February 2, 2017
By: The Psychology Department
The term “mindfulness” has gotten a lot of media buzz lately. Mindfulness has shown a range of benefits for adults and kids such as improved sleep, focus, concentration, anxiety management, emotion regulation, and quality of relationships (e.g., Burdick, 2014). It is also becoming a widely accepted part of therapy to address conditions such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
However, what does mindfulness actually mean and how do you do it? Many people automatically associate mindfulness with yoga and meditation, but it’s actually much more. Mindfulness can be described as anything that helps you to live in the present moment and approach situations with curiosity instead of judgment. Mindfulness can take the form of a dedicated yoga or meditation practice, or specific mindfulness exercises, but it also represents a lifestyle choice.
You may have already been practicing mindfulness without even knowing it!
Have you ever caught yourself bombarded by negative thoughts or bogged down in negativity and reminded yourself to take a step back, so you could think about think about the situation more objectively and with a level head? You were being mindful.
Have you ever been in a relaxing atmosphere (e.g., the beach or a massage) and still had a million thoughts racing through your mind? Have you then reminded yourself to put those thoughts aside and focus on enjoying the atmosphere or experience? You were being mindful.
Have you ever been overwhelmed with tasks to the point of it affecting your concentration or performance, so you forced yourself to focus on one task at a time? You were being mindful.
Have you ever encouraged your child to sit down and take a break when they were getting overly rambunctious or worked up? You were encouraging your child to be mindful.
Any time you are taking a conscious approach to your work, parenting, emotions, or relationships, you are living mindfully.
How Do We Explain Mindfulness to Children?
We like the concept of clear brain vs. cloudy brain for explaining mindfulness to children. When you are in clear brain, you are focused, calm, and in control of your thoughts and feelings. When you are in cloudy brain, there is a lot of noise in your brain. You may be upset, distracted, worried, or not thinking clearly. This concept could be further illustrated with glitter bottles or snow globes. When the bottle is shook up, it’s hard to see through the bottle (cloudy brain). When the contents have settled, you can see clearly (clear brain). Have the child physically look at objects through the bottle when it is shook up and settled and notice the differences. The concept of clear and cloudy brain could also be extended to the Zones of Regulation, an intervention program used throughout Bridgeway Academy. Cloudy brain represents blue, yellow, or red zones. Mindfulness techniques are a tool to help get oneself back to the green zone.
Incorporating Mindfulness into Daily Life:
There are simple exercises that you can do with your child and steps you can take to help your child and family adopt a more mindful lifestyle. As with most things, children learn best when you participate with them and model the behavior you want them to cultivate.
Simple Mindfulness Exercises:
- Being a Detective: Guide your child in noticing things in their environment. Encourage them to engage each of their senses by noticing things that they see, hear, taste, feel, and smell. You can also turn this into an I Spy game where one person give clues about sensations in their environment, and the other guesses what they are observing.
- Candle Breathing: Have your child pretend to blow out candles on their fingers by taking slow, deep breaths. Each finger represents one candle.
- Happy Place: Guide your child in visualizing their “happy place,” which is a place, activity, or memory that brings up feelings of wellbeing (e.g. going to the park or opening up presents). Help your child to draw and/or verbally describe their happy place, by relating it back to each of their senses (e.g., “I hear other kids laughing while playing and feel the swing on my legs”).
- Glitter Bottle: Create a glitter bottle with your child (e.g., see http://blog.theautismsite.com/diy-sensory-bottles/). Have your child shake it up and then focus their attention on watching the glitter settle.
- Minimize Distractions: As a family, put aside distractions and practice focusing on one task at a time. For example, when eating dinner, don’t multi-task or use electronics. When playing, engage in one activity or play with one toy at a time.
- Practice Patience and Acceptance: Work on accepting the idea that problems sometimes take some time to resolve, no one is perfect, and difficult feelings are a normal part of life. Give yourself and your kids grace in your everyday experiences and accept imperfection. Model this internal dialogue for your child by talking out kid-friendly problems. Show that you can bounce back from problems and that tricky feelings will eventually pass.
- Create Breathing Space: When you feel like your emotions are in control (i.e., cloudy brain), or when you observe this happening with your child, take a break by taking some breaths or by temporarily engaging in another activity. When you or your child has regained composure (i.e., returned to clear brain), then you can deal with the problem at hand with a more level-headed perspective. It’s okay to say to your child, “My feelings are in control or I’m in cloudy brain right now, so let’s go do something else and work this out later.”
- Pay Attention to your Body: Emotions and behavior are easily influenced by physiological needs. When your child is upset or unfocused, guide him or her in noticing basic sensations such as whether their body is hungry, tired, too hot/cold, uncomfortable from something they are wearing, hurt/not feeling well, or if they need to take a break from what they are doing to use the bathroom.
ABA principles, such as modeling, prompting, and reinforcement can be used to encourage children to be more mindful of their thoughts and behaviors on a daily basis. Additionally, many mindfulness strategies can be adapted to children with more limited language skills through methods such as visual prompts and schedules. Talk to your child’s psychologist or program and behavior specialist for ideas on how to teach and reinforce these skills. Your child’s OT may also advise on sensory strategies that can be incorporated into a mindfulness practice.