Parenting is hard work. There are so many ages and stages — and they go by super fast. You may feel like you’re hanging on for dear life. Or maybe you’re in search of some new tricks to try when the going gets rough.
Whatever the case may be, mindfulness is more than just a parenting tactic. It’s a way of life, and it may help your kids (and you!) with far more than just tantrums or sibling spats.
Mindfulness is a practice all about living in the moment. The focus is brought to the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing in the now without adding a layer of judgement or over-thinking.
Sometimes mindfulness can take the form of meditation, using guided imagery or breathing to get in tune with the body and mind. Other times, mindfulness is employed using different methods to lessen stress and otherwise relax.
With kids, the goal of mindfulness is to help them move beyond thoughts of the past or future that may be draining, negative, or worrisome. Instead, it’s giving children the tools they need to connect with what’s going on in their world at the present moment. It’s about empowering them to accept their current thoughts and feelings and to form healthy habits for coping with all the big emotions they may have.
There are a number of benefits to mindfulness that have science backing them. In short, a meditation or mindfulness practice may help with anything from anxiety and chronic pain to insomnia and depression. Specifically with kids, the research surrounds the sorts of parenting challenges that leave caregivers feeling the most baffled or bewildered.
Mindfulness is often incorporated into stress reduction and cognitive therapy for children and adults alike. The goal with including these types of methods is to give kids who deal with anxiety a toolbox for ways to cope with stressful events.
Mindfulness can help kids shift the focus from worrying about the past or future to what’s happening in the now. It may also help redirect and retrain their mind’s automatic pilot reactions to difficult situations.
Related: 3 natural ways to calm your child’s anxiety
In one small study on 25 children ages 9 to 13, researchers found a link between attention issues and behavioral issues. To test what might be an effective way to ease these issues, they provided the kids with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in a group setting.
The results showed that the mindfulness techniques may have the power to increase focus and — at the same time — reduce issues with anxiety and emotional regulation.
Focus and more
Executive function is a set of skills that allow kids to do things like focus on tasks, follow directions, and — very importantly — handle their emotions. Kids need these skills in everyday life and at school.
In a 2010 study, 64 school-aged children engaged in a mindfulness program twice a week for 8 weeks. The results showed that the kids did see improvements, especially those who struggled with these skills before the study. In particular, these improvements surrounded behavior regulation and metacognition (understanding their own thought processes).
Related: What is mindful parenting?
You may not think tiny babies would know what’s going on… much less understand a big concept like mindfulness.
While babies may not be able to articulate their feelings with anything but crying, infants as young as 6 to 8 weeks of age can recognize voices and the scents of their parents. Mindfulness at this age may be about tapping into those budding senses.
Really, though, at this stage it might be mostly about you developing more mindfulness as a parent so that you’re better able to help your child learn it as they grow.
Practicing daily infant massage may be one way to start a mindfulness practice with your baby. To begin, wait about 45 minutes after a feeding so your baby won’t spit up milk. Tune in to your baby’s cues — notice if they’re calm and alert or fussy.
Use gentle pressure to massage your child. You might start on their stomach and then work the head, neck, shoulders, and other parts of the body for around a minute in each area — between 5 and 10 minutes total. Go about this slowly and calmly, paying attention to how your little one responds to your gaze and touch.
Researched possible benefits of infant massage may include enhanced bond between baby and caregiver, better sleep/relaxation, positive boost in hormones that control stress, and reduced crying.
The early childhood development nonprofit organization Zero to Three suggests a few other techniques for better connecting with your baby in a mindful way:
- Give your baby your full attention. This doesn’t mean to neglect your own needs. But when you’re interacting, try taking in the environment, your baby’s mood, their physical state, and any other clues they’re giving you about how they’re feeling.
- Put yourself in your baby’s shoes. Respond to their cries and frustration with kindness and compassion — how you’d like to be treated if you were crying!
- Accept your feelings toward parenting. Sleepless nights can be hard, and it’s OK to feel drained. Don’t judge yourself for feeling less than enthused about being beyond tired. As well, try to remind yourself and accept that your baby isn’t staying awake through the night to anger you.
Related: Why distracted parenting is hurting you — and 11 ways to fix it
Meditation with a 3-year-old? Maybe not. Kids in this age group are all about testing limits and gaining independence. This means lots of tantrums and tough moments for parents and tots alike. You’ve probably heard of the “terrible twos.”
Mindfulness strategies for tots revolve around the senses and getting kids to recognize what they’re feeling on the inside before acting out in a negative way.
One of the best places to start this journey is to practice mindfulness yourself. Kids learn from their environments and particularly from their caregivers. If you can model awareness and non-judgement, it can have a big impact on your child.
Activity: Focus on a certain activity you do every day, like bathing your child. Feel the warmth of the water and the slippery soap between your fingers. Take in the scents of bath bombs and sounds of your child splashing around. Pay attention to the motions you make while drying off your child with a towel.
Alternatively, you can take just 5 minutes each day to close your eyes and focus on your breath. Anytime your mind wanders, try your best to focus again on your inhales and exhales only.
Kids of this age don’t always know how to verbally express their emotions. Giving them language helps them to share what they’re feeling in a way that you can both understand. This helps young kids pay attention to and honor the feelings they’re experiencing internally.
Over time, the idea is that your child may be able to share their feelings or at least have some skills to recognize and cope with them.
Activity: If your 3-year-old throws a block across the room, avoid immediately labeling the behavior as bad. Or — even more important — avoid labeling the child as bad.
Instead, you might say something like, “I see you’ve got a lot of energy right now. We can’t throw things in the house… but let’s find another way to get your wiggles out.”
This approach helps to show child that their actions aren’t inherently bad. It may help them recognize when they’re feeling extra active in the future and provide options to better get that energy out.
Focus on the senses
While young children may not understand all the brain’s activities as they relate to mindfulness, they can benefit from the experiential learning process. So, instead of presenting mindfulness as some abstract concept, try focusing on the senses.
Your tot may not know that listening to ocean waves crashing against the shoreline is helping to soothe them, but — with time — they may connect the dots.
Activity: Take a walk outside with your child in nature. Tell your little one to listen to how the leaves blow in the wind. Direct their attention to the warm sun as it bathes their face. Listen to birds in the distance as they chirp.
Focusing on the surroundings helps your child connect to their environment. It brings their attention to the here and now.
Facilitate body/mind awareness
If you ask a young child how they’re feeling, they may automatically say “good” or otherwise not really know. You can help teach them to check in with their body and their mind by having them do a “body scan” where they give each area attention and then move to the next, noting the feelings or sensations along the way.
Activity: Encourage your little one to think from head to toe about how they’re feeling. This can be a good way to start the day or just something you do when you think your child needs to center themselves.
In the future, if you hit a tense moment — return your child to body scanning. Do they feel tense in their shoulders or anxious in their tummy? Talk about these areas and then work on ways to relax by using other techniques, like deep breathing.
Related: Do the first 7 years of life really mean everything?
Children in grade school deal with many situations at home and at school that test their emotions, focus, and ability to handle themselves. Now that kids have more language, they may better use techniques to further their mindfulness practice.
Experts at Concordia University explain that when kids this age feel overwhelmed, they can now take a step back and ask themselves questions like, “Am I confused? Hungry? Tired? Do I need to take a breath?”
While they’re getting older, school-age kids still may have trouble with traditional meditation. Using guided imagery exercises helps bring their focus to their thoughts and breath in a fun way.
If your child has trouble with long exercises, consider starting out with something short and building over time as your child adapts to the practice.
Activity: YouTube has a wealth of guided imagery videos for children and adults alike. For example, Johns Hopkins offers a 15-minute sea-themed exercise where kids can either close their eyes to participate or keep them open and soak in the fishy scenes. The narrator asks kids to check in with how they’re feeling and to imagine themselves swimming with the fish. There are also some moments of silence that allow for quiet breathing and self-reflection.
Connecting the breath and body movements may help bring your child’s awareness to the present moment. Yoga can be a fun way to help get wiggles out, all while incorporating various aspects of meditation, like deep breathing, into the mix.
Activity: You may consider searching around your neighborhood to see if anyone is offering formal yoga for kids. But you can totally try this at home for free, too.
Popular YouTube channel Cosmic Kids Yoga offers an extensive library of yoga routines for children of all ages 3 and up. They also offer some mindfulness “Zen Den” videos, like Superpower Listening, that encourage positive thinking and centeredness.
If you decide to try yoga, be sure to create a safe and calming space (think clutter-free and dimmed lights) for the activity that is free from distraction.
Eating is a total sensory experience. Kids see the food in front of them. They smell its aroma and can taste its flavor. They can even feel the texture of the food on their tongues.
Practicing mindful eating can help school-age kids build stamina for stillness and focus. And it can also just be a fun way to use snack time in a mindful way. (There are ways for grownups to practice mindful eating, too!)
Activity: Gather up a few supplies, like a timer and a piece of candy or handful of raisins. Have your child close their eyes and place the food inside their mouth. Tell them to focus on the food without chewing it up.
If you’re using something melty, like a piece of chocolate, have them focus on it melting in their mouth for a couple minutes. If you sense their thoughts are shifting, try to bring them back to the candy melting or the texture of the raisin all bumpy on their tongue.
Another way to promote stillness is to play with the idea a bit. This technique can be fun in the classroom and at home. It may be hard for kids to sit calmly for a long period of time at first, so consider setting a timer for just 2 minutes to start and try working your way up to 30 minutes with time.
You may even find it fun to track your child’s progress on a chart so they can feel a sense of accomplishment as they progress.
Activity: Have your child sit in a comfortable position, perhaps legs crossed or the lotus yoga position. Dim the lights and play some soothing music. Start your timer and encourage your child to close their eyes and focus on the music or their breath.
If they’re fidgeting or having trouble, try reminding them to stay calm, breathe, and remain still. When it’s almost time to stop, tell them to slowly start wiggling their fingers and toes to help bring awareness back to their body. And then stretch and talk about how it went.
Related: 10 breathing techniques for stress
As kids get older (and even grow into young adults), many of these same techniques are still useful. Expert and mindfulness coach Karen Bluth says that at this age, kids may be particularly skeptical and even resistant to trying mindfulness techniques, so it’s all about presentation.
- Space matters. Bluth taught at-risk teens different techniques and says that the room in which the teens practiced had a big impact on their overall experience. Have your tween or teen relax in a space that doesn’t produce negative emotions. In this case, it took moving from a classroom to a gymnasium. In your home, this may mean moving to a quiet room away from siblings or handheld devices.
- Play it cool. Teens may not want to be told to try mindfulness techniques. Instead, it’s good if the idea is presented to them and they get to choose whether or not they want to participate. Pushing the idea may backfire. Try gently suggesting.
- Model. Yeah, it’s important to practice what you preach — even with the tween/teen set. If your child is particularly resistant to the idea, try your best not to judge. Bluth says to “trust that they will participate when they are ready.”
- Try a variety of techniques. If straight meditation doesn’t work for your teen, offer many options, like yoga, body scans, breathing exercises, or guided imagery. The specific technique doesn’t matter so much as your teen’s desire to engage.
The research so far on teaching mindfulness to children has mostly been done with organized programs, usually in a therapeutic (and possibly school) setting. But it may very well be beneficial for you as a parent to teach these principles to your kids.
In fact, incorporating mindfulness techniques into everyday life may have powerful effects on your child — and on your overall family culture. If one technique doesn’t speak to your little one, try something else. Every person is different, so what works for you may not be as compelling to your 4-year-old or tween.
The most important part of the process is to be consistent and positive about the experience. With time, your child’s ability to connect with themselves and their environment should grow and flourish.