You’ve lost your favorite mechanical pencil. Your best friend is in a different lunch period. Your sibling took your toy. To a kid, these are real stressors that can occur daily. These issues might sound juvenile compared to “adult” problems, but these are examples of genuine worries children have.
“Kids have stress too,” says Corri Flaker, a mindfulness educator at Kindred Collective, a Columbia health, wellness and creative arts center that provides therapy services for all ages.
And 2020 has added to those worries. Separation from friends, hybridized schooling and health concerns are just a few of the new things kids have to worry about this year, Flaker says. “I know from having two young children,” she says. “I see firsthand those stresses that they pick up on from me and from the world around them.”
Stress isn’t unique to adults, and neither are mental health practices. That’s where mindfulness techniques come in.
A sense of calm
Mindfulness is a broad term, but it is usually associated with feelings of tranquility. “Mindfulness is finding peace in yourself when the voices in your brain are so loud,” Flaker says.
Kristi Sveum, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker at Aspire Counseling, has a similar outlook: “Mindfulness is paying attention to what you’re doing in the present. It is noticing what you’re feeling and what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing. It’s not so much like clearing your mind; it’s more finding a place of calm.”
Mindfulness can also be defined by what it isn’t. “Mindfulness is not creating a false emotion,” says Molly Myers, a certified child life specialist who is also in charge of community relations at Kindred Collective. To her, it’s not about being “fine,” but accepting how you are in the moment.
The mind of a child
A 2015 study of 101 sixth-graders from Rhode Island put a group of students in an Asian history class, where the teacher led them through daily mindfulness meditation exercises. The other group did not do the exercises. Students in the meditation group showed reduced risk of developing suicidal ideation and self-harming thoughts and behaviors.
Chelsea Olson, a yoga therapist who often works with kids, says children actually have a natural capacity to be mindful. “They’re already awake in a way that we have forgotten as adults,” she says. “They notice things we scan over because our minds are always busy and full of noise.”
Olson says we lose a sense of clarity as we age. We bring more awareness to ourselves in a way that is self-critical instead of inquisitive. “It’s almost like we use that strength of youth and flip it so that it hurts us,” she says.
Depending on the age of the child, some mindfulness practices have to be modified. Instead of instructing kids to focus on their senses, Olson might tell them to stand in the middle of a room and move to different sides if they pick a certain answer to a question. This teaches them how to be truthful with themselves, even when their minds might be conflict.
“When we’re dismissing the thinking brain, so many times, an emotion pops up,” Myers says.
When children get angry about not seeing his or her friends, for example, they’re just angry. But adult minds tend to drown out those feelings, Myers says. They try to rationalize or invalidate the emotions they’re feeling and end up overthinking things.
In these situations, Myers would practice mindfulness by labeling the emotion and quieting the mind by breathing and accepting the emotion for what it is, as opposed to following the natural reaction of debating the validity of the emotion.
Flaker says she believes mindfulness for children doesn’t receive enough attention because people consider activities like meditation to be for adults. But mindfulness can work for everyone.
“I’ve heard their parents say, ‘I heard her using the buzzing breath, and I didn’t even ask her to,’ ” Flaker says, referring to techniques she taught the kids to use when feeling overwhelmed.
The more kids practice mindfulness, the better they are at handling stress later on in life. “It’s a gift to give kids — not only to help them navigate the intricacies of childhood,” Myers says. “It’s something they’ll carry with them for a lifetime, so they’re going to adapt into healthier adults.”
Breathe in, breathe out
Of course, mindfulness isn’t a cure-all or a replacement for therapy, but it’s a great addition for anyone’s toolbox. It’s especially helpful when kids learn and develop mindful habits because mindfulness is like a muscle. You have to train it.
But not everyone can afford to spend time improving their wellbeing. Unfortunately, the decision sometimes comes down to priorities.
Sveum says that someone might not be thinking about their child’s therapy if they’re more concerned with putting food on the table, even if the child is struggling.
For children who are experiencing stress that is not debilitating, mindfulness can be especially helpful. Breathing practices are a great, inexpensive way to start. “You have your breath no matter where you go,” Sveum says. “You don’t always have your stress toy and you don’t always have music or somebody to talk to. But you always have your breath.”
Flaker teaches four breathing exercises that help hone in on the senses. The buzzing breath is a humming “zzz” noise through the teeth, the snake breath is a similar hissing “sss” sound, the “hah” breath is achieved through a deep exhale and the last breath is a long “ahhh” sound. These breaths help focus on how you are feeling in the moment.
None of this is helpful if people don’t give mindfulness a chance. Myers says that she has met people who say that deep breathing won’t fix what’s going on. “I mean, in a way it’s right, it’s not just a deep breath,” Myers says. Patience and effort go a long way toward seeing results. “You get out of it what you put into it.”
No age limit
“Learning how to find that peaceful spot when you’re young is just so valuable,” Flaker says. But it’s never too late for adults.
Olson says the idea that adult brains never change is completely false and outdated. It is now commonly understood that the brain is constantly forming new neural connections at all ages. As it turns out, you can teach an adult new tricks. It just might be a little more challenging.
Myers says she believes it’s great for parents to join in and learn about meditation. She compares it to oxygen masks in airplanes — parents should put their own masks on before assisting others.
“If parents are interested, there are plenty of books and YouTube videos on the subject matter,” Sveum says. “There are tools out there. There are books you can read with your kid.”
If you’re hesitating or still have reservations about practicing meditation, Flaker’s says not to knock it until you’ve tried it. ￼