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Mindfulness: an approach to better self-esteem and mental health for children and teenagers

WRITTEN BY EMMANUELLE KHOURY, PH.D, SOCIAL WORKER.

Montreal, Canada

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“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:

https://kidshealth.org/en/kids/mindfulness.html?WT.ac=ctg

https://www.headspace.com/meditation/kids

 

 

Supporting school-aged children in recognizing and managing their emotions

WRITTEN BY EMMANUELLE KHOURY, PH.D, SOCIAL WORKER.

Montreal, Canada

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Life is a journey, with each developmental stage posing a new set of challenges and opportunities for all people. According to the Canadian Pediatric Society’s website, childhood development is a time when your child will reach many milestones, and not necessarily at the same time as other friends or neighbours. All children are different and may hit milestones at different times. These milestones, or skills, include language, cognition, motor skills, and social skills. 

Social skills include: developing self-esteem and self-knowledge, connecting with others, responding to others with empathy, and working together. 

Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers; the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. 
— The Wonder Years

As of the age of 5, most children will spend a significant amount of time during their childhood in the context of a school setting.  For many children, this is a time filled with complex emotions such as excitement, anxiety, fear, shame, pride and joy.  Often, a child might experience these emotions in the same day. 

 

The richness of the human experience is anchored in the expression of a full range of emotions. However, when these emotions are confusing, scary, and overwhelming, children tend to engage in a fight or flight scenario.  When this happens, parents and teachers might observe that  muscles tense up, the child’s temperature rises, she might cry or scream, and she might recoil or act out. 

The role of developmental stages in understanding social and emotional needs 

In order to properly interpret her behaviour and help a child learn how to regulate her emotions (otherwise known as co-regulation), we need to understand not just the specific emotions, context, and personality of the child, but the overall developmental stage that the child is in.

According to a 2017 report on child and adolescent development focused on school-based health promotion and prevention , child development is driven in large part by three main spheres: their cognitive, socioemotional, and physical development.  For example, according to the 2017 public health report, the recognition and expression of emotional regulation is part of socioemotional development whereas logical reasoning and moral aptitude (or the development of the ‘self’ and how ‘to be’ in society) is part of cognitive development.

Entering the School System

When children typically enter into the mainstream school system at age 4 or 5, the adjustment to interacting with so many people outside of the family puts the socioemotional development into turbo drive.  They start to learn what actions and attitudes are considered acceptable or unacceptable to their peers and teachers.

 

This is a stage where learning to use words to describe simple emotions can help them express themselves during social interactions and is a first step (for children and adults across the lifespan!) to developing the skills to manage emotions.  This naming of emotions can also help children develop empathy by recognizing those same emotions in others and responding in consequence.  In this way, the seeds of cooperation are sown. 

It is important at this stage to help children learn how to resolve their conflicts by demonstrating the language, attitude, and actions necessary to manage their emotions and nurture their relationship with themselves and with others. You can also help them learn others’ non-verbal cues or recognize emotional responses in themselves and others.

By the time a child is 6 or 7, she typically needs support in understanding the complexity of emotions.  For example, when my 6 year old daughter didn’t get chosen to help the teacher in class, she was visibly upset when I picked her up after school.  By creating the time and space for her to use her words to talk to me about her feelings (this sometimes includes me naming emotions to start building her ‘emotional vocabulary’) we both learned that she was happy for her close friend who did get chosen, but also upset that it wasn’t her. Validating these conflicting emotions is vital in developing self-esteem and self-confidence. Then talking about how to act or respond to these emotions is part of supporting her emotional regulation through co-regulation.

Kids typically need support in continuing to develop positive relationships with others, with themselves, and with the world around them.  At this stage, this might be through recognizing their contribution in the classroom or at home, and the contribution of others, and then finding appropriate ways to express their emotions and points of view.

 

Older children begin to internalize rules and norms

 Once kids are in the older grades of primary school (ages 9-12) their socioemotional developmental stage is intertwined with their ability to reason and problem-solve (this is a cognitive process).  Typically, friendships start to take an important place, although this depends on the family and cultural context.  By the age of 12 most children will internalize rules (this means that they will act in a certain way not just because an adult might reward or punish them, but because they have decided for themselves that a set of rules is important, or not).

 

The socioemotional development of kids in school at this age is particularly affected by their increased understanding that not everyone thinks or feels the same way.  As parents, teachers, and caregivers we can continue to support them by co-regulating emotions such as anger and frustration and by reminding them of the actions they can take in the event of conflicts.  Supporting and promoting the acceptance of two-way relationships, such as the importance of both offering and accepting help and identifying and resisting negative influences, can also support children at this stage.

 

Understanding the developmental stage of the child can help us respond and support her valuable emotions in a way that makes sense for her age, her individual path in reaching a developmental milestone, and for her life context.  This is also vital to her cognitive and physical development – her eventual ability to create a healthy lifestyle for herself, feel connected to herself through self-knowledge and self-esteem, and feel connected to the world and to others through cooperation and nurturing relationships.

When to seek help for your child's mental health

Written by Emmanuelle Khoury, Ph.D, social worker.

Montreal, Canada

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I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.

Louisa May Alcott


What are we talking about when we say mental health and well-being? And what does a mental health challenge in a child look like?

The World Health Organization explains that mental health or well-being is a state in which a person can cope with normal stresses of life, be productive and make a contribution to the community.

When we think about school-aged children, this might mean feeling stressed or worried about school work, friends, sports, but still being able to deal with it.  ‘Dealing with it’ might mean that the child’s behaviours don’t change drastically, that she sleeps well most of the time, that there aren’t changes to her interest in school or her family life.


Common Mental Health Difficulties in Children

However, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 1 in 5 school aged children experience mental health difficulties.  Click here for some resources from the Headspace on mental health in youth. Some of the common ones include anxiety and depression:

ANXIETY – anxiety is a normal feeling of tension or worry.  It’s a response to stimuli or events in our everyday lives.  Some anxiety can even be helpful.  But if the anxiety is too intense or is non-stop, it may lead to fear, worry and panic. 

DEPRESSION -  everyone feels sad or down, but when those feelings turn to hopelessness and distress it often shows up in behaviours such as mood swings, crying, and trouble concentrating that impact life, family and school

 

When should you seek help for a child’s mental health?

Much as parents and caregivers sometimes deliberate whether or not to take a child to see the doctor if she’s had a fever for less than 24 hours (it might just be a normal cold or a passing bug!), they may also find it is hard to know when certain moods, behaviours or thoughts are worrisome. 

Signs of mental health difficulties include very typical variations in moods and behaviours that are part of normal development.  These might include loss of interest in school, slipping grades, avoiding friends, changes in sleep patterns, less energy or more energy, and feeling sad or worried.

Parents, teachers, or other significant adults in the life of a child should be concerned when these changes are intense, are constant (it’s not just a phase), and are bothersome for the child or cause problems in her life.  And just like going to the doctor for a fever that doesn’t feel quite right, even if it has only been 24 hours, if your child’s mood, behaviour or thoughts don’t feel right then you can also go see the doctor or consult with a mental health professional.  If your child is older, spend some time asking her about your concerns and take the time to listen to her response.  Your child might be carrying around feelings of fear or shame related to the changes so you can let her know that you are there to help her work through these difficulties.

 

Some great Canadian resources to get more information include the Canadian Mental Health Association and Kids Help Phone.

For more info on mental health in youth, visit the CAMH website and take a quick course on Youth and Mental Health 101.