Teaching kids to look after their minds is just as important as teaching them how to care for their bodies.
Introducing children to meditation early on — along with establishing healthy sleep routines and limiting screen time — can help them learn how to calm their minds and use healthy coping mechanisms for the rest of their lives.
But sometimes, getting a toddler, preschooler, or even an older child to sit in quiet stillness is not as easy as it looks. That’s why you need to keep meditation on their level.
Here, we explore the basics of meditation, benefits, and tips on how to give children of all ages the tools they need to practice.
Meditation is a mind-body practice that can initiate moments of calm, bring about self-awareness, and allows people to stay connected with themselves, according to Sarah Roffe, LCSW, CCLS, a co-founder and psychotherapist at Kind Minds Therapy.
When practicing meditation, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says the focus is on the interaction between the brain, mind, body, and behavior, with the goal of moving into a peaceful and energized state of mind.
There are several types of meditation, but most share four key characteristics:
- quiet location
- comfortable body position such as sitting, lying down, or walking
- focus of attention
- open attitude
While many of the practices are the same, meditation looks very different for kids and adults. First, says Roffe, their duration differs. “Adults have more patience, ability for self-reflection, and can stay focused for longer periods of time,” she explains. With kids, you need to start with smaller chunks of time and add as their ability to meditate changes and grows.
Laura Vogel, PhD, a licensed psychologist and director of therapeutic services at Momentous Institute, says meditation does look different for children, particularly young children. “Initially, children won’t understand why they are meditating; therefore, we need to introduce the practice in a fun, engaging way, which may involve toys, stories, or movement,” she says.
Moreover, parents need to encourage kids to find the type of meditation that works for them. Like adults, Roffe says kids need to find a practice they feel connected to and will continue to practice in their everyday lives.
While one obvious benefit of meditation for children is a calmer, quieter environment for parents, the pros of this peaceful time extend far beyond what you observe at the moment.
“Teaching children how to meditate early on can help them manage unwanted emotions in a socially acceptable and therapeutic manner,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry.
The coping skills they learn from practicing meditation can last a lifetime. More specifically, a consistent practice of meditation can help children with the following:
- retention of information
- managing stress
- overall well-being
Currently, sleep is one of the top reasons to teach children how to meditate. “Many of the children I evaluate are struggling with sleep due to disrupted schedules this year, and meditation has decreased sleep latency, improved sleep maintenance, and enhanced sleep quality,” says Magavi.
It may also decrease familial stress and improve relationships, which is why Magavi advises parents to meditate with their kids daily.
How you introduce and practice meditation with your child will determine their level of interest.
If you practice with kids when they are calm, Vogel says they are much more equipped to access this skill when overwhelmed. “Children need an external structure provided by adults for this to truly be integrated into their lives,” says Vogel.
She suggests making meditation part of a bedtime or morning routine, when kids and parents are less likely to have competing responsibilities. “Children as young as 3 or 4 years of age can learn breathing techniques that allow them to feel a change in their bodies,” says Vogel.
When it comes to teens, Roffe says it’s great if you can join them, but it’s also okay to give them space to practice 5 minutes of meditation in the morning and night.
“Rather than joining them, you can help them create a quiet space for themselves that provides a safe environment for self-connection and allows them an opportunity to be grounded, and focus on having the negative thoughts from the day escape their minds,” she says.
Incorporating a meditation practice at home can start with toddlers. Since toddlers and preschool-age children benefit from mimicking their caretakers, Roffe suggests making meditation a family norm.
“The more it is part of your routine, the easier it will be to implement and normalize it as a part of your child’s routine,” she says.
Taking deep breaths is a great way to start meditating with young kids. With that in mind, here are a few tips from Roffe to introduce meditative breathing:
- Have them sit in a comfortable position. You can try a yoga pose like baby cobra or have them sit cross-legged.
- Teach them about connecting with their bodies. For example, tell them to watch their belly move up and down as they take a deep breath in and out.
- Reinforce the why. Take these moments to emphasize the benefits we feel when practicing meditation.
“It’s important through all of this to remember that kids can meditate and still be kids,” says Roffe. Her advice? Make it fun. “Sure, they may wiggle around or laugh the first few times, but this is when practice and patience are key.”
Magavi teaches this breathing technique to toddlers and preschool-age kids.
- Picture a big balloon that you want to inflate.
- Breathe in slowly and deeply to ensure the balloon will be big.
- Breathe out very slowly, so the balloon does not pop.
- When you are upset, make your balloon.
Check it out
Headspace has an excellent app for kids to learn the basics of meditation. And the best part? The app has customized the sessions for three age groups: 5 and under, 6–8, and 9–12.
For school-age children, Vogel says guided imagery is easy to incorporate into a bedtime routine. She likes to use an app called InsightTimer with families as an example of free recorded scripts. Vogel also encourages school-age children and teens to do something unique with their hands when they practice.
“Typically, this is something like holding their thumb and ring finger together. Over time, this position (or tactile cue) then becomes associated with a relaxed, focused mind,” she explains.
Also, teaching breathing techniques to this age group can help them with a strong foundation for meditation. Kids can practice meditation for at least 5 minutes at the beginning and end of the day, and breathing exercises are an excellent introduction to a deeper practice. Momentus Institute has several videos that teach breathing strategies to younger children.
The key to meditation is to train the mind to ignore the “noise” from our stressful world and focus on our bodies. For teens, Vogel’s go-to guided meditation asks them to take a safe-place journey that uses all of their senses. Here, she goes over the steps of that journey:
- Identify a safe place.
- Notice what you see. What textures, colors, and objects are in the space?
- Notice what you feel, for example, is there a soft pillow or cold sand?
- Notice the smell. Is it sweet, savory, or familiar?
While performing the steps above, Vogel says teens can give themselves permission to acknowledge their “to-do” list when it shows up, because it will show up. “We need to greet it, acknowledge it, and then allow it to move out of the safe space with our breath,” says Vogel.
Roffe says it’s important to explore various mindfulness meditations that may benefit your teen. For example, if your teen is into art, try a focused meditation like coloring mandalas, or if they are into sports, try yoga with them. Whatever the practice, Roffe says to try and join them.
Preschool-age children up to teens can learn how to meditate. By giving them the tools they need to practice, and joining them while they do it, kids can initiate moments of calm, bring about self-awareness, and begin to connect their mind and body.