Published: Aug. 10, 2009
Updated: June 2, 2010
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By Duke Medicine News and Communications
Starting a new school year can be a real stressor for kids, and they don't always know how to deal with it. Learning to be mindful can help.
"Making a transition, whether it's to a new school, a new teacher or a new grade, signals change," says Michelle Bailey, MD, a pediatrician at Duke Integrative Medicine.
"And any time we go through change it can generate feelings of resistance, fear and anxiety."
Those negative emotions don't disappear once schedules become routine. Peer pressure, the constant juggle between schoolwork and extra curricular activities, and trying to succeed can keep stress levels high year-round.
Unfortunately, most kids don't know how to handle stress, and parents aren't always good role models.
"When adults are stressed, they often turn to smoking or alcohol or food to pacify emotions," says Bailey. "Kids see these examples that have a negative impact on health. We need to teach kids how to handle stress in a healthy way."
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that improves a person's ability to pay attention to what's happening in the present moment. It's already proven useful for reducing stress in adults, boosting the immune system, and lowering blood pressure. Recent research at Duke shows mindfulness also improves sleep quality and lessens the need for sleep medications in adults.
Kids can benefit from mindfulness too. Bailey says research shows it can help kids reduce anxiety and improve their ability to pay attention and stay focused. It may lessen aggression in kids as well.
"Mindfulness helps kids recognize their thoughts, reconnect with their emotions and understand how that impacts their behavior," she explains. "Ultimately, if we can heighten awareness of our thoughts, we can modify our emotions and that changes behavior."
Parents can take advantage of the skills too, and not just for stress reduction. "It will help them take a step back, and understand their child's behavior," Bailey says.
"They'll realize it's not that the child wants to be willful; it's that their child may not know how to react to their feelings and emotions. Mindfulness can help parents cope with difficult times and redirect their child's energy."
Truly learning mindfulness techniques takes training which is offered through mindfulness-based stress reduction programs available at clinics and hospitals like Duke across the country. To get started, however, try these exercises:
Mindful breathing. Once in the morning and once in the evening, ask your child to pay attention to their breath for 20 inhales and exhales. Challenge them to "notice how your breath moves in and out," counsels Bailey.
"Feel how your chest expands and contracts." Don't try to change your breathing; simply observe. Breathing usually slows down because the practice triggers a relaxation response.
The technique works well in the morning because it circumvents a harried start to the day. But it's useful in the evening too because it eases the transition from school to home, from playing with friends to homework, or from evening activities to bedtime. "It puts children in a frame of mind that says, 'I want to settle in and relax in this new environment," Bailey says.
Mindful walking. Turn a simple after-dinner walk into a mindful exercise by using all your senses to explore your surroundings. "Pay attention to sights, sounds and odors," Bailey advises.
Look for things you haven't noticed before. Feel the ground as your foot hits the pavement, and as your foot moves inside its shoe. Share what you are feeling and seeing with your child. Encourage children to use this technique on the playground and at school.
The practice of mindful walking can bring a whole new world of awareness to children. It's also a great way for parents to spend quality time with their child, be active and wind down after a long day.
Mindful listening. Gather the family around the dinner table. Ring a bell or play a note on a musical instrument. Any sound that will capture and center the family's attention will do.
Have one child listen to the entire sound until it ends. Then, ask her to talk about her day. Everyone must give her their full attention. Take turns experiencing this form of active listening.
Eventually, children can use this technique in their classroom too. "It helps children pay attention in class and be more mindful of what their teacher is saying," Bailey says. Mastering the skill will help them notice when their mind is wandering and redirect their attention.