Naturally, parents want their children to grow up with good life skills and a healthy sense of identity and self-worth. However, in today's overscheduled and tech-connected world, external factors are constantly influencing kids' ideas of who they should be, how they should look and what they should think and do with their lives.
"Looking at trends in technology and social media, people are continually looking externally for their next diversion. They're not looking internally," says Simi Pulikkiel, LCSW-S, Behavioral Health Care Manager at Children's Health℠. "That external stimuli influence the way growing kids look at themselves and the world around them."
A practice called mindfulness can help.
"Through mindfulness, we introduce children to the idea that there is a world within you and that you have your own unique, worthwhile ideas. We're encouraging the child or teenager to put the focus back on being in the moment and promoting their social and emotional health," says Pulikkiel.
What is mindfulness for kids and teens?
Mindfulness is a coping skill that helps you relax, reduce stress and anxiety, and feel better about yourself and the world around you. It's not a new practice, but more and more schools and workplaces are using it.
"With mindfulness, we encourage children to be completely in the present and not anywhere else – physically and emotionally," explains Pulikkiel. "True mindfulness is paying attention to the moment, the way your breath feels and the way your thoughts sound."
During mindfulness, the goal is to be aware of your thoughts – without judgment.
"We all hear a voice in our head. And this voice is very opinionated and sometimes very negative," says Pulikkiel. "Encourage children to look at their thoughts neutrally. Avoid labeling yourself and others as good or bad."
Pulikkiel says the nonjudgmental approach is crucial because it has a connection to self-esteem. "When we train that voice in our heads to be less judgmental, we can be compassionate with ourselves. And then, maybe we can extend that compassion to the people around us," she explains.
What is mindful meditation for kids?
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that doesn't require long periods of time to experience benefits. While you can practice mindfulness in a traditional, seated meditation practice, you can also practice mindfulness throughout the day and on-the-go.
"If you have only a few minutes, you can practice mindfulness. You can do it when you're eating, walking or in a classroom feeling distracted," explains Pulikkiel. "Take a second and find one thing to focus on. If it's the teacher's voice, then you focus on that. The goal of mindfulness is simply to be in the present."
What are the benefits of mindfulness for children and teens?
Your child can benefit from mindfulness at any age. For younger children, the technique might simply help them settle down or focus on the task at hand. As children grow older, mindfulness has increasing benefits, including:
- Reduced stress, anxiety and depression
- Greater attention span and ability to focus
- Improved ability to self-regulate behaviors
- Improved confidence in social situations
- Improved mental health and well-being
How can I teach mindfulness to kids?
Children can learn mindfulness as soon as they are developmentally able to follow directions and imitate what you are doing.
For example, you can practice mindfulness with a young child who is anxious by blowing bubbles.
"You can focus on the way the bubbles look when you're blowing and creating that bubble," explains Pulikkiel. "Or, you can teach them a breathing exercise and say, ‘Okay, take a deep breath in with me.' Children can learn while you are playing."
For teenagers, you might first need to introduce the benefits of mindfulness and get some "buy-in."
"Parents of teens would want to explain how mindfulness can reduce stress and improve social interactions," suggests Pulikkiel. "Since these are core topics many teens struggle with, you might generate curiosity. Parents might also need to model mindfulness first, showing how they can respond to a trigger rather than react."
What are mindfulness activities for kids and teens?
Often, it's easy to introduce mindfulness as a family activity. Here are a few ideas:
1. Take a mindful walk
You can walk in the backyard or through the neighborhood. With younger children, prompt them to be mindful by guiding them through their senses.
"As you walk, you would say, ‘What does this flower smell like? What do you hear? What does this tree trunk feel like? What do you see?' Be truly present, paying attention to each moment," suggests Pulikkiel.
Older children and teens can try an audio app that guides them through a mindful walk.
2. Encourage mindful meals
With mindful eating, sit down with your children and enjoy every aspect of a meal. First, talk about how you are thankful for the food and grateful for the person who prepared it. Talk about the presentation of the meal. What does it look like? Is it served hot or cold? Pay attention to whether you eat with hands or silverware. Talk about what it tastes like and its texture.
"Be in the moment and relish the entire experience," says Pulikkiel. "You don't have to do this for the entire meal. Some families have found that mindful eating helps reduce overeating because they are more aware of when they are full."
3. Introduce the idea of a mindful "body scan"
You and your children can do a mindful body scan standing up or sitting down. Some people use a guided audio clip from a mindfulness app.
Start at the top of your head and think about each part of your body. The ultimate goal of the body scan is to help you relax and destress by being in the present moment for a certain amount of time.
"You're concentrating and focusing on each body part. While breathing, you can squeeze and relax each muscle as you move down the body," explains Pulikkiel. "In time, your body relaxes."
Don't worry if your thoughts wander to other topics while you're practicing mindfulness; that's normal.
"Just keep reminding yourself to come back to the present moment and bring their attention back to their breath," suggests Pulikkiel. "For some children, that's frustrating; they want to get it right the first time. Again, we remind them about being non-judgmental and kind to themselves."
For teens and tweens, the body scan may help them confront a poor self-image.
"Once again, we remind them to be kind to themselves and be grateful for each part of their body," says Pulikkiel. "Acknowledging the thoughts, as they are, without exaggerating them encourages a balanced perspective about ourselves."
What are some mindfulness resources for kids?
You can find mindfulness resources on the internet, or you can search for and download apps for children of all ages.
Mindfulness apps for kids:
- Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame
- Stop, Breathe & Think Kids
- Smiling Mind
- Positive Penguins
- Super Stretch Yoga
- Mindfulness for Children
- Headspace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness
Mindfulness apps for teens:
- Headspace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness
- Smiling Mind
- Stop, Breath & Think
Children's Health provides comprehensive services to support children's and teens' mental health. See more ways to nurture mental health in children, or learn more about our Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology Programs.