There is a growing body of evidence that mindfulness–which is tuning into the moment in a non-judgmental way–is associated with an array of positive wellness outcomes. In this blog entry I will review some specific mindfulness strategies for we parents to use with our kids and teens.
The older your youth is the easier this will be to teach and the more time you will be able to spend doing the techniques. It also helps if you are engaged in your own mindfulness practice. The length of time invested in each of the following strategies can be adjusted based on factors such as those.
To teach the concept of mindfulness you might try to start with a stimulus that is interesting to your child: a flower, a captured insect, a colorful dress, a colorful rock, and so forth. Make sure everyone’s technology is off (not on silent or vibrate, but off). Ask your child to take two to five minutes with you and study the details of the thing, making sure to not judge and only to observe. As you’re doing this, suggest that you both pretend that your lungs are in your belly, instead of your chest, and breathe more deeply (but comfortably), both in and out. Suggest that if other thoughts come to mind, that your child just bring them back to the object without judging the fact that s/he was distracted for a moment (you can model this by recounting your own distractions later). Afterwards ask your child how this affected him or her, listening for evidence of feeling more calm or peaceful. You might also have your child or teen give a calmness rating, from 1-100, comparing how s/he felt before and after.
Here are some other examples of mindfulness techniques:
During agitating waits. When in a long retail line, a traffic jam or other time-slowing and bothersome situations, encourage your child to study the details of something around you: the sweater of the person in line in front of you, the cracks in the side of the road. “Study” doesn’t mean glance and move on. It means keep a focus on that area and notice a level of detail that most would normally not attend to. When finished, be sure to ask what this did for the agitation and the sense of time (usually reduces agitation and speeds up time).
During eating. In our run-and-gun culture we can get into the habit of devouring instead of savoring. Mindful eating, which has been associated with enhanced pleasure and reduced calorie intake, involves engages all of the senses in eating. This would include chewing slowly and savoring the details of each mouthful in a way that typically wouldn’t be noticed.
To reduce self-criticism. Ask your child or teen to try balancing an egg for two minutes. When doing so s/he should pay attention to the details of the egg and the surface as well as not judge his or her performance; the latter is especially important in this exercise.
As a hobby. Photography is an example of a hobby that is mindfulness friendly. You can ask your child to join you in taking a few pictures of things that people might not normally notice. Agree to non-judgmentally study the thing for some moments before you take a picture of it.
As a way of joining with nature. Take a hike in nature, agreeing to stop a predesignated number of times to study a particular object.
To learn about each other. You can take turns studying the details of each others face, being careful to remain neutral in any commentary. (When it’s all over you can be positively judgmental if you’d like.)
The final two are examples of more advanced techniques:
To observe negative feelings. There is something about non-judgmentally naming and noticing negative emotion that promotes dealing effectively with them. In our culture we sometimes have a low threshold for experiencing the inevitable valleys of our lives and can rush in with self-medications of a wide array. If you practice a spirituality, you teach your child to turn over named negative feelings to his or her Higher Power. Teaching our kids to be mindful about painful feelings can be difficult to do (including for us as we are challenged to suppress our urge to immediately jump in with strategies and reassurances) but offers an invaluable life lesson.
To observe urges. You can ask your child to sit up straight in a dining room chair and not respond to, but non-judgmentally notice, any urges (e.g., to slouch down, shift weight, cross legs) for a few minutes. A similar exercise would be to put your child’s phone face down and to note urges to respond to its beck-and-call. Afterwards, you can debrief about the role of urges and that we have more power to create distance and control over them than we might sometimes imagine.
While I’ve given some sample exercises, just about any activity can be done more mindfully: listening to music, commuting to school, showing, brushing teeth, and so forth. Like any wellness habit, it becomes easier to do the more it is practiced.