The body knows:
It lets out a giant sigh when you feel frustrated or overwhelmed. You don’t even think about it. If you were to notice what you were feeling before, during, and after the sigh, you might realize that your body released some of the tension you were experiencing.
Take a deep belly breath in and exhale it slowly and fully. Listen to that breathing. Notice how you feel. This is mindfulness. Easy as breathing, in and out, 1-2-3. If your spouse or child were to walk up to you now and say something like, “I’ve decided not to do dishes anymore,” perhaps you would ask for more information and have a calm conversation rather than yell or get into an argument, especially if you kept breathing mindfully while taking in this information and formulating a response.
We can teach our children mindfulness practices to help them weather the rough spots of their days and lives. In 1999, Eckhart Tolle wrote in The Power of Now that he hoped mindfulness would become one of the earliest skills taught to children. A person’s ability to regulate her internal emotional experience has been shown to translate over time into improved mental health. By teaching mindfulness to more children, there’s a chance we might stem the crisis of increased violence in our communities, reverse the rising rate of suicide among young people, and help improve American school children’s standings among those of other industrialized countries. It’s worth a try, even if all we are doing is helping our children have a more peaceful, pleasant home and school life.
It begins with parents, at home. Peaceful, happy parents make for peaceful, happy children. When parents practice mindfulness they are able to live by example and set a peaceful and joyous tone in the home. Mindful people direct their attention inward becoming more aware of thought processes and feelings resulting in a greater ability to be open, receptive, non-reactive, and non-judgmental, and turning negative moods into positive ones. Once you make your own life more peaceful, you will bring more peace to your home and relationships.
The first step is to explain to your child how her brain works and that she can control its functions just by taking the time to breathe deeply.
You might tell her that in her brain she has an amygdala, which we can call the “Guard Dog,” and a prefrontal cortex, which we can call the “Wise Old Owl.” When confronted with a stressful situation at home, in class, or on the playground, the Guard Dog might start barking,
“Danger! Fight! Yell! Run Away! Hide!” Or maybe even, “Freeze!”
However, if she pauses to do some deep belly breathing, the Wise Old Owl has a chance to assess what is happening and make a better choice than what the Guard Dog is inciting her to do.
Breathing and paying attention to how she is feeling throughout the day can help her remain calm, happy, and peaceful, and will help direct more information through the gate to the Wise Old Owl, who will help her think things through, figure out math problems, and deal with her pesky little brother, for example.
This will fill her with positive feelings of competence and hope. Knowing she can self-soothe with deep belly breathing opens up emotional space for her to have empathy and express kindness and compassion.
Children who have trouble sleeping, getting along with other children at school, or dealing with depression or anxiety have been shown to improve their situation with mindfulness skills. Studies demonstrate that social and emotional skills like mindful breathing can help reverse the effects of stress and can help people of any age become more calm, competent, and resilient.
Here are some fun ways to incorporate mindfulness into your and your child’s day:
- In the car or while making dinner breathe the alphabet. Say the letter “A,” inhale deeply, exhale slowly and fully, then name an animal like Aardvark. Your child can then say “B,” inhale, exhale, and perhaps suggest Brontosaurus. Continue through “Z.”
- Pretend that you are each blowing up a balloon. Describe your balloons to each other, their shapes and colors, how big they are getting, whether they pop or whether they are so large you can climb inside them and float away to visit far off lands. Share how you are feeling at different points while blowing up the balloons.
- Choose a tree, shrub, or plant to be a breathing buddy. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Breathe your carbon dioxide onto the plant and breathe in the oxygen it is giving up. Maybe even send happy thoughts to your plant while you breathe with it a couple of times a day. Check in daily to see how you and your plants are feeling.
- Take a mindful walk together through the neighborhood or at the beach. Pick one of your five senses to focus on while you walk. Maybe focus on what you see, like the birds, the clouds, the colors of the sky, grass, flowers, and trees. Or focus on sounds such as rustling leaves, children playing, waves hitting the shore. Notice how you feel as you walk and focus on the sensory experience you have selected.
- Sing a song at the top of your lungs together. It is impossible to sing without breathing. Turn on the music and dance with abandon, copying each other’s movements. Not only are you creating an authentic bonding experience resulting in soul-nurturing memories for your child, you will definitely be breathing deeply by the end.
- Have a family drum circle with bongos or djembes, pots or pans, or maybe just the floor, counter, ottoman, or backs of chairs. Drum the rhythm of your names. Drum silly sentences such as “Moth-er” (clap clap) “Moth-er” (clap clap) “Moth-er, what’s for din-ner” (clap clap), or “Mac-mac-and-cheese-mac-and-cheese-mac-and-cheese” or even “Lu-cas is awe-some-is-awesome-is-awesome.” Take turns making rhythms then put them all together.
- Color, draw, paint, play with clay, or do crafts together. Suspend rules such as needing to stay within the lines or only using the “right” colors. We express ourselves through our creations. As we focus on drawing, painting, or squishing clay with our fingers, it is easy to let our thoughts flow. Share with one another what you have made, why you made it that way, and what your creation means to you.
- YOGA! There is always yoga and there are many videos for children and families available online and through social media. Or, make a yoga game with pictures of poses. There are various youth-oriented yoga cards such as the Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids, which has cute stick figure poses. Take turns picking a card. Imitate the pose together. It’s not about being perfect. Talk about what you feel when you do the pose. Where do you feel sensation? Maybe mom feels stretching in the hamstrings, dad in his back, daughter along her side. If we make the move a little bigger or a little smaller, does it feel different?
These are just a few simple suggestions to incorporate mindfulness into your family’s lives while strengthening both your children’s resilience and your relationship with them.
Brooke Deratany Goldfarb is a mother, wife, mediator, wellness advocate, yoga instructor and instantly-good friend to almost everyone she meets. To reach her directly, email firstname.lastname@example.org