Creating a Family Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness, or the act of being fully present and accepting our own emotions without judgement, has been practiced for thousands of years. With roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s often connected to meditation, yoga, and even spiritual enlightenment. And the benefits are wide-ranging: It can help rewire negative thought patterns, decrease stress levels, and increase our ability to focus.
For children, learning mindfulness at an early age can have additional advantages, including strengthened brain development, improved academic performances, and better judgement control. According to Laura Goldstein, a DC-based child and teen therapist, this is because mindfulness activities ground us in the present moment. “The present is typically a place of emotional safety, whereas the past can hold sadness and the future can hold worries and anxiety,” Goldstein explains. “In that calm space where we aren’t activated in our fight-or-flight responses, we are able to engage with other areas of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex for improved focus.”
Especially in the era of screen-heavy days and Zoom school, a consistent mindfulness practice can benefit both parents and children. So, if you’re ready to take on mindfulness together with your little one(s) as a time to rest and relax, here’s a simple guide to help get started.
How To Explain Mindfulness To Kids
Start with a conversation about what mindfulness is, in ways children will understand. Give examples of what it looks like (and what it doesn’t). For example, mindfulness is about understanding our emotions, like happiness or anger, and letting them exist… but it is not about feeling bad for having them. Another example is that mindfulness can help us get through bad times, but it’s important to practice during the good ones, too.
If you’ve already built a mindfulness practice, give them the chance to witness it for themselves and join in. If you haven’t, it’s an excellent time to build a joint routine. Of course, you don’t necessarily need a routine to embrace mindfulness, but it is easier to explore with kids when it’s labeled as “practice”, the way some might do with sports or piano lessons. Once they have an understanding and an eagerness to try, you can begin building a safe, inclusive environment.
Explain the what, why, and how of the practice so they understand the process, and so they can share how it’s going for them, too. As you navigate what this looks like for your family, decide together if you’ll do a number of activities switching off on days (like belly breathing one day and meditation apps on another), or if you want to try a little bit of everything. Determine if there’s a set time of day or recurrence you’re aiming for and for how long. A good place to start is once a day for 15-30 minutes when everyone is awake and alert, like early in the morning together or an hour before bed.
When mindfulness is positioned as quality time, everyone can have a sense of ownership. Maybe your child helps rearrange furniture in order to sit on pillows, or they’re in charge of reminding the family when it’s “mindfulness time.” Giving kids responsibility will engage them and support a daily commitment to practicing.
Kid-Friendly Mindfulness Activities
This can be done through belly breathing (breathing in and out while you feel your stomach contracting and expanding), mindful breathing (visualizing your breath coming in and out of your body), or counting breathing (in for four counts, hold for four counts, out for four counts). Doing this together will also help children calm down prior to other meditation-heavy activities.
The Body Scan
Lie in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Then, guide your children’s attention to each part of their body slowly and intentionally, starting from the scalp, then the forehead, then eyebrows, and so on. When you get to specific limbs like hands and feet, ask them to squeeze or press them down. There are additional benefits to practicing this before bedtime, according to Julie Jones, a certified Mental Performance Coach: “It slows the heart and breathing rate, reduces frustration which can be common in small children before bed, helps manage blood sugar levels, and increases blood flow. This practice also improves sleep quality and the chances of remaining asleep for the night.”
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you may be familiar with this method for sensory grounding, and you can easily do the same with children. Ask them to name five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. It allows children to be present in the moment while embracing their senses.
If you want to enhance the sensory experience, consider asking them to eat a snack like they’re tasting it for the first time. How does a cranberry taste or feel versus an apple slice? This can be more engaging (and maybe nutritionally satisfying) to some. If you’re offering a sweet treat like chocolate, Goldstein suggests guiding your child to “pay specific attention to how long you can still taste the chocolate in your mouth even after you swallow.”
The Calm Jar
Several experts I spoke with recommended a visualization activity like creating a “calm” jar or snow globe. Rebecca Stone, a clinical therapist with Brooklyn Somatic Therapy, says by creating a jar with water and glitter or fake snow, we can show how “our thoughts and feelings can similarly settle.” If anyone is especially riled up, encourage them to focus on a specific snowflake or piece of glitter and watch it float down, as a calming method.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Encourage children to sit in a comfortable position, close their eyes, and envision someone they love. Once they have this person in mind, ask them to send a kind wish like “may they be happy, may they be healthy, may they be safe, may they be loved” (a common mantra in mindfulness). You can do this practice repeatedly or ask them to envision someone they may find challenging or are frustrated by. For the latter activity, the intended outcome is to let go of tension and frustration and to offer kindness and patience instead.
If you or your child finds it difficult to sit still, you can also aim for slow yoga or a walking meditation. These are available on meditation apps or on YouTube, or you can turn to a simple wilderness activity, taking in various sights and smells or watching nature organically unfold.
End With a Reflection
Going through a mindfulness practice and then reverting back to video games, chores, or other energetic activities may be a tough transition, so conclude your experience with a discussion. Here are some sample questions you can draw upon (and should answer, too!):
How did that feel for you?
Where did you struggle or have a challenging time?
Which part was most calming?
Do you feel differently than you did beforehand?
What else can we do together? How else can we make this a calming space?
Tara Stiles, a global yoga expert and author of Clean Mind, Clean Body, also recommends offering up this discussion space as a joint activity: “We learn [at a young age] what is acceptable and what is not… It can be so easy to hide your feelings and build up bad habits. [With my family], we have a little session where we all talk about what happened that day and how we feel about it. It's not just my daughter doing the talking, we all do, so it's much more a ‘together’ process that she feels in charge of, instead of being told what to do.”
Being present and accepting emotions without judgement require ongoing practice, and the practice is more likely to “stick” with a child if they see parents exhibiting mindful behaviors. So even outside of these activities, try being present and screen-free together, demonstrating and encouraging forgiveness in times of anger, and keeping an honest, open conversation going. No matter what challenges you or your little ones may be experiencing, mindfulness—especially when addressed together—can better equip us all to deal with them, now and in the future.
What’s your favorite mindful activity to do with your family?
Drop your recommendations in the comments below!