Mindfulness, originally a Buddhist practice, is enjoying a surge in
popularity. You might have even tried the technique yourself: it has clearly had
a positive impact on the lives of adults. But what about children?
A simple yet powerful way of dealing with difficult emotions and
experiences by focusing on the here and now, mindfulness fosters inner calm, increased
awareness, and a sense of well-being.
It is not, like many people think, about meditation and stilling the
mind, but about being fully present and absorbed in the moment. Far from being about
stillness, it requires a great deal of focus,
especially when first learning the technique.
The practice was first developed to help alleviate illness, but it is rapidly becoming
a lifestyle tool for healthy people of all ages and backgrounds. For children, mindfulness
can improve attention and focus, sharpen memory, and develop self-acceptance and
How it works for children
Young children are naturally mindful and it is only as they get
older that they lose this valuable tool. Psychologists are beginning
to recognise this and efforts have been made to nurture mindfulness in the very young
and teach it to older children too.
Professor Willem Kuyken of the University of Exeter describes
mindfulness for children as ‘a form of mental training that teaches them to be aware
of their feelings.’ He has conducted ground-breaking research in schools, winning
the May Davidson Award for outstanding contributions to clinical psychology. In his
Professor Kuyken found that both girls and boys who were involved in a nine-week
mindfulness programme that was integrated into the school curriculum experienced
lowered stress and enhanced well-being.
Mindful breathing – For yourself
1. Sit comfortably in a quiet place and rest the palms of your hands just below the
2. Breathe normally, close your eyes, and focus all of your attention on your breathing
as it goes in and out of your body. Feel your abdomen rising and falling with each
3. If your thoughts start drifting away, gently bring your awareness back to the
present and renew your focus on your breathing. Do this for at least 10 minutes.
Mindful breathing – For your child
These breathing exercises are more appropriate for older children of about 6+ but
there are also many ways to help younger children learn mindfulness too – read about
Dr Irwin’s experiences with her child in How I teach my three-year-old to be mindful
1. Sit down with your child in a quiet room. Ask your child to make himself comfortable
and try to think of all the sensations in his body.
2. Go through the body limb by limb and talk to him about how each part of the body
feels - warm or cool, heavy or light? Ask your child to take in a deep breath and
breathe out slowly, remaining aware of his breathing.
Continue to focus only on the breathing. Try this for five minutes.
What are the benefits?
Latest research suggests that mindfulness helps children:
• Gain awareness of their emotional reactions and learn to regulate
them more effectively.
• Realise their potential to make better decisions.
• Feel more secure about themselves, and their ability to deal with
challenges in and outside school and at home.
Mindfulness helps children by teaching them to value experiences, be non-judgmental,
and understand their emotional world.
Value experiences – Like most adults, many children operate on automatic pilot, where
reactions and responses dominate their lives. As children learn to focus on their
‘in the moment’ experiences, they become less likely to rely on automatic responses,
and they become more aware of their ability to control
Being non-judgemental– Being mindful encourages children to see positive and negative
experiences as having equal value, which helps them to accept the inevitable ups
and downs of life. This is fundamental for developing resilience.
Understanding emotions – Children learn to observe and reflect on their feelings,
and in doing so it becomes easier for them to control the negative ones like anger
and anxiety. This is why mindfulness can be particularly beneficial for children
who can be
overly impulsive or get angry easily.
Teaching kids mindfulness
Mindful parenting and teaching is the most effective way to create
mindful children: they absorb mindful behaviours and reactions simply by observing
the adults in their lives.
This is one reason why mindfulness can be easily integrated into
classrooms. Many teachers include mindful breathing techniques into their daily routine.
They usually last from two to five minutes, and once learnt your child can use them
anywhere– while queuing for school dinners or in the playground. Follow the steps
in our breathing box, try it yourself and then with your child.
Being a mindful parent
So how is it done? Mindful parenting is when adults respond to children in ways that
are appropriate to the moment, and free from the effects of past experience.
As Dr M Lee Freedman of The Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto says: ‘Mindful
living is about being fully awake and aware
of what is going on, rather than reacting unconsciously according to predetermined
habits, patterns, and judgements. Mindful parenting is a practice which is simple,
but not easy, and most definitely worth the effort.’
Mindfulness will put you more in touch with your thoughts, feelings
and experiences so that you can see yourself and your children more clearly. You
are still responsible for setting and enforcing limits as well as disciplining when
necessary, but you can do so more effectively with mindful responses.
For instance, if your child says to you ‘I don’t want to go to sleep. I’m scared’
a mindless response might be ‘Just sleep, there’s nothing to be afraid of’. But a
mindful parent might say something along the lines of ‘I know you are frightened,
but it’s time for you to go to bed and this is the place where you sleep. I will
leave the door open for you.’
Or your child might say ‘Can you read me a story?’ Instead of responding by telling
him he’s being a pest, you just got back from work and you’re tired, a mindful parent
might say ‘I know you’re
tired, but right now I’m tired too. Shalll we read together after dinner.’
In a fast-paced world, we are forever planning for the future and worrying about
what went wrong in the past. Inevitably, our children learn to do the same, which
isn’t ideal if we want them to be content adults with a good quality of life. Although
can be challenging, the effort is well worth it – for adults and children alike.
How I teach...
my three-year-old to be mindful
Dr Silvina Irwin, clinical psychologist, describes how it’s done with her three-year-old
‘With Lucas, I need to choose mindfulness exercises that work for his age. I tend
to pick exercises to strengthen attention, focus and awareness of tactile experiences.
For instance, we might hone in on an object with our fullest attention – such as
a rock – discussing whether it’s smooth, rough, heavy, how it smells, its weight,
temperature and so on. We do this together and I have seen his capacity to stay focussed
improve over time. He loves doing it, too.’