Don’t make mindfulness seem like something only to be used in times of trouble — present it as a tool to be used in a variety of situations.
BEING MINDFUL EVERY DAY
As children develop into early childhood, they become capable not only of practicing mindfulness with the guidance of a parent or caregiver, but also of retaining some of these skills and turning to them in times of need. “By around age 4 they are able to learn skills that they can utilize on their own,” said Ms. Greenland.
To instill these habits in children, practice is key. Don’t make mindfulness something that is turned to only in times of stress. Instead, make mindfulness exercises a regular part of the daily routine, an activity in and of itself, just like reading, playing outside or making art. And rather than making mindfulness seem as if it is only as an antidote to irritating situations, present it as a tool that can help children explore new sensations, including those that are pleasant, neutral and unfamiliar.
“Use it as a tool to explore kindness and curiosity,” said Ms. Morey. “Ask children what they feel in their bodies.”
Parents can also continue to embody mindfulness, and should feel comfortable meditating in front of their children. “It’s a wonderful practice for parents, too, to meditate in the midst of whatever is going on,” said Ms. Harris. “The children may not have any concept of what we’re doing when we meditate, but they’re mimicking the behavior and they’re interested.”
As children grow older and become more independent, parents and caregivers grapple with a loss of control. When children are in school and out with friends, there’s simply less a parent can do to influence the lives of their children. And when setbacks occur, as they inevitably will, it is important for parents to meet those misfortunes with mindfulness.
Rather than getting hung up on whatever the problem is, note it and address it, but at the same time recognize that it is fleeting and will pass. If it is the child who misbehaved, make an effort to forgive them.
And if the parent or caregiver is blaming themselves, they should work on self-forgiveness, too. “Wisdom doesn’t come from being perfect,” said Ms. Greenland. “Wisdom comes from being present.”
Children can benefit from mindfulness to adjust as they move through school — and start to experience a wider world.
As children move through elementary and middle school, mindfulness can be a powerful tool, allowing them to deal with adversity more skillfully, and also enhance their understanding of the world and themselves. “Everything can be received and met with this kind curiosity,” said Ms. Morey. “That can then translate into their own self attitude, giving them space to figure out what they want to do with their lives and who they are.”
At this age, mindfulness practice can also help children in school. A recent study found that fourth and fifth graders who took a four-month meditation program demonstrated improvements in cognitive control, working memory and math test scores. Other studies have shown that mindfulness can be especially helpful to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and also reduce children’s aggression, anxiety and stress. And around the country, many educational institutions — from elementary schools to graduate programs — are bringing mindfulness training into the classroom.
RELIEVE THE PRESSURE
Even with mindfulness, parenting can still be a challenge. As children experience the natural highs and lows that are part of growing up, it is all too easy — even natural — for the parent be buffeted by the child’s emotional roller coaster. But in time, mindfulness practice can relieve parents and caregivers from some of the pressure of identifying with every up or down the child experiences.
“That’s where this sense of not having strong grip on a sense of self is so important,” said Ms. Greenland. “Not only do they worry about the kids, but they worry that kids are a reflection on them. It gets conflated. If the kid is acting out or not going to Harvard, then the parent worries that that is a reflection on them.”
A simple exercise, known as R.A.I.N., can help us stay in the present moment and not get caught up clinging to the experiences of others, or our own emotions.
- R: Recognize. Acknowledge what is happening, just noting it in a calm and accepting manner.
- A: Accept. Allow life to be just as it is, without trying to change it right away, and without wishing it were different somehow.
- I: Investigate. See how it feels, whether it is making you upset or happy, giving you pleasure or pain, just note it.
- N: Non-Identification. Realize that the sensations you are feeling make for a fleeting experience, one that will soon pass. It isn’t who you are.
Teenagers can experience mindfulness in much the same way as adults, but they may also show resistance or frustration with the practice.
For teenagers, one of the most important ways to engage with mindfulness is through a focus on relationships: Bringing a mindful attitude into conversations, friendships and even budding romances. “Relational mindfulness becomes a very important part of the practice,” said Ms. Greenland. In each relationship, and even each interaction, there should be an effort to stay present, listen carefully and speak with honesty and kindness.
For families, one way to ritualize this is to make a point of having dinners together, something that is all too easy to lose track of when schedules get overstuffed. “It’s simple, but actually having sit down dinners can be powerful, just actually checking in,” said Ms. Morey. “Try each sharing a joyful moment that happened during the day.”
Also, try to minimize distractions by putting phones and other devices away during mealtime. And try to share a moment of silence before you eat, taking time to be grateful for the company of your family.
BEING A PRESENT PARENT
For parents, too, this can be a challenging time to practice mindfulness with children. After all, if a teenager is lost in his or her smartphone, what does it matter if the parent is surfing the web, too? But that’s exactly when the parent needs to be mindful the most, modeling good behavior for their child — staying kind, compassionate and accepting in the present moment.
“It’s hard to remember to be mindful when you have this busy personal and professional life,” said Ms. Kim. “But if we learn to see the act of parenting as a practice itself, it can open up a whole other level of what we’re doing.”