by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.
The world is and always has been a stressful place for children. Fortunate children are shielded from overwhelming stress. But some parents go to extremes to prevent their children from experiencing any source of danger, germs or frustration. Stress, however, is inevitable, and learning to cope is part of healthy development.
It is ironic that as parents have become more vigilant about protecting children from hardships and frustration, children are expected to advance more quickly through the developmental process. For example, children have less unstructured play time, fewer unsupervised peer interactions, less time to just “be.” At the same time that adults have higher and earlier demands for children’s performance, children have fewer opportunities to understand and manage their emotions. Consequently, young children are more frequently referred for ADHD evaluation and anxiety-related problems. Don’t get me wrong—children should be evaluated and treated for these problems. But we must also reassess our expectations of children, with attention paid to a healthy balance of work along with rest, and strategies for coping.
A state of being
“Mindfulness” has become very popular as a clinical treatment for adults. It is used to teach patients to cope with chronic pain, anxiety and depression. A good deal of this work involves awareness of internal states followed by acceptance of rather than escape from discomfort. When discomfort (emotional or physical) is acknowledged, we move closer to acceptance and calmness. Simply stated, mindfulness is deliberate awareness of the body, mind and environment. It can involve mediation practice—but it does not have to. The goal of mindfulness is not relaxation; it is awareness and acceptance (which can be soothing).
With children, mindfulness training is a means of teaching them about emotions and heightening their attention to the world around them. While a child’s leisure time too often involves distraction and isolation (TV, video games, computer), awareness leads to personal insight and coping. When a child becomes aware of feelings, and names those sensations, he moves closer to self control of emotions. For anxious children, mindfulness can teach that feelings are not necessarily reality; they are the mind’s interpretation of experiences (just because you are afraid of monsters in the closet doesn’t mean they are there). For inattentive children, mindfulness practice sharpens focus on the present.
To be an effective treatment, mindfulness practice should be consistently practiced and provided along with other sorts of treatment—such as cognitive behavioral therapy. As an everyday practice, all children benefit from slowing down, observing, experiencing and just “being” in the moment. Parents can introduce mindfulness during daily activities. For example:
- During meals, encourage your child to take time to savor the food. Ask her to describe the flavor or textures of what she is eating.
- Before bed, teach deep breathing techniques. “Breathe in one…out one.” Experiment with infant massage to increase awareness of his body.
- On a family walk, call her attention to one aspect of the environment such as sounds. Have her describe all of the different sounds she can detect.
- Practice quiet times at home with no TV, radio or computers. Blow bubbles, dance, or watch the cat.
- When your child is experiencing a big emotion, don’t talk him out of it. Be with him and let him feel his emotions without reacting to them (although it is essential to put limits on unacceptable behaviors). Later on revisit the feeling. Ask him how his body felt during the emotion. Call his attention to the way feelings come and go just like waves on the beach.
Once children understand their feelings, they can master their emotions and not be scared of being scared, or sad or disappointed. They learn that they are resilient, mighty and in charge of their own brain.
Parents must practice mindfulness themselves; then they can work toward balance and appropriate expectations of their children, slow the pace of daily routines, value and defend down time. This will create a calm place for the child to understand and accept him or herself and cope with the stress of their world in a healthy way.
“If you want to be happy, be.”-Henry David Thoreau