By Tania MacWilliam
Practising mindfulness meditation is something I have done to cope with everyday stress for the past four years. Relationship troubles, work pressures and oppressive inner dialogue can all contribute to adult stress. However, stress isn’t reserved for adults.
The science of child development shows that excessive stress could lead to lifelong issues with learning, behaviour and overall health. Though most children deal well with stress, others find coping more difficult. Finding healthy ways to manage stress can help children maneuver through challenging times.
Roy Hintsa, a Toronto area mindfulness-based stress reduction facilitator, says mindfulness allows children to manage stress by creating a pause between the stimulus and the reaction. This gives them the opportunity to choose to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively. “Mindfulness promotes well-being,” he says. “Children become happier and kinder. They get in touch with their emotions and learn to regulate them.”
The simplest tool we have for mindfulness is observing our breath. Roy says not to change your breathing pattern. First, focus on feeling the cool air when you inhale and the warm air when you exhale. Then count your breaths in pairs: Inhale, exhale, one. Inhale, exhale, two, and so on for five counts. If your mind wanders, note what you were thinking about and return to counting your breaths.
Mindfulness in schools
Much of Roy’s experience with teaching mindfulness to children is in a school setting. Children are confronted with stress from many areas. Most often, that stress comes from worrying about academic performance. “Even from an early age,” says Roy, “this can cause many youngsters to feel stressed out.”
Not only can students experience anxiety related to academic pressures, they can also come to school with a host of stressors stemming from problems in the home, social conflict and physical or mental vulnerabilities. “There is also the pressure of being accepted,” says Roy. “Mindfulness helps children to be kinder to themselves and this extends to others.”
Mindfulness can also help improve children’s attention, focus and memory, Roy says. These are all important factors for learning.
Roy recommends children take three mindful breaths to help relieve anxiety before doing homework, tests and participating in competitions. The goal is to teach children to focus in simple ways. “It’s really about focusing,” he says.
One exercise Roy does with students begins with sitting in a chair. Kids are asked to concentrate on their breathing while their classmates walk around and try to distract them. “The child’s job is to really try to stay concentrated in spite of all this noise that’s going on around them.”
Get the whole family involved
Roy says parents must themselves be mindful in order to create a mindful family.
“Children will come to mindfulness at their own time and pace,” he says. “If parents are mindful, and I don’t mean just modelling mindfulness, but embodying mindfulness, they may come to it earlier.”
The key is to be fully present when interacting with your family, says Roy. Here are some ways he says you can do that:
- Just before leaving for school in the morning, before opening the front door, stand together and take three mindful breaths.
- You can also take three mindful breaths as a family before eating and try to begin the meal mindfully.
- Go for a walk with your child and pay attention to what you both notice around you, what you see, hear, smell and touch.
- Before bed, share something that you are grateful for that happened that day – something that made you happy. Have your child do the same. Then continue with some mindful breathing!
Mindfulness exercises for younger siblings
Children can be introduced to the principles of mindfulness from a young age, says Roy Hintsa, a Toronto area stress reduction facilitator. Children of all ages can benefit from different styles of training. Younger children tend to respond more to physical activities rather than practising meditation. Here are some exercises Roy recommends for preschool children:
Mindful listening: Tell your child you are going to ring a bell or a tone bar. Ask them to listen carefully to the sound of the bell and raise their hands when they can no longer hear it.
Breath awareness: Have your child lie down on a mat on the floor, or on their bed, and place their favourite stuffed animal on their belly. Have them rock the stuffed animal to sleep with the movement of their belly as they breathe in and out. This is how they can begin to pay attention to their breathing.
Mindful eating: This is a time when playing with your food is OK. Give your child a piece of fruit and ask them to pretend they are from another planet and have never seen this piece of fruit before. Ask them to describe their experience using all five senses. What does it look like? Smell like? Feel like? Taste like? Does it make a sound when you bite it?
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May/June 2013.