When you hear the word “mindfulness,” what image pops up for you? Do you think of it as something only practiced by spiritual leaders or people with too much time on their hands? While in the past, the practice of mindfulness may have only appealed to a select few, today this practice has become mainstream and extensively researched. Even among children, the concept of mindfulness has become more popular as a way of fostering peace in a busy and often stressful world. Digging into the research on mindfulness, we find it has the potential to support children and adults in coping with life’s stresses.
What is Mindfulness?
In our world full of distractions, multitasking, and any variety of tasks demanding our attention, mindfulness presents us with a contrary concept: a focus on the present moment. Scholars define mindfulness as “intentionally directing attention to present-moment experiences with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance.” Although we may feel as though we are attending to the present moment, oftentimes our minds are frenetic, moving from thought to thought at an incredible pace. The practice of mindfulness helps us slow our minds and focus simply on the present moment, with an intense focus on the sensations and feelings we experience.
The practice of mindfulness can happen in a variety of ways, but generally, it includes a focus on your breathing, attention to your thoughts and feelings, and an attitude of acceptance of yourself. Mindfulness practice often includes deep breathing, mental imagery, and bringing your attention to the physical and mental sensations around you in the moment.
The goal of mindfulness is to help reduce the impact of stress and bring more calm to a person’s life. By calming your mind and slowing your pace, the idea is that these moments of mindfulness will offer your brain a “break” from the constant fast-paced thinking, judging, and evaluating we typically do all day long.
The Benefits of Mindfulness for Children
In recent years, the benefits of mindfulness for adults have been evident. Studies show that individuals who participate in mindfulness practices regularly do indeed have lower levels of stress, better immune function, and better sleep. These positive results prompted questions about whether mindfulness might be helpful for children as well.
In attempting to understand how mindfulness might impact children and their behavior, the majority of studies evaluate mindfulness training programs that have been implemented in schools. In most situations, teachers are trained in mindfulness practices that can be used with their students. Then students use mindfulness practices during sessions at school. Overall, the results show the same positive impacts of mindfulness for children as we see in adults.
Of interest to both parents and teachers is the impact of mindfulness on children’s executive functioning skills such as self-control, attention, and memory. Several studies, including two reviews of research (meta-analysis), found that mindfulness in children is linked to at least small improvements in executive functioning skills. This is impactful given that these skills directly influence children’s ability to focus on schoolwork and perform well academically.
Children who have behavioral issues seem to benefit from mindfulness training as well. School mindfulness programs have been correlated with reductions in both externally displayed behavior problems (e.g., distracted, arguing, fighting) and those felt internally among these children (e.g., sadness, depression, worry). Similar results were seen when researchers considered multiple studies together. However, the impact of mindfulness on challenging behaviors may vary depending on the number of sessions experienced or the age of the children.
Lastly, emotional issues such as depression and anxiety are another challenge faced by many school-aged children. Given the research on the impact of mindfulness on helping adults with stress and tension, it’s not surprising that we find similar promising results in children. Overall, children and adolescents who practice mindfulness training have reduced signs and symptoms of depression. Additionally, mindfulness training in children has also been linked to indicators of overall mental well-being such as positive outlook and life satisfaction.
Tips for Starting a Mindfulness Practice With Children
For many of us, the idea of starting a practice of mindfulness with our children may feel a little foreign. Many children are so full of energy that the thought of having calm moments of mindfulness may seem impossible. You can start small, which is good news. Even a few moments of mindfulness practice with children can help establish a habit that will grow. Here are a few ideas for starting a practice of mindfulness with your children:
Use Their Imagination: Children have vivid and active imaginations, so this can be a fun way to begin mindfulness. Encourage children to sit calmly for a few minutes and imagine a soothing scene like a beach, a mountain stream, or sitting on a cloud. You can promote mindfulness by encouraging them to imagine all the feelings, sensations, and scenes in this setting. Even if they can only hold this image for a few minutes, it’s a good way to introduce the concept of mindfulness.
Focus on Breathing: Helping children calm their minds can be one challenge with mindfulness. Breathing exercises are one way to gently bring children’s attention to their body and calm their mind. There are many different types of breathing exercises that use different images to help children learn to breathe deeply. One way is to tell children to imagine they are breathing to cool off hot food or blow out a candle. Other exercises encourage children to breathe in like they are smelling a flower. All these breathing techniques can not only help children enter a state of mindfulness but also can help calm them when they become emotionally upset.
Although it may sound complicated or difficult, bringing a little mindfulness into the lives of our children doesn’t have to be complex. Even practicing mindfulness with children for a few minutes during the week may help ease their stress and enhance their emotional well-being. Plus, while fostering mindfulness in your children, you may well benefit from its calming effect as well.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
Dunning, D., Griffiths, K., Kuyken, W., Crane, C., Foulkes,L., Parker, J., and Dalgleish, T. (2019) Research Review: The Effects of Mindfulness-Based Interventions on Cognition and Mental Health in Children and Adolescents – A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Mayo Clinic (2020) Mindfulness exercises. Mayo Clinic, Sept. 15, 2020.
Weare, K. (2018). The Evidence for Mindfulness in Schools for Children and Young People. Manuscript, University of Southampton, July 2018.
Lu, S., Rios, J.A. and Huang, C.-C. (2018), Mindfulness, Emotion and Behaviour: An Intervention Study with Chinese Migrant Children. Children and Society.
Marcin, A. (2020) Teaching Your Child Mindfulness. Healthline, January 28, 2020.
R. Amundsen, L. M. Riby, C. Hamilton, M. Hope & D. McGann (2020) Mindfulness in Primary School Children as a Route to Enhanced Life Satisfaction, Positive Outlook and Effective Emotion Regulation. BMC Psychology.