Mindfulness is not just being fully present in the moment, but it is also a kind, compassionate approach towards oneself as the moment is experienced. That means noticing what is going on in the body and mind and then being the witness, creating distance and approaching emotion as something you have not something you are. These sentiments can seem a bit esoteric but practicing them in a concrete way can help a child learn how to let go of the “shoulds and should not’s” the “what’s wrong with me’s” the judgment of feelings and help them find more confidence and success.
Explain the brain
I’ve seen it over and over. Children blame themselves for doing poorly on tests or being too shy to speak up in class or letting their emotions get the best of them. I was one of those kids. I never raised my hand in elementary school because my fear of being wrong or saying something embarrassing was too strong. My nerves got the best of me even if I knew the answer. Sometimes what I knew would get lost because I was so filled with worry. If someone had helped me understand that what was happening wasn’t my fault or choice but something occurring in my brain, it would have been a great relief and probably would have made it easier to participate and be kinder to myself. Telling children about how their brains work is a great place to start. When they understand that their brain is trying to protect them when in goes into fight flight or freeze mode but that in fact it blocks their ability to access the thinking part of their brain they begin to understand that it isn’t their fault that they forgot the answer or feel fear or stress. It’s their body trying to do its job, and mindfulness exercises are a way to access the higher functioning part of their brain. Dan Siegel explains this in further detail in an approachable way for kids.
Find the breath
Breathing is one of the most accessible tools for practicing mindfulness. Taking just 5 minutes to start and noticing the breath is a great way to strengthen one’s attention muscle and pay attention to what’s happening as we breathe. This practice is simple. Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Place a hand on the belly and bring your attention to your breathing. What is happening right then and there with the breath. Is it fast, slow? Where do you feel it? Don’t try to change it just notice. Now draw your attention to the breath filling the belly. Notice the rise and fall. Perhaps say to yourself “in” as you breathe in and “out” when you exhale. When your mind wanders which it will because that is what our brains do, notice the thought. Don’t judge it or yourself just notice it and then come right back to the breath. This practice allows us to cultivate and awareness of our thoughts and feelings and the ability to let them go as we return to our breath. This creates distance between emotion and ourselves, so we don’t become our feelings. The breath is always there, and when your children can use it to help calm and let go it’s something they can go to all of the time when they feel anxiety and stress.
Notice what YOU bring to a situation
As parents, when things are happening with our children we tend to attach our own feelings, expectations, desires to the situation and we have trouble creating distance. I have noticed in myself that fear is an emotion that I get caught up in when it comes to my own children. When a child is feeling anxiety and struggles with something our heads can go to the worst places, and we can become attached to that emotion of fear. For example, if a child is having homework anxiety and is struggling a parent might worry that the child will fail the assignment then the class then school and then how will he ever succeed? The fear can then become anger and frustration towards our child and his difficulty. It is easy to become those emotions and let them control our interactions with our children. It is easy to get upset with ourselves for feeling these things. Having our own mindfulness practice can teach us as parents to notice our emotions without judging them and then let them go, approaching our interactions with our children differently and with more compassion and a broader understanding of what is really happening. When we extricate ourselves from our own big emotions and fears, and when we learn to be kinder to ourselves for having them we can help our children cope better with their own stresses. Mindfulness can help parents the same way it helps kids.
Practice together. Breathe. Notice. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to each other. You will see the benefit for yourself and your children.