By Erica Garza ·
For anxious children, ordinary activities like getting ready for school or going to bed can cause unnecessary stress. Children’s minds might ruminate over past events that didn’t go well or worries about the future, interfering with their ability to relax into the present moment. Add too much screen time, poor nutrition and an erratic schedule to the mix and the anxiety worsens. Parenting your child with mindfulness and acceptance can be a powerful antidote to everyday stress. Not only can the practice help your child worry less and sleep more, but it can also help them focus better at school. Though the concept can be daunting for some parents, here is how to explain four mindfulness activities to your child in a way that they can understand and even get excited about.
Begin with the Breath
Focused breathing helps the body calm down by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and improving focus. The breath is a constant that can be heard, felt and controlled, making it easy to point out to children. According to author and science journalist, Daniel Goleman, using a “breathing buddy” like a teddy bear or other stuffed animal, strengthens the brain’s circuits for attention. Plus, it can be fun for both younger and older children. To use a breathing buddy, have your child lie down and place a stuffed animal on their belly. Tell them to inhale deeply through their nose as you count to three and watch their buddy rise on their belly. As they exhale through the mouth for another three counts, they’ll watch their buddy gently lower. Try five rounds to get started, and gradually increase to ten rounds.
Center on Your Senses
Mindfulness is taking notice of what is happening right now—both in your body and all around you. When teaching the art of paying attention, ask your children to focus on their five senses. With younger children, you can start by having them name what they see, hear, and feel. With each item named, briefly explore the sensations they experience before moving on to the next one. Older children may want to name more than one in all categories. This activity can be done in many environments: while taking a walk, eating or preparing a meal together or taking a bath. It will feel like a game for them but will help them develop focused attention and presence.
Get in the Zone
Help your child begin to recognize when they are in different zones (moods) by naming anxious and stressful times as the “red zone” and calm, relaxed times as the “green zone.” You may ask them to notice what happens to their body when they are in the red zone, like having a fast heartbeat or short breath, to contrast with what happens in the green zone, like smiling or breathing steadily. Becoming aware of the body’s physical responses associated with one’s moods can help a child learn to self-regulate to get back in the desired zone.
Be Mindful Before Bed
Creating a bedtime routine can be crucial for helping your child wind down at night and sleep well. Popular bedtime routines include taking a bath, reading a story or playing soothing music. Tack on a mindfulness activity to help your child relax and focus the mind, such as walking them through a body-scan meditation. Have your child close their eyes and ask them to bring their attention to their fingers, toes, feet, hands, etc. until you’ve scanned their whole body. At each body part, help them to notice how it feels: warm, cool, tightened up, sweaty, sore, soft, relaxed? The goal is not to change or fix how anything is feeling, but to help your child focus on their body and nothing else.
Make it a Family Affair
An especially effective way to teach mindfulness to children with hyperactivity and attention issues may come in the form of modeling. Consider practicing mindfulness as a family by taking a few moments a day to sit down beside your child and practice focused breathing, noticing your senses and meditating together. Kids love to model their parents, and you just may find that these few moments make a positive difference in your stress levels as well.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds a Master's from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.