Baby Buddhas ~ Five Strategies for Teaching Mindfulness to Children

child meditating mindfulness

My daughter practicing breathing mindfully
{those are temporary tattoos on her cheeks!}

Oh, No… I’m a teacher, and now I’m THAT mother!

On Friday, I was that mother that the teacher had to talk to about their child’s behavior at school.  My daughter’s after-Kindergarten teacher told me that Abby had a rough week – each day she had an episode where she wouldn’t listen, and then got so frustrated or angry that she threw something. Yikes!

At dinner, we talked with Abby about what she can do when she gets angry.  Her response was, “I can breathe, or I can count to 10.  I need to calm my body.”  Clearly, she knows what she should do ~ but that’s not what she does when she’s in that angry moment.  There it is again, that disconnect between knowledge and practice.

Planting Seeds

A few months ago, I purchased Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community’s Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, but I hadn’t yet read it.  Friday night, I pulled it out, highlighter and sticky notes in hand, and prepared a plan for the next day.  {Yes, we plan and schedule our mindfulness in this family!}

We incorporated a few mindfulness activities into our weekend.  My children loved it!  I am by no means an expert ~ I’m practicing mindfulness alongside you all.  I learned a lot from our lessons, and from my reading, and I am eager to share what I learned and what we did with you!  {For reference, I did these activities with both of my children: my three-year-old son and my six-year-old daughter.}

BabyBuddhas

Five Strategies for Teaching Mindfulness to Young Children

1. Validate their emotions.  How many times have we said, “You’re okay,” “Stop crying,” “It’s not that big of a deal…”? Well, it IS a big deal to children.  In fact, children are probably better than all of us at mindfulness ~ they live almost completely in the present moment!  {They don’t have the past regrets and future worries us grown-ups carry around}.  The frustration, anger, or fear they feel is very real.  Let them know it’s okay to be angry, or sad.  What we can focus on is what we do with that emotion.

2. Teach them to recognize their emotions and how their emotions make them feel.  I asked my children, “How does your body feel when you are angry?”  My daughter’s response was that it makes her want to hurt someone or kick someone; she feels “one thousand fifty hundred” mad.  My son said anger feels like “poop.”  {Ah, the insight of a potty-training preschooler!} Teaching them to recognize how their emotions feel in their body will help them become more aware of their emotions even if they can’t yet label them.

3. Teach them mindful breathing strategies.  My daughter’s temper and anger is not a new issue for me.  Many times I have responded to her outbursts with the simple command to “breathe.”  Her response is often, “I can’t!  I don’t know how!”  How can she not know how to breathe?, I’d ask myself.  I’d demonstrate deep breathing.  It didn’t work.

Planting Seeds describes dozens of ways to demonstrate mindful breathing techniques for children.  It gives them more concrete direction than just “Breathe!”  The following three were my {and my kids’} favorites:

~ Noticing the Breath: We began just sitting down and breathing.  To encourage them to really notice their breath, we put our fingers under our noses to feel the warmth and moisture of the out-breath.  We put our hands on our tummies to feel the rise and fall of our bellies as we breathed.  When we’re angry, I told them, it can be calming to focus on what our breathing actually feels like.

~ Five-Finger Starfish Meditation: While deeply breathing, I instructed my children to make a starfish with one hand {fingers spread out wide}.  Using their pointer finger from their other hand, they gently traced the outline of their starfish hand, slowly going up and down each finger.  The focused concentration on the hand, combined with the soothing touch, had an immediately calming effect.  Later that day during snack time, I noticed my son gently tracing his fingers. (I adapted the Five-Finger Meditation credited to Mike Bell, United Kingdom, pp. 87-88 in Planting Seeds).

~ Counting the Breath: This is so basic I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me to teach my daughter how to do this before!  I told her if she’s upset and feels like she “can’t” breathe, she should count her in-breath and out-breath ~ one breath in and out is “1”, then “2”, and so on, up to ten.

After doing these mindful breathing techniques, I asked my children to describe how they felt.  My son said he felt “good,” my daughter that she felt “calm, like I want to give you a hug.”  Good + calm + compassion ~ love it!!

Guided meditation on the family room floor!

Guided relaxation on the family room floor!

4. Lead them in a guided relaxationPlanting Seeds contains a script for a guided relaxation {as well as a soothing narration for it on the accompanying CD}, which focuses first on the breath, and then working through the various parts of the body to release tension.  We can remind children that they can do this type of relaxation when they need to, either lying down or while seated.  The script is helpful, but you could certainly create your own.  I found 16 minutes (the length on the CD) to be way too long ~ my son could handle only about 3 minutes of lying still, my daughter about twice that.  But they loved it and are already asking to do it again!

5. Practice what you preach.  This advice probably applies to everything in parenting, but it’s worth noting here.  When we react with anger based on our emotions, without a pause to encourage a more skillful response, our children see that and imitate it. They need to see us practicing mindfulness as well. In teaching these exercises to my children, I breathed with them, and I laid down on the floor with them for the guided relaxation.  My husband at first saw us all splayed out on the family room floor and thought we were crazy, but then later asked my daughter to teach him what he could do when he felt angry. She proudly shared her new knowledge.

Obviously, the real test of the success of our mindfulness lessons this weekend will be in the weeks ahead ~ and I will be sure to update you.  In the meantime, it’s practice, practice, practice!

 

I’d love you hear from you!  What strategies have you found effective to help your children deal with their anger?

 

 

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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
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Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your suggestions. I’m not a parent but I do have about 100 high school children to take care of as a high school science teacher. I recently attended a Thich Nhat Hanh/Plum Village retreat in Thailand called “Happy Teachers Will Change the World” and it was really transformative both personally and professionally. I subsequently bought Planting Seeds and really enjoyed it as well, although my focus now is on trying to develop practices that work with older students. But I’m sure I’ll be pulling out my copy of Planting Seeds once I have kids of my own. Thanks for sharing! Ben

    • Hi Ben! I am also a high school teacher, and I have done meditation/mindfulness exercises with my World Religions students and they were very powerful! That retreat sounds fascinating ~ thanks for sharing. :)

  2. I really like your approach to working with children and teens. In reading this two things occurred to me, that I hope might be helpful.

    Regarding #3. Teach them mindful breathing strategies. My wife has often used a similar type of instruction when our kids are angry or upset with similar results. Something about it has always seemed simultaneously wrong and right, and after reading this I think I understand more. When you instruct your distraught child to breath, you are inferring something beyond your words. They are breathing, probably heavily. They are always breathing, so a literal child knows you’re asking for something else, but maybe not exactly what. I think a good way to get them to notice their breath might be to, after validating their emotions, instruct them to recognize their angry breath, and then breath those angry breaths, rather than trying right away to calm them, which is probably what they think you want from them. After focusing on their heavy, angry breaths, maybe even exaggerating them, I suspect it will be easier for them to step away from them and reflect on them.

    Regarding #5. Practice what you preach. Acknowledging that our children see and imitate it how we react or respond, and why they need to see us practicing mindfulness as well, I think it is important for them to see us get angry as well. If we are so proficient in our mindfulness (maybe this is unrealistic), at least in front of our children, then our children may perceive us as people who never get angry, which could make them think we cannot relate to their emotions. It’s like a couple who never argues in front of their children and their children subsequently never learn from them how to manage emotional disagreements. I think it is important for our children to occasionally see us get angry, so that they can see how we manage it and the relationship between the emotions and the skillful response.

    Just some thoughts you inspired. Thank you.
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