Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment. It involves setting aside distractions, paying attention to our bodies, thoughts and feelings, and accepting our situation without judgment. It can be practiced formally, through meditation or guided exercises, or it can be used in informal ways, by choosing to be mindful as we eat, walk or engage with others.
We spoke with Miriam Stewart, MD, a hospitalist in the Division of General Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and a trained mindfulness teacher, to learn how mindfulness can be helpful and how to get started.
The benefits of mindfulness
“There is a large and growing body of scientific research showing the many benefits of mindfulness,” says Dr. Stewart. “On a physiological level, it triggers the relaxation response, reducing stress and anxiety, slowing the heartbeat, and reducing blood pressure. Cognitively, it increases our ability to focus and solve problems effectively. And it has emotional benefits in helping us let go of judgment and move past rumination — the repetitive thoughts that sometimes get in our way.”
Mindfulness can be helpful for people of all ages, Dr. Stewart explains. In fact, when mindfulness practices are learned in childhood, they not only bring immediate benefits, they can become habits that are easy to draw on throughout life.
How to practice mindfulness with children
Babies and toddlers
In the early years, parents can use mindfulness to increase the quality of their interactions with their children in this important time of bonding. When you look into your baby’s eyes and mimic each other’s sounds, when you focus on and engage in play with your young child, setting aside all distractions, you are practicing mindfulness. You are also giving your child what they need at that moment — the pleasure and security of your attention.
Preschool and elementary-age children
As your child grows older, into preschool and the elementary-school years, your modeling of these mindfulness practices is still important and will be noticed as an example to follow. And you can begin to introduce simple, short-mindfulness exercises. Here are some examples:
- Breathe. Sit with your child in a comfortable place, perhaps with pillows around you. Together, take long deep breaths and pay attention to how the breath feels as you inhale and exhale. Try counting to four between each breath. After two or three minutes, ask if your child notices feeling more relaxed. As a variation, you might blow on pinwheels to have a visible focus for your breathing, or have your child lie down with a stuffed animal on their chest and notice the animal moving up and down with each breath.
- Relax your muscles. Ask your child to tense all the muscles in their body for a few seconds, then relax them and pay attention to how their body feels. Relaxing muscles in stages from head to toes is another way to help a child calm down and let go of mental distractions at bedtime.
- Glitter jar. Fill a clear plastic jar with water, glue and glitter to make a sparkly version of a snow globe. Sit comfortably with your child as you shake it and watch the glitter slowly settle as a calming point of focus. You can also use the jar to explain how quiet focus clears the mind, in the same way the clear water reappears in the top part of the jar.
Preteens and teens
As children approach and enter adolescence, they are able to engage in longer mindfulness sessions. By the time they are teenagers, they can practice the same sorts of mindfulness exercises that you do, as an adult. These may include:
- Deep breathing
- Guided mindfulness exercises
As an informal mindfulness practice, it can be helpful to have “no distraction” times during the day and evening, when smartphones, computers and TV are off limits, and where teens and adults focus on a single activity or on conversation. You might make distraction-free dinner a goal, and use it as an opportunity for each member of the family to share a moment of joy they experienced that day.
Mindfulness can also be used as a check on emotional reactions to events in life. If your child — or you — feel such a reaction coming on, try the S.T.O.P. exercise.
- Stop what you are doing and pause for a moment.
- Take a breath. Allow yourself to relax with some slow breaths.
- Observe what is happening — good or bad — and acknowledge it without judgement.
- Proceed with what you were doing, now with more awareness of your choices in how to respond.
Many excellent resources are available to help you and your children with the practice of mindfulness. The apps Stop, Breathe & Think and Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame offer exercises for children. Calm and Headspace have exercises designed for adults but suitable for preteens and teens.