Published: Apr. 26, 2010
Updated: Apr. 26, 2010
Dr. Michelle Bailey, director of education at Duke Integrative Medicine, explains what mindfulness is and how kids can get started practicing it.
-- Dennis Clements MD, PhD, MPH
Mindfulness is the art of paying attention to your life on purpose, without judging what you notice.
While this sounds simple, it is not always easy. The uncertainty of life can produce worries about events that have happened in the past or what may come in the future.
This is true for kids as well. The body is always in the present moment but our mind is often elsewhere. Mindfulness practice helps us to bring our attention back to what is happening now, reconnecting the mind and the body.
The use of meditation practices, including mindfulness, is relatively new in the Western world. Used to promote health and well-being, the majority of this work has been done with adults, but more recently mindfulness practices have been introduced to children.
Mindfulness has been incorporated into the educational setting to address the increasing stress that children are facing. Multiple sources of childhood stress have been identified, from academic pressures and peer influences to family issues such as financial struggles and marital or sibling conflict.
Stress often leads to feelings of resistance, fear and anxiety. Mindfulness practice is one way to assist children in building healthy stress management skills.
Mindfulness practices have been integrated for children from pre-school age up to K-12 students. An increasing number of school- and community-based programs are now teaching children and teens how to use mindfulness in real life situations. Ringing a bell and asking children to focus on their breathing allows them to redirect their attention to what is happening in their life in this moment.
This ability to “re-center” your attention has been used to help children avoid fights on the playground and to think before they impulsively react to a challenging situation.
Mindfulness has been shown to have multiple health benefits in adults including stress reduction. The good news is that mindfulness practice can also have a positive impact on the health of children.
Kids who were exposed to mindfulness demonstrated an increased ability to focus and maintain concentration, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve sleep quality and reduce aggression.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been developed to help children cope with chronic medical conditions such as HIV infection, asthma, chronic pain and stress-related conditions.
Community and hospital-based programs are now offered to teach children mindfulness practices including breath awareness, relaxation breathing, and mindful movement practices such as yoga and tai chi.
So how do you integrate mindfulness practices into your child’s life? Use the daily activities already built into your life. Here are a few exercises to get your started:
Walking is something we do every day but, we often fail to notice what we pass along the way. Take a few minutes each day to feel your body as you move through the world. Pay attention to your arms as you walk. How do they move?
Notice how your feet feel as they strike the ground. Once you’ve discovered how your body feels as you move, explore your environment using the five senses. What sights do you see? Look for shades of color and patterns. What sounds do you hear?
Take a moment to examine the texture of objects around you, trees or plants if you’re outdoors; walls or furniture if you’re indoors. This is a wonderful way to be in the moment with your child.
Have your child take a deep breath in and slowly let the air out. With each inhale say, “In” and with each exhale say, “Out”. One breath cycle is made up of one inhale and one exhale.
The practice of becoming more aware of your breathing triggers the relaxation response. This results in slower breathing and increased feelings of calm. Have your child practice this for five breath cycles then repeat.
Noticing your breathing is one of the fastest ways to bring your attention back to the present moment. Use this practice when your child is upset or to help the body and mind prepare for restful sleep.
For many children and adults, eating has become one more item to check off the to-do list. Distractions such as eating in front of the TV or eating on the go take away from the pleasure of eating. The following tips can help you and your child to eat more mindfully:
Eating in this way helps you to slow down and notice when you’re full and satisfied, reducing the risk that you will overeat and providing a more enjoyable dining experience.
-- Michelle L. Bailey, MD, FAAP, is director of education for Duke Integrative Medicine.
-- Dennis Clements, MD, PhD, MPH, is the chief of primary care pediatrics at Duke Children's Hospital.