I know what you’re thinking….well, no I don’t actually,… but I think it would be a pretty good guess that at the mention of mindfulness, people conjure up visions of robes, shaved heads, incense and chanting.
Yes, mindfulness has been practised in Eastern traditions for generations, but now there is an abundance of new scientific evidence that suggests that the practice of mindfulness has a really important part to play in health, mental health, relationships and focus at school and work. Psychologists and researchers have been working on ways we can apply mindful techniques to help people deal better with the troubles in their lives. Some of the research is even indicating significant changes in the brains of those who regularly practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is all about how we gently use and focus our attention. We are being mindful when we purposely focus our attention on our experiences one moment at a time without expectations or preconceived ideas or judging. In essence, it is like watching our experiences of what we can see, feel, hear, taste, or smell, or what we are thinking or picturing in our mind one moment at a time.
In a busy, digital and highly automated world it’s easy for our clever brains to get busy and overstimulated and caught up with keeping up. For me, mindfulness is about stepping back from our minds and having a good, uninterrupted look at what they’re doing – Almost like stripping away the layers of busyness and giving intentional focus to what is going on around us or even what is going on inside our body and mind.
So, when we are talking mindfulness with children, you don’t have to picture them shaving their heads and wearing robes – in fact, you don’t really have to even picture them sitting still (although it is useful at the start). Picture them paying attention to things in a calm and focused way. Picture them being able to better manage big feelings. Picture them deriving more pleasure out of simple, everyday moments.
Try some mindfulness yourself
The best way to learn about mindfulness is to give it a try and there are many small or introductory examples of mindfulness for you to try. Many people start with the raisin exercise where they are encouraged to focus their attention intentionally on various aspects of a raisin. Mindfulness is paying attention to something like you have never seen it before or are experiencing it for the very first time. It separates experiences from judging or over-thinking. Mindfulness helps us to sustain or maintain attention, but also to deal with interrupting thoughts.
We can be more mindful with objects (like raisins) or body parts, but also with tastes, movements, thoughts and feelings. We can focus on the experience of many things one at a time, moment by moment. Mindfulness does not necessarily make troubling things go away, but it can alter our experiences of troubled feelings.
If we can apply mindful techniques to our feelings – especially to big, tough feelings like sadness or grief or pain – we can help people experience these feelings in a different way. Mindfulness provides a way for people to regulate their emotions that is not open to them when they maintain a judgemental and worrisome focus on their experiences.
Mindfulness also opens up pathways to experience relationships with others differently. Because mindfulness allows a certain clarity of thought, it can help children to focus better on school work and get along a little better with others. Mindfulness helps widen our options when we may feel distress and helps us make better choices. Taking a mindful focus also allows up to further develop our empathy and compassion.
Why mindfulness is important in childhood
From where I sit, children who can pay attention to their experiences mindfully are so much easier to help when there are big feelings that are causing trouble. Mindfulness is a very handy skill to practice and keep handy in our coping toolbox.
Young children are naturally inclined to want to immerse themselves in things – to touch and explore things, smell things without judging anything too harshly. I think this is an amazing window of opportunity for us to assist children to be able to hang on to this focus. As they get older, their brains will, in the clever ways that brains do, teach them how to evaluate and judge themselves and others and by the time they are teens, many will be “totally” living in a headspace that is all about “judgement” and standards – aware that others might be thinking about them and evaluating whether they fit in or not.
When I think of my childhood, I associate mindful time with my grandmother and great-grandmother who were happy in their gardens. (It’s not surprising at all then that I drew on a garden metaphor for a children’s book about mindfulness). They would take me and we would explore for bugs, marvel at flowers, and delight at seeds raising from the soil. I also remember a time, when I was a little older, when this became boring and the last thing I felt like doing – it became a bit of a chore. Somehow, while my brain was getting cleverer, it was losing its ability to just sit and be. In the teen years, there are lots of things going on in the brain and in relationships with friends and family that make it hard for the brain to enjoy moments unless they are really loud or intense. It’s still worth encouraging teens to get mindful, but I think it is much easier if we use the window and keep the practice going rather than try to open a closed window later in development. We need to get working with more mindful or “present moment” pathways while the window of early childhood makes it easy to practice.
How can we grow mindful children?
You can actively introduce mindfulness to a child directly or more subtly. Directly, you can use many wonderful resources. I love the free Smiling Mind App that provides small snippets of guided mindfulness activities that children and adults can practice. The people from Smiling Mind are also supporting teachers to introduce mindfulness into schools.
More subtly, you can pause with your children. Explore nature together or even marvel at human creations or art. Look in awe at day-to-day things – like you have just arrived from another planet or woken from a soap-opera-type coma and experienced them for the first time.
For best outcomes, its’ important that we encourage children to practice mindfulness often. Like any skill, the more we practice, the easier and more robust it becomes.
While Shona is regularly engaged to deliver assessments, reports and treatment for troubled children and young people, she is also available for consulting, speaking and workshops. Call Shona Innes Psychology on 0400 150 106 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us via this website.