WRITTEN BY EMMANUELLE KHOURY, PH.D, SOCIAL WORKER.
“The surest way to become Tense, Awkward, and Confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard - one that thinks too much.”
― Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a state, and a process, of present moment, non-judgemental awareness of one’s self and one’s emotions, thoughts, and sensations. It is often referred to as mindful meditation – it’s a way to meditate and a strategy for calming a busy mind. Mindfulness and mindful meditation are terms that have become popular, both at work, at school, at home, and in the media.
Also, the use of ‘mindfulness’ as an intervention approach is more and more prevalent in clinical and mental health settings. In most psychological and neuropsychological approaches, mindfulness is a type of intervention and a type of meditation. These interventions are also increasingly popular in school settings as a way to help students relax, focus, and even improve concentration. In other words, using meditation, yoga or other mindfulness-based interventions are prominent these days because research has suggested that they help with improving learning and understanding and with positive self-esteem and well-being.
What is a mindfulness-based intervention?
“Meditation is not passive sitting in silence. It is sitting in awareness, free from distraction, and realizing the clear understanding that arises from concentration” – Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s important to mention that meditation and mindfulness are rooted in a Buddhist spiritual process that is over 2500 years old. In the last 25 years, Western interpretations and particularly clinical practices have focused on the cognitive (the way we think, reason, remember) and behavioural (the way we act) benefits and impacts of mindfulness in a non-religious way. The Buddhist techniques and concept of mindfulness has been adapted as a clinical intervention to reduce stress and help with emotional regulation, but it is still based on the idea of training the mind to reduce distress, to find a personal sense of authenticity (self-awareness), to relate better with one’s self and with others, and to experience more positive emotions.
Because of this new-found interest in a rather ancient practice, there are several research studies hoping to understand why and how this practice can be helpful. According to a 2018 analysis in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, mindfulness-based interventions do have a demonstrated and positive impact on mental health and well-being of children. Some researchers have been able to show how practicing mindfulness affects the brain processes. They describe mindfulness as a way to cultivate a skill set to be better able to understand one’s self.
And this goes for children and teens too. For example, a kid who is not usually into sports might be worried about looking silly in gym class. That worry might be more intense if she also feels bad about herself for feeling worried. That assumption is called a negative and biased sense of self. Because of it, she might retreat, isolate herself, become quiet, or feel very anxious and act out. Mindful interventions could aim to help train her mind to be aware of her emotions, thoughts, and actions in the present moment. And in mindfulness, no emotion is either good or bad. It just is. That is part of the ‘non-judgemental acceptance’. The neuroscience research has shown that mindfulness interventions can help to ‘re-wire’ the way negative biases about one’s self, and the resulting emotions, actions, and thoughts, are expressed.
What do mindfulness-interventions with kids look like?
Mindfulness-based interventions can be incorporated into meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, activities such as colouring or blowing bubbles, or combined with more complex psychological intervention strategies to improve well-being and social and academic functioning. Mindfulness strategies can include helping a child place all her attention on an object (such as the breath) to avoid distraction and help with focus. Training the mind to stay focused on the breath can eventually help with sustained concentration, but also with noticing distractions (these can be noises or events, and also feelings) and not getting lured into thinking or acting on them immediately.
Mindfulness and kindness
“Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness” – Dalai Lama
This neuroscience study also talks about the ancient Buddhist meditation practice of using the breath as a process of ‘give and take’. The authors talk about taking in suffering (or distress) with the inhale and giving back love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness with the exhale. In other words, the act of breathing can be a way to focus and help a child learn to be friendly, kind and forgiving to herself and to others. That might mean becoming friendly to experiences and emotions that she usually thinks are negative, like gym class, or like feeling worried.
5 tips to starting your kids on a mindful journey
Here are some basic starting tips that I’ve used with my kids to help create a mindful, kind and accepting vibe at home. This would also work at school!
I do meditate, but only one of my three kids is into that at the moment. I won’t push it. Remember, meditation is just one way to be mindful!
1. Start slow and simple. Words are so powerful, so slowly adjust the language used. Talk about noticing how you are feeling and what you are thinking. Then encourage your kids do to the same, not just in times of stress or anxiety, but in the everyday. At home, I usually incorporate this into cooking together (notice how this sauce tastes!) or walking the dog (look at how that tree has bloomed!).
2. Focus on the good stuff. This is sometimes referred to as gratitude or thankfulness. This can be fostered through helping others and saying thank you. My kids’ daycare had a system where every day a different child was the ‘helping hand’. The kid’s all looked forward to their turn to have this role which consisted of helping the teacher wipe the tables and serve milk or water glasses. It’s also about noticing the good stuff, without necessarily discounting the bad. For example, if my older son comes home from school soaking wet after a rainy walk home, I might acknowledge that it is certainly no fun to be wet and cold, but I’ll help him redirect his awareness and his reaction towards focusing on the warm home and delicious meal he has come back to. Sometimes it can be as simple and silly as sharing outloud gratitude for taken for granted aspects of our lives such as heated homes, or a new school playground, or potable water!
3. Breathe together. This one is especially helpful with my daughter who has trouble calming her mind at bed. We each put a hand on her belly and I talk to her about focusing on her belly getting big when she breathes in and on it going back to normal when she breathes out. When days are tough or stressful we count the in breath and the out breath 3 times together. On other nights, she likes to do this using prompts from my meditation app. These exercises took time and practice to learn, so it’s ok if the first several times it doesn’t feel like it is ‘working’ for you and your child. This can also be done during the day and teachers can take a ‘mindful minute’ with students of all ages to focus on a few breaths when transitioning into new activities.
4. Name that emotion and name that sensation. This is the next step up from noticing. I’ll often turn to myself, and to my kids, and say “tell me what’s going on now. What are you feeling”. The answers might be I’m frustrated, or I’m happy. They could include physical sensation like I feel my heart pounding, or I feel butterflies in my stomach. Being aware of how we experience different emotions, and then what those emotions or sensations might be telling us, is part of establishing a mindful routine.
Other things that I do, or my kids now do, in a ‘mindful’ way include stretching, taking walks, or taking a time out of several breaths. My older daughter now notices when she needs to clear her head and will often ask to walk the dog or ride her bike alone to do that.
Mindfulness is a state and a process. It’s an intervention, but it can also be a personal and family practice. And that means that it takes time to get used to being mindful. It’s best to start when things aren’t in crisis mode because it is hard to learn and ‘re-train’ the brain in those moments.
Bringing a mindful approach into life through lots of different activities can take time but can help reduce the intensity of a crisis or difficult situation.
Here are some great resources for more information: