Every member of the family can benefit greatly from mindfulness. Learning to better manage our stress is our responsibility as parents. To live in a more peaceful and harmonious family, we need to develop more peace and harmony in our inner world and help our child do the same. Every time we choose to be mindful, we practice focusing our mind and strengthening our mental “muscles” in a similar way to strengthening our physical muscles through exercise. Helping our child to be more mindful of their present in the moment experience helps them practice focusing their attention, helps them increase their awareness of themselves including their inner world of thoughts and feelings and helps them reduce their stress and better manage their emotions.
Stress hijacks your child’s brain. A certain amount of stress is normal, unavoidable and indeed necessary. Yet, children are very sensitive to stress and don’t function very well when stress levels rise and they don’t get enough relief. Too much elevated stress leads to an endless list of emotional and even health problems. Managing difficult behaviours is largely about helping children manage their stress. The more effective we are at managing our own stress, the more equipped we'll be to manage our children's stress.
Becoming mindfully present again and again rewires the brain. In the more traditional parenting approach, most of the communication relates to what family members are doing or not doing and not enough compassionate attention is applied to what family members are feeling and their emotional needs. But the good news is that according to the neuroscientists, the more we repeat an activity, the more likely we are to repeat it. Every time a parent acknowledges their child's stress and frustration ("oh honey this is so stressful/ frustrating for you isn't it"), the child is supported and encouraged to be more mindful of their own stress levels. So, just like those habits of deflecting, reacting to and trying to avoid emotional discomfort were hardwired into us, the more we practice mindfully becoming present to our experience, the more likely we are to do the same again and again, and teach our children to do the same.
Mindfulness helps children focus, listen and better manage emotions. When a parent helps their child lower their stress, they help their child to be present enough to focus, to listen to family members, their parent included and generally function better. When stressed they can’t access their prefrontal cortex and do the problem solving or seeing things from another’s perspective, they lose their ability to think creatively. When operating from the stress response, we humans become quite basic, limited and even primal in our responses to threatening (stressful) situations. All of the child’s or the parent’s most dysregulated behaviour is driven by a dysregulated internal state, and will basically tend to fit into one form or another of fighting (like being rebellious and reactive), flighting (storming off, walking away, getting lost in their activity and shutting everyone else out, or freezing (numbing, becoming lost for words, unable to know what to do or not do). Mindfulness brings back more balance to the right and left hemispheres of the brain, while settling an overactivated amygdala, our emotional centre.
Mindfulness brings mental and emotional relief and evokes valuable insights into what we really need and how to access those needs. When we re-balance in this way, we regain access to important brain functions like problem-solving, creative thinking and empathy. It will look different for each parent or indeed teacher, but every adult who has the responsibility of caring for children needs to weave practices to slow down and do some inner reflection and gain more connection with their inner world, if they’re to be more tuned in and sensitive with the children in their world.
13 Simple Ways to Teach Mindfulness to Kids
- Allowing your child to decide how long the hug lasts; this results in a parent being more present with their child in the hug, which slows the breathing pattern, which allows the child to relax more into the hug and enjoy the experience together.
- Every time you yourself can become mindfully present with your child as they share their thoughts or their feelings, this allows them to be mindfully present with their own experience.
- Every time you enquire into your child’s thoughts, feelings and sensations with patience and curiosity, you encourage them to do the same. This helps them develop the habit of tuning in to themselves. When you reflect their feelings; “you seem frustrated honey? What’s going on for you? – this helps them build their feelings vocabulary and know their feelings.
- You’re teaching mindful awareness of their body’s sensations when you ask “where do you feel that in your body?”
- When you reflect what you see and enquire calmly about their in-the-moment experience, you help them see their own experience; “I notice your you’ve dropped your head and your shoulders are slumped, is that because you’re feeling sad, or maybe exhausted?
- When you narrate your experience of being present, you encourage them to do the same; “I love sitting here listening to the birds sing”, or “I’m just going to sit here until I’ve slowed my breathing down and released my stress”, or “I feel so much calmer after letting myself cry”.
- Do yoga together, guiding them to fully breathe when it feels hard. Search YouTube for kids yoga videos for some ideas.
- Factor in downtime in the day, talk about the importance of downtime, so that everyone recognises this important need to de-stress.
- Allow and create space for non-directive play, especially in nature. When they’re fully absorbed in their experience, avoid interrupting them if possible, they’re strengthening their ability to maintain focus.
- When they become upset and overwhelmed during an activity, be present, empathise, acknowledge that it’s hard and frustrating, but allow them to go back and try again instead of redirecting them to a task that’s easier.
- Practice slow and deep breathing and help them notice how it changes their levels of stress, frustration, anger, anxiety or anticipation. Alternative nostril breathing is a good one to do.
- Give your child a massage. We all know how that can bring us back to our body awareness so powerfully.
- When your child is lying down, put your hand on their belly and invite them to notice how your hand moves as they breathe in and out, speak just enough to get them engaged in noticing this, then asking “does it help you relax when you watch your body breathing in and out?”
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Learning to better manage our stress is our responsibility as parents. To live in a more peaceful and harmonious family, we need to develop more peace and harmony in our inner world. Every time we choose to be mindful, we practice focusing our mind and strengthening our mental “muscles” in a similar way to strengthening our physical muscles through exercise.
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