A real parent’s review of 3 mindful techniques for children
Small children are real dynamos. Full of energy without the slightest idea how to rein in their emotions (or indeed knowing what emotions are). When they’re at full speed, they can feel like a real handful, especially if you’re feeling worn out, harassed, stressed or depressed.
You’ve no doubt shouted ‘calm down’ at your children as they romp about the house merrily destroying it as they go. But do kids really know what ‘calm down’ means? And how do you explain it to them in a way they’ll understand? Using mindfulness with kids is not about teaching them to be quiet, or to create mini Buddha’s. Instead, mindfulness helps children to improve their ability to pay attention, to soothe themselves when upset or angry and to increase their emotional wellbeing. It can give you a bit of breathing space too and help you to respond in a more positive way when you need to.
I’ve already mentioned five mindful activities for kids, now here’s how I use a couple of them plus another one called ‘happy place’.
How mindfulness has helped with my small children
I find life to be a little more peaceful now that we’ve started using mindfulness with our boys, aged five and three. It gives them the tools needed to calm down during potentially fraught situations. In turn, this helps me remain calm, contributing to a more chilled atmosphere, when previously we might have had a shouting match or gone into full tantrum mode.
Having tried a number of mindful techniques with my boys I’ve found the following to be helpful. They don’t always work, sometimes there’s just too much emotion floating about and a brief time out helps before trying again. I try to use the Happy Place technique every day to build it into our routine so it has become familiar – very useful when little ones are upset as that isn’t the time for introducing a new practice!
Starfish counting meditation
How to do it
Ask your child to hold up their hand, palm facing towards them and fingers slightly spread, kind of like a starfish. With their pointing finger of the other hand, get them to gently and slowly trace around each finger of their starfish hand while breathing deeply. This is a great exercise to get them to refocus should they need to. Maybe a tantrum is about to kick off, or they’re feeling sad. Focusing attention on the hand, the action of tracing the fingers and slow breathing all combine to create a calming effect – almost like a mini meditation.
The starfish meditation in action
This exercise works well with my five year old and has been great for stopping a tantrum or difficult behaviour. In fact he has instigated the starfish meditation himself on occasion! You may need to use your own hand if your little one is reluctant to get started, this works well as your child is often keen to get involved in something you’re doing.
This exercise is also good for taming adult anger – try it yourself if you feel the red mist descending! A word of caution, the practice may not be so effective is a full-blown tantrum is happening and it may be best to ride it out until the emotion is on the wane before giving it a go.
I find this one particularly effective if you’re out and about; it gives you that precious minute to just calm things down a touch without the situation spiralling out of control, and you might look like you know what you’re doing – hey, we all want to be that parent, right?
How to do it
Your child lies down on their back with a soft toy on their tummy. It’s good to use a favourite toy – maybe one they cuddle up to at bedtime. Ask your child to notice the toy moving up and down as they breathe in and out. Now, tell them that their toy is asleep and we’re trying not to wake them so they need to breathe more gently. This is a good way to get your child to slow down their breath which relaxes them.
Toy breathing in action
Probably not one to try if a tantrum is imminent (or if you’re in public). Instead, make it a game at particular points in the day when you want your children to become calmer.
We sometimes use it to calm the boys before bedtime. Often they’ll be racing around after dinner, wrestling each other and generally causing chaos. Getting them to lie still is a challenge and if they’re not calming down I’ll have to try something different, like dropping to the floor myself and saying something like ‘oh no, the toys are trying to sleep! Let’s see if we can be quiet so they don’t wake up’. Kids like it when parents get involved. Most often they’ll just pile onto me – a parent lying on the floor is obviously too good an opportunity to pass up! When it does work, they do manage to lie still for a couple of minutes and they do appear calmer afterwards, so worth a go.
I first saw this exercise in Padraig O’Morain’s Mindfulness on the Go book where he talks about mindful techniques for children in the chapter ‘Mindfulness in the Home’. He says it helps kids to gain detachment from their thoughts and encourages them to cultivate positive feelings.
How it works
Ask your child to pick a place in their body where they feel happy. Tell them that a smile lives in this place and if they’re feeling sad or upset, they can imagine their smile there and spend some time with it. This exercise takes a little time to put in place but once it is, you can easily call on it to help quickly focus attention away from something else. It’s also a brilliant way to get little ones to gauge how their emotions are. Children often don’t understand emotions or how to express how they’re feeling.
Happy place in action
My boys have named their happy places and they now seem to be morphing into imaginary friends! Nothing wrong with that but it does distract from the original intention. I’ve decided however to go with it and use the technique a little differently.
My eldest calls his happy place ‘Zombie’ and my youngest calls his ‘Smiley’. I ask my boys at breakfast how their ‘happy’s’ are feeling today. This gives me a good indication of how my boys are feeling themselves (it can also distract them from the fight they were having with their spoons and makes breakfast time a little more civilised!). If for example, my eldest says that Zombie is feeling sad, I’ll ask him to think of why Zombie might be feeling sad. I’ll often get a response such as ‘Zombie didn’t want toast for breakfast, he wanted porridge’, or ‘it’s raining outside so we won’t be able to go out on our bikes’. I can then help the boys decide what action we can take to cheer their happy’s up.
Not only does this exercise help my kids to get more of a handle on their emotion, it can work really well if we’re going into a potentially fraught situation – say, a visit to the dentist. We can talk about Happy and Zombie and see what they’re feeling. Even if they’re feeling sad or nervous, they can talk about it calmly which is much nicer than having a full on meltdown where no amount of asking ‘what’s wrong?’ can help.
So there you have it, three simple mindful techniques for children that you can try to bring a little more peace to your family’s life.
Have you tried any mindful techniques for children? Have they worked for you, or do you use other mindful techniques for different situations? I’d love to hear more – let me know below.