When was the last time your family went one day – that’s 24 whole hours – without anyone looking at a screen? Between his email, your Instagram, their Yo Gabba Gabba! and all those adorable “Let It Go” cover videos, it’s a wonder we manage to get anything done that doesn’t involve a device. This new American life is full of distractions disguised as stimulation, not to mention everything else your family is up to, so that kids are overstimulated, overscheduled and underprepared to deal with it. Instead of cutting back – because, let’s face it, that’s hard – some parents are teaching their kids new coping methods to handle the overload.
Psychologist and educator Gail M. Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., spent a year studying stress reduction in fifth-graders at the Houston Independent School District. Her solution to the melee? Meditation. “What does meditation do? It distracts you from your distraction,” she says.
Meditation and its bosom buddy mindfulness work by lowering blood pressure, increasing circulation and pumping blood to the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for abstract thinking, choosing right from wrong and suppressing emotion, among other pretty important tasks. Meditation also reduces cortisol, a stress hormone that can actually alter the architecture of the brain when overproduced (and not in an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition kind of way). But when the prefrontal cortex is at full capacity and cortisol levels are under control, kids can handle stress, Gross says. “A child whose anxiety is lower performs better in every possible way.”
Better performance means a prettier report card and success at all those extracurriculars. Bob Neff, Ph.D., founder of Mental Training Inc., has clients ranging from 7-year-old soccer stars to Olympians fresh off the plane from Sochi. The Dallas dad of two believes “Awareness Is Power” (so says the Livestrong-style bracelet on his wrist), because being aware of your anxious thoughts and emotions allows you to dismiss them when the pressure’s on. But it’s more than that, he says – learning to be aware and be still is good for kids’ overall wellness. “Our society has taught all of us that if we have nothing on our mind, we are probably stupid or bored or wasting our time,” he says. “But it’s worthwhile to let the mind go quiet.”
Letting the mind go quiet can take a variety of forms: breathing exercises, in which you breathe from the stomach and pay attention to the air flowing through your nose; creative visualization, or imagining yourself in another place; mindfulness, a hyper-awareness during any activity (pay attention to those suds when you’re washing dishes); and techniques such as walking meditation, in which you’re playing flâneur but looking inward rather than outward.
All of these techniques serve to reduce stress, enhance creativity and foster empathy in children. Meditation also gives kids a sense of control over their minds and bodies, which, along with empathy, can help prevent bullying, Neff says. Gross agrees. “If you teach children to deal with their own feelings, then they won’t project them out.”
Denton County mom Melinda Poppel has been meditating with her three kids, ages 12, 9 and 5, for just about one year. They sit on pillows in the dining room, lotus-style, and talk a little bit, then Poppel sets a 10-minute timer for meditation. She and the kids focus on their breathing and on the different colors of light they see while their eyes are closed, and they talk again about what they saw and felt. Though Poppel admits they miss a day here and there, she has already seen a change in her kids. “They’re just so calm, and they realize that they’re calm.” She adds that her middle son, who often struggles with his homework, has become much more patient while he tackles assignments. “You can actually physically see him breathe.”
Poppel occasionally totes her kids to meditation classes at Fort Worth Meditation Center. Meditation facilitator Buddy Fichera is planning on adding classes just for kids this year, but the father of three believes that a good mindfulness regimen starts with parental involvement. His son Alex, now a dad of three, practices meditation with his own kids. Three-year-old Xander is too young to grasp the concept fully, but Alex lets his son stay in the room while he meditates in the mornings, because he wants him to pick up good habits.
Mindfulness looks a little different for 10-year-old Jackson, who has been diagnosed with ADHD. Instead of the traditional closed-eyes, crisscross-applesauce routine, Alex steers his son toward calming activities such as reading, writing or creating comics – all with the goal of getting Jackson to “inadvertently concentrate on one specific area of focus when things are getting pretty heavy in his head.”
Whether you and your kids decide on a calming activity, breathing exercises or hyper-aware dishwashing, the most important part of starting a meditation or mindfulness regimen is finding an approach that’s comfortable and natural. Here are five tips to consider:
Make it a routine. Commit to meditating at around the same time every day, whether it’s in the morning before breakfast or in the car on the way home from school. “A minute a day is more important than 30 minutes once per week,” Fichera says, “because it’s more likely going to turn into a regular habit.”
Choose a special space. Alex recommends that you select a spot for meditation that’s free from distractions (ahem, devices). Gross and her grandchildren meditate in a closet that they’ve decorated.
Set a timer. Your kids’ minds may wander over the hills and far away, so Neff recommends setting a timer to “bring them back” midway through each exercise.
Play background music. Gross is a big believer in Baroque music to accompany meditation, because it naturally slows the heart rate. She suggests popular nuptial choice Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
Do it together. Set an example for your kids by practicing mindfulness yourself. Brushing up on your skills will also give you the confidence to guide your kids through meditative practices, Poppel says, reflecting on her own experience as a new meditator. “They see the change in Mom, so they’re definitely more open to it. We feel more connected as a family, more like a team.”
Published March 2014