Mindfulness with kids doesn’t have to mean 20 minutes of quietly sitting on a meditation cushion. In my time as a teacher, therapist, and parent, I’ve seen hundreds of kids of all ages and backgrounds practice mindfulness, and each kid’s mindfulness practice looks as different as the kids themselves.
For 7-year-old Jackie, who struggles with ADHD and divorcing parents, it means playing with stuffed animals on the floor until either she or I ring a bell, and then we both take three mindful breaths. With Alexa, a curly-haired teen who struggles with food, mindfulness means tuning into her body’s signals, so she can respond to what her body, not her emotions, tells her she needs to eat. For burly Jared, an athlete who fears panicking on the lacrosse field, it means doing a quick body scan during a game and bringing his awareness to the soles of his feet when he senses his anxiety rising.
No matter how we practice it, mindfulness offers the gift of calm and clarity when difficult times arise—which they inevitably will—no matter how hard we try to protect our children. The world is not always a compassionate place; kids will get hurt, if they haven’t been already. But if we teach them, they can discover that their greatest challenges can be the greatest teachers.
Human beings need to experience some degree of pain in order to develop compassion, and life is guaranteed to give it to us. Contemplative practices like mindfulness allow kids to heal and soothe themselves rather than distract themselves from the pain. Kids need to get hurt, scrape their knees, bomb the occasional test, cry over their first heartbreak, and see that they can survive and grow from the experience. And when they share their experience with others, they can alleviate suffering in the world.
The psychological research on mindfulness shows that it greatly enhances what psychologists call “flourishing”—the opposite of depression, avoidance, and disengagement. Mindfulness builds emotional intelligence, boosts happiness, increases curiosity and engagement, reduces anxiety, soothes difficult emotions and trauma, and helps kids (and adults) focus, learn, and make better choices.
The problem: Kids are trained to disconnect.
In our distracted world, the default reaction to stress, unpleasant experiences, or even just neutral experiences is to check out. Don’t like how you feel inside? Bored with where you are in the present moment? Check out with something outside of yourself—watch a video, play a game, check your Twitter feed, scroll through Instagram. A recent study found that young men would rather receive 10 minutes of low-level electric shocks than spend 10 minutes alone with their thoughts, without their electronics. Taking drugs, cutting themselves, and acting out are other ways kids check out of their immediate experience. When we teach children to disconnect from their experience, it’s no wonder they struggle with their emotions.
Mindfulness and compassion practices go radically against this cultural conditioning by emphasizing checking in—with our experience, with ourselves, and with the world around us—rather than checking out. Over time, kids learn to tolerate their experiences, whether they are comfortable or not, and come to see that everything in the range of human experience, pleasant or unpleasant, loved or loathed, eventually passes. Teaching children to check in with, rather than check out of, their experience builds emotional intelligence, leading to happier kids and families.
In fact, some of the most exciting research in mindfulness shows that meditation and mindful practices are helpful not only for the kids in your life. They can also help you be calmer, less burned out, less reactive, more present, and more effective as a parent or partner or professional. This is one of the most precious gifts of mindfulness practice: that what we practice ourselves, physically, emotionally, spiritually, personally, and professionally, helps others.
10 little moments for mindfulness
If you or your kids think you don’t have time for even a little mindfulness practice, think again. There are endless little moments in our everyday lives that we can make into mindfulness cues or mindful moments. Kids can take an opportunity to be mindful whenever they are reminded by the following 10 everyday moments:
- Lying in bed first thing in the morning, just before getting up
- Standing in line
- Waiting to cross the street
- Turning a faucet handle
- Hearing the sound of laughter
- Feeling wind on their cheek
- Hearing birds chirping
- Opening a book or notebook
- Taking the first bite of a meal
- Hugging or cuddling someone
You and your kids can easily think of dozens of more cues or reminders to pause and be mindful during your everyday lives. And here’s a way to look for them: Just notice any time you feel that urge to reach for your phone and check out, and take a moment to mindfully check in first.