Mind over matter?


Mind over matter?


Can the Buddhist practice of mindfulness

help to protect our children from the

negative effects of living in a fast-paced



writes Dr Nicola Davies

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 self-understanding.


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 research,

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 navel.


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 breath.


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 (overleaf).


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 experiencesLike 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

their choices.


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 emotionsChildren 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 mindfulness

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 son Lucas:


‘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.’





September/October 2013

All information is correct at time of publishing