3 easy ways mindfulness can help your kids cope with stress
What do you do when your seven year old consistently complains that he can’t get to sleep because there’s too much ‘stuff’ in his head? Or when your four year old daughter hyperventilates when things are not going her way? Teaching them simple mindfulness breathing techniques can help with both of these common scenarios, as well as with many others.
So what exactly is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to our experience as it happens without judgment. Rather than worrying about what has happened or what might happen, it helps us to respond purposefully to whatever is happening right now in the present moment, whether it is good or bad. Mindfulness training also includes learning how to breathe to reduce stress and worry.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) are two of the hottest topics right now at Oxford, Cambridge and Exeter Universities in England. MBCT and MBSR have been used for years to treat adults suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, with extremely positive results. You can learn MBCT and MBSR in Australia too, as an 8 week course to help you deal with your own stress.
But what about our kids? Even without the constant bombardment from ipods, ipads, phones and TV, our kids are increasingly facing stress at home, in the classroom and in the playground. Whether it’s exams, bullying, competitive sport, arts performances, family issues, an exploding schedule, pressure to perform or social and relationship challenges, our kids have more on their plates than ever before, leading them to feel anxious, stressed and possibly even depressed.
New research is showing that mindfulness can help your kids cope with stress. There are many options around now to teach your kids mindfulness. I have just completed teacher training with the .b (pronounced “dot-be”) Mindfulness in Schools program, which is a ten week course for young people aged 11-18, delivered in the classroom or in small groups. .b stands for ‘Stop, Breathe and Be’. It was developed by high school teachers in conjunction with MBCT and MBSR professors from Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter and Bangor Universities in the UK and is currently being taught in 12 countries in as many different languages. Each lesson teaches a distinct mindfulness skill such as anchoring our attention, dealing with stress and anxiety, how to respond rather than react and dealing with difficult emotions.
Research is now showing that programs like this are helping kids to cope with stress, learn more effectively, think more clearly, perform better and to feel calmer and less anxious. There is also a program for 7-11 year olds which I hope to learn later in the year, although I am using the techniques described below already for my 7 and 4 year olds.
So, as well as signing them up for a kids or teen mindfulness program, what can you do to help your kids? Try these three techniques;
If they can’t get to sleep because there’s too much ‘stuff’ in their mind
1. Tell your child this is normal and is the body’s way of processing everything that’s happened that day.
2. Ask them to lie down and breathe deeply, making sure the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. An easy way to do this is to breathe in for 2 counts and out for 4 counts.
3. Invite them to focus on their feet – do they feel heavy or light? Warm or cool? Tense or relaxed? Ask them to imagine they are breathing into their feet. Slowly, focus on each part of the body in turn, starting at the feet, the ankles, shins, knees, thighs etc all the way up through the tummy and chest, into the arms, hands and fingers and eventually to the neck, face and head.
You can talk them through this in around 5-10 minutes, depending on the age of the child. If they are still able to focus, ask them to feel how they are breathing with their whole body.
If they are hyperventilating or panicking
1. Ask them to stop whatever it is they are doing and if possible, sit down.
2. Hold your hand on their lower tummy (or they can put their own hand there) and ask them to breathe into your hand.
3. Talk them through breathing in for 2 counts and out for 4 counts. Keep this going for as long as they need. They could then do the next exercise as well.
At a time when they are feeling well, explain the science of stress in the body and how it can be counteracted with breathing. Kids, like adults, are extremely responsive when they understand how it works. In fact, I think this will be the topic of my next blog!
If they are worrying, feeling angry, upset or frustrated
1. Ask them to stop for a moment and notice where they are feeling the worry or anger in their body. In their tummy? Throat? Legs? Do they feel shaky, or tight, or sweaty?
2. Then ask them to focus on their feet and how they feel on the floor – heavy? Solid? Warm? Keep focusing on their feet, letting them anchor to the ground.
3. Now ask them to focus on feeling their breath; where its going in their body, if its warm or cool, where it makes their tummy move and how it feels in their nose, throat and belly. Ask them to feel their body relaxing. After a moment, ask them if they are ready to now address the original problem.
Mindfulness training obviously involves a lot more than just breathing. In particular, understanding how the mind works and how to notice our thoughts gives us the choice, with practice, to stop stressful thought patterns and self-talk. This then impacts on the stress we feel in our bodies. Coming back to the present moment by feeling the sensations in our bodies and becoming aware of our breathing gives us a break from the relentless traffic in our minds.
As they say: What you can breathe with, you can be with.