I remember it well. I was sitting at my family’s altar as my mom wore a monk’s robe, lighting incense and dedicating her stillness and silence to our Vietnamese ancestors. Meditation was an integral piece of my childhood. Needless to say, I didn’t have a conventional upbringing, at least not when it comes to spirituality. My mom, a feisty Vietnamese Buddhist woman, and my dad, a psychologist and practicing Presbyterian, raised me in a hybrid Buddhist/Christian home. One Sunday, I would attend temple with my mom to meditate among yellow-robed monks, and the next week, I would sing hymns in church with my dad. But through the common denominator of acceptance and altruism, the rich spirituality of my childhood was a tremendous gift. My parents came from two different walks of life, intentionally merging their lives of East and West as they were dedicated to living a life of love and acceptance.
My mother formally introduced me to meditation through the Buddhist lens, and my father was all about spending mindful time in nature's beauty. It was through my exposure to mindfulness and meditation as a young child that I later embarked on the path of becoming a mindfulness-based psychotherapist. Some of the profound benefits I’ve likely experienced as a result of beginning meditation as a child include increased focus, enhanced ability to deal with life stressors, high levels of compassion, emotional regulation skills, and the ability to fully receive joy. Studies show that teaching mindfulness-based skills, such as meditation, to children indeed enhances their capacity to cope with stress. Here are three meditative techniques I recommend to children of all ages:
1. Mindful belly breathing
There's a lot in life that we can't control, especially when we’re kids. Whether it’s our bedtime or who bullies us in school, children can feel lost when navigating their days. When I work with children and families in my psychotherapy practice, I emphasize the need for kids to have a "tool box" they can call upon when life becomes downright overwhelming. When they have an array of mindfulness-based skills for emotion regulation, kids feel really empowered. I often start with teaching mindful belly breathing. Studies show that meditation creates mental armor for children, increasing their emotional resilience.
I recommend that parents practice these mindfulness meditation skills with their children consistently for optimal benefit. To practice mindful belly breathing, instruct your child to find a comfortable position either sitting upright or lying on their back. Inhale through the nostrils, inviting the flow of breath to fill the belly. Inhale deeply and slowly, imagining a balloon in the belly’s center expanding with the inhale. Pause for a second at the top of the inhale. Then, exhale out of the nostrils, emptying the lungs of air. Continue this mindful belly breathing for three to five minutes, focusing on the body sensations associated with each moment of inhale and exhale. Feel peace wash over the entire body.
2. The "get still and feel" approach
When I got upset as a child, my mom encouraged me to sit at our family altar and meditate on my feelings. As a kid this felt ridiculous, but now, as a dedicated student of ancient Eastern healing practices I realize how powerful it was. Modern life encourages us to perpetually numb ourselves from actually feeling our feelings—whether it be through TV, sugary foods, or being glued to the iPhone. But making time for periods of stillness and silence, particularly during times of intense emotion, is essential. Our world is becoming increasingly more noisy. This creates a challenge for parents, but with intention we can encourage our children to pause, drop in, and identify their feelings. The emotional intelligence that arises when we get still and feel will offer lifelong benefits in interpersonal relationships, in the workplace, and beyond.
3. Gratitude practices
Whatever we shine our awareness on grows. When we teach our children to lean into gratitude, we’re inviting them to change their brain structure, shifting into an abundance mindset. Using gratitude as a mindful nightly ritual can help the whole family drop into the power of presence. As a family, gather together before bed and sit in a circle. Invite each family member to state three things they are grateful for that day. As each person shares, practice attentive, therapeutic listening. This means, without distraction, make eye contact with your beloved family member, breathe into your heart, and feel boundless gratitude for the moment. Gratitude practices are game-changers when it comes to fostering peace and presence both within and without!
Want to teach your kids to meditate? Show, don't tell. Here's how.
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