed? Remember it all starts with just one cup of tea...
If you'd like to learn more about using mindfulness with your family you can follow Jenny on Facebook.