Meditation, or the practice of self-awareness in body and mind, has been revered for thousands of years as a natural, accessible way to regulate our reaction to stress and manifest good health.
Meditation is a mind-body practice that can initiate moments of calm, bring about self-awareness, and allows people to stay connected with themselves. The focus is on the interaction between the brain, mind, body, and behavior, with the goal of moving into a peaceful and energized state of mind.
You can think of mindfulness as state of mind, an ability, and a practice. It can be traced all the way back to the early teachings of Buddhism. There are many different mindfulness exercises to achieve this state: from paying attention to the sound of ringing bells to visualizing foods and smells.
To help kids of all ages find their way into practicing mindfulness, it can be helpful to give them an easy definition they can relate to.
Mindfulness and meditation, at its simplest, is paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. It may be what you’re feeling, hearing, or anything else you notice.
There’s no special place of calm you must reach and it’s not about clearing your mind, it’s just an honest and kind look at what you’re experiencing in this moment.
Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation for Kids
- better sleep
- build confidence
- improved self-esteem
- cope with and reduce stress
- ability to focus and study
- relate to uncomfortable or challenging moments
- cultivate resilience
- increase their well-being
- enable them to meet the stresses of the world with presence, self-compassion, and openness
- lessening depressive symptoms
- reducing anxiety
- relief from chronic pain
- helping to deal with trauma
The earlier we do so in their young lives, the greater the opportunity to help them develop and refine their mindfulness practice as they mature.
Mindfulness is about noticing. Noticing your breathing. Noticing how your emotions manifest in your body.
Teaching mindfulness to kids can also help shape their abilities known as executive functions: paying attention, and remembering information, shifting back and forth between tasks, and behaving appropriately with others.
These skills are essential for more advanced life tasks like planning, reasoning, problem-solving, and positive social relationships.
Even in its simplest forms, meditation can help both kids and adults within just three or four sessions.
There are studies that find mindfulness reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In addition, neuroimaging studies have shown increases of brain matter density in regions linked to learning and memory.
The coping skills children learn from practicing meditation and mindfulness can last a lifetime.
Teaching children how to meditate early on can help them manage unwanted emotions in a socially acceptable and therapeutic manner. If you practice meditation and mindfulness with kids when they are calm, they are much more equipped to access these skills when they’re overwhelmed.
Preschool-age children up to teens can learn how to meditate. By giving them the tools, they need to practice, and joining them while they do it, kids can initiate moments of calm, bring about self-awareness, and begin to connect their mind and body.
Meditation can help kids read and respond to internal signals of stress before their developing brains and bodies give in to a full-blown tantrum. The key is intuiting what your child needs to come back into balance and giving him or her the tools to practice.
There are several types of meditation, but most share four key characteristics:
- Quiet location
- Comfortable body position such as sitting, lying down, or walking
- A focus of attention
- An open attitude
Kids have distinct advantages over adults in learning to meditate, as well as different challenges. Kids are generally more willing and receptive. They’re curious and willing to embrace new things, and they’re honest about what disinterests them. However, if we expect children to sit still the way an adult would, you’ll quickly see what looks like failure.
For the youngest learners, meditation is probably more like “mindful movement”.
Try a light discussion of things that make your toddler feel happy and have them touch the parts of their body that feel that happiness. Then have them think of something that’s unhappy and where they feel it. To relieve those unpleasant feelings, try engaging them in the sounds and satisfaction of taking a deep breath.
Toddler fidgeting isn’t a bad thing. Remember, their little bodies and brains are undergoing massive development, and they don’t have the emotional vocabulary to tell you when they’re making big leaps in understanding or needing to self-soothe.
Starting around age 3 or 4, children start to pay attention to the elements of stories, which leads the way to guided meditations.
Try taking your preschooler on a journey, guiding them gently with your voice to think about how each part of their body feels, head to toe.
Meditative music and recorded meditations can also have a profoundly calming effect on kids.
I’d like to invite you to try our new app, Fanatic4Feelings, available for android and apple devices. The app allows children to create an avatar and then tracks their emotions at different times of the day. Kids can then enter information such as how intense the emotion is and where they feel it within their bodies. Based on this data, the child is given suggested exercises or meditations to help regulate their emotions. In addition, parents can choose to communicate their child’s information to a therapist with a personalized family code.
Some of my other favorite meditation and mindfulness apps include:
Calm which offers a new meditation every day, along with 7- to 21-day meditation programs like “7 Days of Calming Anxiety” or “7 Days of Focus.” Most of the meditations are guided, but there are options for unguided timed meditations, too. Guided meditations are read aloud by a pleasant, soothing voice. Kids can also listen to sounds like ocean waves or wind. It’s free to try the app’s first program and a few stand-alone guided meditations. There’s a fee to access more. Calm is best for older teens and young adults. Parents may want to try the app too. And if you have a younger child, Calm offers sleep stories to read to kids and lullabies to help them relax and sleep better. My personal favorite is the Disney Piano. It’s free to try or $69.99 per year and is available for: Android, iOS.
Headspace has a sleek, cool look, and it uses fun cartoon videos to teach how meditation works. The app has tons of guided meditations, read by a voice with a British accent. Originally for adults, Headspace now has specific mindfulness activities for kids, with five themes: Calm, Focus, Kindness, Sleep, and Wake Up. Each activity is customized for three different age groups, under 5, 6–8, and 10–12, and each has a role for parents. Teens can also benefit from the app, which offers reminders to help kids stay on track, and a buddy system so different users can encourage each other. The price is free to try and then a $12.99 per month subscription. It is available for: Android, iOS
Stop, breathe, and think Kids is a simple meditation app for kids in middle school and older. It has guided meditations and breathing exercises, as well as written instructions on how to meditate. Kids can share how their mind and body are feeling, and the app suggests a meditation based on that. The app also tracks total meditation time and how “settled” kids report they feel. Again, the price is fee to try, and then $9.99 per month subscription. It is also available for: Android, iOS
My final piece of advice. You can make a kid sit still, but you can’t force them to meditate or be mindful.
As with most desirable behaviors, you as the parent needs to step up and demonstrate a commitment to deeper awareness first. If you model these beneficial and rewarding practices, in your everyday life, your kids will learn them, too.