By Liz Shaw, Shaw Lifestyle

Practising mindfulness can be such a powerful tool for our children, from tots to teens! It is so simple to create daily mindfulness tasks for kids of all ages – and what’s more, it can be fun too. To truly understand how and why this works, we need first to fully understand what it means to be ‘mindful’ as opposed to having our mind full (of constant chatter).

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is essentially being totally aware of the present moment; actually noticing what is happening NOW. Examples of daily mindfulness tasks, therefore, might be really sensing the smell, taste, and flavour of our morning coffee, or paying full attention – as we walk outdoors – to the sensation of the air on our skin, the breeze moving through our hair, and the feel of the ground beneath our feet.

If we regularly practise honing our awareness in this way, it helps us to slowly become “more present in the present.” However, the effort to focus on just one thing, such as breathing, immediately wakes us up to the many other things trying to flood our minds. But through mindfulness, we can train ourselves to gently push away those extra thoughts to truly “be” in the present moment.

“Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles, it takes away today’s peace.”

Committing to doing this daily means we become more and more adept at taking a step back and observing our thoughts and emotions rather than getting caught up in them: this way of ‘training’ our minds to become aware of thoughts bubbling up can have tremendous power in terms of teaching us to stop and think before reacting.

“When you react, you are giving away your power. When you RESPOND, you are staying in control of yourself” – Bob Proctor, International Best-selling Author

Imagine the power of this for our tantrum-ing toddlers… and for our moody teens! Learning to become mindful could truly turn their lives around – and those of their parents.

For adults, focusing on their breathing usually forms the basis of mindfulness practises, but actually, the important word here is FOCUS. For a small child, thinking about breathing may not feel very exciting, but there are many other things we can choose to focus on. Consider the following, remembering throughout that full attention to the moment is key, therefore, always choose a quiet and calm place to carry out these ideas…

Mindfulness for younger children (skip down the article for activities for teens):

  • Colour Yourself Calm. Grab a colouring book. Simply focusing on staying within the lines requires attention and is strangely calming (especially if mum or dad finds an adult colouring book too!) An easy way to create a peaceful atmosphere.
  • Toy Testers. Take a small selection of your child’s favourite toys. Ask them to shut their eyes and explain that you are going to pop one of their toys into their hands and they are going to guess which one it is. They are not allowed to open their eyes, they simply have to allow their fingers to explore their way around the toy. They will focus on the shape, the feel, and the texture of the toy – they will be focused on this and nothing else until they guess it correctly! Repeat with other toys or fun objects for as long as your child continues to enjoy the activity.
  • Chopstick Challenge. Take a pair of chopsticks: you hold one, your child the other. Place the chopsticks tip-to-tip and try to hold them there. You will need to really concentrate: if you push too hard, the force will push them apart; too softly and they simply won’t stay. Take a few moments to find just the right position. Once you’re confident in this, you can slowly start to move the chopsticks towards your right (your child’s left) then the other way, all the time focusing on not letting them drop! Keep moving slowly and with FOCUS. If you master this, then try going up and down (this one’s harder!) With practice, you can start making bigger movements and then start making the shapes a little more random. Children LOVE this one – go on, give it a go!
  • Breathing Bump (this is especially good as a ‘calm down’ exercise at night-time). Your child starts by choosing a favourite soft toy. Ask them to lie on their back and place the toy on their tummy. Encourage them to breathe into the tummy; in other words, imagining a balloon inside their tummy which they are going to blow up every time they breathe in. As they do this, they will sense their toy gently rising up and then softly sinking down again as they breathe out. Encourage them to focus on the rhythm: if you’re comfortable with it, you can also talk them through a soft ‘soundtrack’ to aid this. For example, “Watch teddy slowly rising up, and gently sinking down; slowly rising up; softly going down.” As they become more relaxed, their breathing will start to slow…
  • Heartbeat Moments. Ask your child to sit quietly with their hand on their heart; they should shut their eyes and simply breathe and “notice” the heartbeat (this is the less exciting bit!) Now ask them to get up and jog on the spot, or do some ‘star jumps,’ or simply jump up and down (you can either time this for 30 seconds or ask them to keep going for as long as they can). When they stop, they place their hand back on their heart and feel how it is racing!

…if you practise ‘Breathing Bump’ and ‘Heartbeat Moments’ a few times, you can then use these to talk your child through moments of anger or frustration. Get them to notice how their heart rate and breathing go up as they are cross or upset, then help them to understand how they can be in charge of this by using their favourite mindfulness exercise to gently calm them down. In every instance, PRACTISE is key. Finding these moments of calm is powerful for all of us. Truly utilising them to help us to RESPOND rather than REACT in more challenging times takes practice.

Mindfulness for our older children…

Mindful teenager

Many of the ideas above can easily be adapted for older children, but other activities might feel a little more appropriate…

  • Belly Breathing. Older children can understand the concept of breathing into the belly, and of how powerful this can be. Just five minutes a day of regularly focusing on their breathing can truly help calm nerves or anxiety – whether these be due to homework or to boyfriend/girlfriend issues!
  • Mindful Motion. Whether your child enjoys calming ballet or bashing it out in the boxing ring, if they FULLY FOCUS on any physical activity, it can become a mindful practice. Many forms of exercise (dance, running, horse riding, cycling) also have their own, ongoing rhythm. Pinpointing attention on this rhythm can help to stop attention from wandering and will “up” the benefits of this activity further.
  • An Attitude of Gratitude. We are all very capable of focusing on the negatives – often never more so than in our teenage years. If the day starts negatively, it is easy to FOCUS on this and let it ‘grow’. You stub your toe getting out of bed which makes you grumpy; you then can’t find the top you want… which makes you late… which makes you more grumpy… and so it goes on (we’ve all been there!) Before you know it, this has become a ‘bad day’ – and is going from bad to worse, all because we have allowed ourselves to FOCUS on the ‘bad.’ What would happen if we turned it around? If instead of focusing on the bad, we focus on the good. This is just as powerful, because “what we think about, we bring about.” Try it out!
  • 3 Steps to Gratitude. A fabulous way of turning attention to the ‘good’ is by writing a Gratitude Journal, but those who are perhaps not too keen on writing can instead try a simple “3 Steps to Gratitude” – every morning. It only takes just a few moments, and this is how it works… Every day when you wake up, you (necessarily) (1) sit up, (2) swing your legs around and place your feet on the floor, (3) stand up… and those are your three steps! On step 1 you say (aloud) one thing you are truly grateful for; as you place your feet on the floor, you say a second; as you stand up, you say the third. You need to truly FOCUS on that feeling of gratitude and really mean what you are saying. You are being mindfully grateful, and this is just as powerful as being ‘grumpy’ and can truly turn your day around and make it a positive one!
  • Colour Me Calm / Doodling Diversion. Again, grabbing a colouring book – or simply doodling if you’re comfortable doing so – will subtly focus the mind. It pushes you to focus on the task in hand, and it tends to have a calming effect too, which can be hugely helpful for anxious teens. This can be especially useful for those teens who might think your attempts at getting them to be mindful really aren’t “cool.” They probably won’t connect this task with mindfulness per se, so it might just loosen their resistance and encourage them to give it a go.
  • Nature Nurtures. Getting out amongst trees – even if it’s just a park in the city – is scientifically proven to put our stress levels down and our immunity up. (This is a whole other topic – a concept called “forest bathing” which is all to do with trees emitting essential oils which, in turn, contain phytoncides). If you can persuade your teen to do breathing practice out in nature or to focus on the feel of the wind in their hair as they walk amongst the trees, then this is a fabulous way to practise mindfulness! The truth is, however, that many of our more stubborn teenagers really won’t be into this! Although, they will receive many of the benefits of mindfulness just from being in nature – and they won’t even realise it’s happening!

Mindful child

“Stressed, Blessed & Essential Oil Obsessed.” As I have briefly mentioned above, essential oils are part of nature’s protection mechanisms – and aromatherapy tells us they can do the same for us, enhancing both mental and physical health. Whether or not you believe in these benefits, I challenge you to disagree with their potential for encouraging mindfulness. And the great thing is, you don’t have to actually DO anything, hence why it’s another top strategy for our hesitant teens! If you simply place a calming oil (such as lavender, orange, or chamomile) in a diffuser and pop it into your teen’s room, after a while, they will (probably subconsciously) start to notice the scent, start to breathe a little deeper to drink it in, and abracadabra… they are breathing more mindfully! This is a fabulous way to slowly encourage the breath to deepen, and gradually become more aware of your breathing… which is, after all, the basis of being MINDFUL. Give it go!

I cannot emphasise enough that all of this takes REGULAR PRACTICE. We all know that taking care of our physical health should be an ongoing task: eating healthily and exercising need to be done consistently to be of benefit. Exactly the same applies to our mental health: we need to regularly and consistently nurture our mental wellbeing also. I firmly believe that, as parents, it is our responsibility to be setting an example. Making our kids aware that we – ourselves – do few acts of mindfulness, and that it should be a ‘normal’ part of our day-to-day, is the first step in encouraging our kids to do the same… and that is when all the family can start to truly reap the endless benefits.

For more information and advice about mindfulness, visit: www.shawlifestyle.org