Archive for July 11th, 2013

July 11, 2013

Mindfulness: Creating Peaceful and Happy Children (and Adults, too!)

by Melissa Harding

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If you want to be happy, be. – Henry David Thoreau

We all know that modern life can be stressful. Work deadlines, paying bills, and supporting the needs of a family can be difficult for everyone at times. Well-being can be hard to attain; rather than a state of being, mental health can be considered a skill to learn. Techniques like mindfulness, yoga, meditation and prayer have long been known to help adults strengthen their ability to withstand anxiety and stress. The practice of mindfulness in particular has been linked with not just lower stress, but also better emotional stability, improved sleep, greater compassion and increased resilience. As adults, we often are able to acknowledge the stress that we face day after day, but we do not always extend the same logic to our children. From young children to teens to adults, stress affects us all. With this in mind, there is new research being done on the effects of similar techniques in the lives of adolescents.

A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that mindfulness programs work on children as well as adults; study results indicate that mindfulness programs could reduce stress and lessen depression, as well as increase well-being, among study participants. Researchers at the University of Exeter, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), tested 522 students between the ages of 12 and 16. Those teens who completed a nine-week mindfulness class during this time reported greater well-being, less stress and decreased depression than their peers in the control group.  Another study from the University of California found similar results among college undergraduates; study results indicated that a two-week mindfulness training program not only helped participants to better focus, but also helped to improve their working memory and reading comprehension scores.

IMG_0082As great as that sounds, mindfulness is not well-known by everyone. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), known for short as “mindfulness”, are two programs that provide instruction for participants to help them learn to recognize worry, deal with unpleasant feelings and create distance between thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness teaches how to look at the self and others in a non-judgmental way. Techniques like seated meditation, body scans, yoga and walking meditation are common techniques used to impart these skills. While mindfulness does use some Buddhist elements, such as seated meditation, it has no religious affiliation at all and is taught impartially by trained practitioners.

Not only is this good for mental health, but increased well-being means better academic and social performance; those children who learn to manage their emotions have the skills and confidence to be more successful in life.  Increased compassion in children means that they exhibit more pro-social behavior, like kindness, that helps them to make friends. Additionally, practicing mindfulness makes children less impulsive and more thoughtful.

With so much research showing the benefits of mindfulness on people of all ages, some schools are starting to catch on to the trend. More and more schools are offering mindfulness-based classes to help their students deal with the increased stress of their academic and social lives. Additionally, mindfulness is a cost-effective way for schools to help their students do better on tests and regulate behavior. These programs are equally as effective on children with mental health issues as they are on children in the normal range of health.

If your school district does not offer mindfulness training, there is no need to wait. Families can work together to be more mindful as well. Even if you don’t know much about it, you can learn a few techniques and practice them with your family. In fact, many adults who engage in their own mindfulness practices say that they are more compassionate and patient parents. It is important to try these techniques out yourself before trying to do them with your child; it is always best to practice what we teach.

IMG_0096Try some of these techniques at home (from Teaching Mindfulness to Children by Hooker and Fodor):
1. Count your breath: Notice your breath, how your chest rises and falls as you breathe, keeps you in the moment. One way to do this is to put your hands on your chest and stomach to feel the motion. Slowly count each breath, counting “one” as you inhale and “one” as you exhale, then “two” and so on up to “five”. Then start back at one. It is easy, especially when you first start, you keep your focus on your breath. If you find it difficult to keep focus, try “one” for every inhale and “two” for every exhale. Begin with a short period of time and then increase gradually.
2. Catch your thoughts: Close your eyes and say to yourself “I wonder what my next thought will be”. Become alert and wait for your next thought to pop into your head. Be like a cat watching a bird; be fast! Begin with a short period of time and then increase gradually.
3. Put your thoughts in a bubble: Close your eyes and imagine that there are bubbles slowly rising in front of you. Each bubble contains a thought, feeling or emotion. See the first bubble slowly float up towards you; what is inside? See the thought, but do not judge it. Once it has floated away, watch for the next bubble. Begin with a short period of time and then increase gradually until the thought inside your bubble is nothing and your mind goes blank.
4. Visualize a relaxing place: Close your eyes and start to imagine a place that feels comfortable, safe and relaxing. Imagine this place slowly coming to life before you. Look to your left. What do you see? Look to your right. What do you see? Look closer. Stay focused on this place, on its smells, sounds and sights. How do you feel? If you find your thought wandering, slowly bring your thoughts back to focus. Begin with a short period of time and then increase gradually. If you wish, draw your imaginary place to remind you of your mindfulness time.

Remember, these simple sounding exercises can be difficult at first. It takes patience and practice to be mindful of your thoughts and emotions. Practice taking notice of the sights and sounds and smells around you all the time, as you walk, eat and sit. Also, remember that you do not need to be perfect; keep a sense of humor and imagination about it all. Practicing together as a family is a way to connect together, no matter how it turns out.

Useful Resources:

To learn more about mindfulness and children, check out the wonderful article Teaching Mindfulness to Children by Karen E. Hooker, Psy.D and Iris E. Fodor, Ph.D.

To learn techniques for stress-relief in children, read this excellent article by the Huffington Post about mindfulness in schools.

To learn how to teach mindfulness with patience, check out Mind Body Green’s great article on teaching mindfulness and meditation to children.

Want to do this yourself? Check out these tips from Mind Body Green for creating and sticking to a personal practice.

The above pictures were taken by Cory Doman.

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