Deborah Anthony, LMHC
Deborah Anthony, LMHC

Using Mindfulness with Children and Youth Considering Developmental Stages

By Deborah Anthony, LMHC

October 24, 2017

As a real-life mom and therapist who works with children and utilizes mindfulness, I have had the opportunity to try different approaches at different ages, taking their developmental stages into consideration.  At this point, I think most people are generally aware of what mindfulness is: the act/ability/task/process of living in the moment with full awareness, acceptance and immersion in our experiences.  By now, most of us have heard that it is beneficial for stress, anxiety, depression, addictions and a myriad of health issues.  We have all heard that it is good for everyone!  However, many of us cringe at the idea of daily meditation and dismiss the idea too quickly.  There are so many paths.  And being a therapist who works with children, I have also taken on the challenge of how to bring children to reap the benefits of mindfulness. 

When venturing on any behavioral change with children, the first task (beyond making sure our own self-care is up to par) is to get a sense of what works with them developmentally.  When we don’t meet kids where they are, we get lost in power struggles.  If we try to make a 3-year-old act like a 10-year-old, we end up banging our heads against a brick wall – and the child may be doing the same  . . . sometimes literally!

The same is true in teaching mindfulness.  Have you ever asked a 2-year-old to sit still?  You get my point, right?  As you gradually “civilize” your little beast by teaching social and emotional skills, you will begin to model mindfulness and teach by example.  You try your best to tune into their needs, take the “mature” approach at problem-solving and respond positively when you see progress.  When the child is having a meltdown, you stay with him/her calmly, providing proximity (physical closeness) as much as possible without giving into demands but also offering the comfort of your presence for emotional regulation.  And yes, use your common sense.  If a child comes at you swinging during a tantrum, you can set limits and boundaries by moving them or you out of harm’s way.  The “time-out” (used properly – not as a punishment) is a beautiful demonstration of separating out emotionality from behavior.  It tells the child “let’s process these big emotions first before getting on with correcting behaviors.”  And sometimes the time-out allows the parent to turn inward and process their own emotions being triggered by the child’s emotional response.  Yes, we get triggered by our kids.  Yes we all do.  I do too!

When the child begins to master some impulse control and has language, usually between the ages of 3-5, you can begin to share books about mindfulness for children to start implanting the idea into the mind.  Again, your child has so much to learn!  Getting too task and performance oriented is counter-productive.  Instead, naming emotions, encouraging talk about interpersonal interactions and play that is accepting, non-judgmental and compassionate will go a long way.  Breathing strategies and raising awareness of emotional states can begin at this age.  How does that look?  Well, you tell the child (when calm) “when I get mad, sometimes I breathe deeply and it helps me to feel better.”  You tell the child: “let’s practice!” and you both stand facing each other and in a silly and dramatic way, breathe in and raise your arms over your head and then breathe out and empty out the lungs.  You can show by blowing up a balloon and releasing it and act out this notion of how breathing and movement impact emotions.  You can take moments when blowing bubbles to teach this idea as well.  You can allow your child to do things like engage in messy play (sandcastles, writing with pudding, finger paints) and join in the fun.  Comment on the delight in the child’s face, play alongside your child but please, please, please!  Resist the urge to make your child verbalize or prove to you that he or she is getting the concept!  This will kill it.  Really.  It will make it into an unnecessary power struggle.  It is a natural and easy-to-learn concept.  They will get it.  I promise.  No tests allowed!!  You will see them demonstrate their knowledge later when they start to incorporate feelings words into their vocabulary and imitate your model of acceptance of a full range of emotional states.

Once your child is in elementary school, she or he will have become a bit more sophisticated and able to learn more in a structured way.  At this point, you can begin to “teach” the blowing bubbles to show what happens when you exhale fully, talk to your child about any strong emotions they may have at school and introduce them to yoga or martial arts for kids, if that is realistic for you.  You can read books about mindfulness with them.  I would never expect a child to do any kind of self-directed meditation until at least 12 years but usually not even until 16.  In elementary school, they will engage in games like “staring contest” or with move to music (yes, it is a mindfulness practice if you allow it to be) and will mindfully eat their desserts or favorite foods if you give provide a quiet and non-distracted environment and model it.  Really any time that you engage your child by giving them your full attention, spending time with them and responding to their internal emotional states non-judgmentally, you are sending the message, “you are ok just as you are and I accept the reality that is you.”  I have also demonstrated to kids how to breathe deeply and become more conscious of the breath by having them lie on their back with a stuffed animal on their belly.   

Around 3rd grade, kids have more complex peer relationships and they are also better able to learn more formal mindfulness exercises.  Also, Mindfulness card decks can be fun at this age.  There are many on the market now.  Older elementary-school-aged kids enjoy structured card games and still prefer tangible objects that can be held in the hands.  The cards often provide little mini-exercises about self-care or short body scans (ie., “close your eyes and see your body feels today”).  One thing that is very useful for kids that get very worked up about their stressors in life (too much homework, too many standardized tests, screen addiction), is to help them begin to separate their emotions from their thoughts.  You tell them to feel their feelings rather than doing something about them.  If they get frustrated, tell them they can stop, take a break and allow themselves to feel frustrated and not worry about why and just wait to calm down.  I always tell people the brain turns off when the emotions run too high and you need to wait to settle before you do anything.   

In middle school, once children begin to develop the ability to abstract and start wanting to act more like an adult (and don’t mind sitting still!) they can start to handle more formalized meditation exercises.  Keep them short and be responsive to feedback.   A general body scan is good (starting from the top of your head, gradually scan through your body to see how it feels today.)  Parents can promote mindfulness through example and then do guided meditation on YouTube or apps like Headspace.org with them – just for fun.  Again, gear it toward the child.  If a child tells me they didn’t like it or squirmed the whole time, I would abandon it for a time then introduce it in a different form later.  Again, power struggles are not part of mindfulness.  Ever.  You are the adult and can continue to model, empathize, listen, show compassion, attend, and be present which are just as effective at nurturing self-regulation.  Without being too forceful and negating the child’s own growing self-concept, it is completely appropriate at this age to state your intent (to help) and let them know that the option is out there if they choose to use it.  You can also give examples of how it helps you and ask if they can think of their own ways to “take a break” or “de-stress.”  Listening to music, walking in nature and doing crafts are all examples of this.   

Once a child enters into high school, as a parent, it becomes more important to use subtlety and timing in introducing concepts of mindfulness.  Because teenagers are so focused on individuating, the source of the message is important.  They are often more receptive if it comes from someone outside the family unit.  In my role as therapist, it has been my experience that some find novelty in the idea of changing their mental state and mood naturally – a type of “natural high.”  And of course some think it’s all stupid so when this happens, it’s time to pull back, listen and model.  Many, usually the quieter ones, like an intermediary to direct talking with an adult.  Mindfulness card decks, guided meditation, a candle or aromatherapy can all increase focus.  There are also workbooks that give relatable vignettes for kids.  In therapy with withdrawn teens, I use writing, painting, and structured games and worksheets to fuel engagement.  The unspoken message then becomes, “I honor and value your relating style and am mature enough to meet you where you are rather than forcing you to relate to me on my terms.” 

This is a very broad overview and I hope it has given you some food for thought and some helpful tips.  In reading it, if any questions have come up for you, feel free to email me at deborahanthony@comcast.net and I will do my best to address them. 

 

Mindfulness: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are

Thich Nhat Hanh, Planting Seeds (Mindfulness for Children)

Amy Salzman, Still, Quiet Place

Social and Emotional Development Information: http://www.pbs.org/wholechild/abc/social.html

Card Decks: Jennifer Cohen-Harper, Yoga & Mindfulness Practices for Children; Jennifer L. Abel, Melt, Worry & Relax Card Deck; Gina Biegel, Be Mindful Card Deck for Teens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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