Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness meditation as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. By focusing on the breath, the idea is to cultivate attention on the body and mind as it is moment to moment, and so help with pain, both physical and emotional. As adults, most of us are prone however to doing most routine tasks on autopilot. For example, we make tea without thinking, or wash our hands without noticing how we’ve done it.
It is important to be aware of a few considerations regarding how to do this.
What is developmentally appropriate?
For example, young children do not like to sit still, be quiet or concentrate for long on mindfulness exercises. They do like action based mindful activities, sensory based options, and soothing time with their parent. With my children, I choose activities we can do together that are grounded in the five senses, suit their natural interests, developmental stages and curiosity and do not involve screens. I’m aware of resources out there for children to watch video clips mindfully, that’s just not my own style or what fits with my understanding of child development. I also would opt for something short – a good quality 3 minute exercise is better than trying to nag a preschooler to sit still and concentrate for 10. For an older child, as concentration improves you would want to lengthen your practice a little and adjust the activity to their developmental stage, but even for a teenager a few minutes and something simple might be plenty.
As an adult, you may benefit from attending a local 8 week mindfulness course. I did one at the Buddhist Centre in Glasgow which I would recommend, but at the time of Coronavirus in person courses are not operating. You can still opt to try an app such as Headspace or Smiling Mind for guided audio meditation though, and this may be helpful. Personally, I’m now so used to mindfulness with children rather than solo as an adult that I tend to practice active mindful activities myself more by preference. It’s about finding what works for you rather than shoehorning yourself into an ideal.
What am I aiming for?
As an adult, the aim is to be able to get to a point you can more objectively stand back and observe your passing thoughts, feelings and ideas without reacting to them. The aim is not to change your mental state, for example to be more relaxed or happy, but just to notice where you’re at and in time, work on being more open to your inner experiences like thoughts and feelings and more accepting of them.
For your child, the aim is to help them become more aware of their own thoughts and feelings and other inner experiences, and through doing mindfulness practice together you can hope to help them verbalise their experiences. You might hope for benefits such as better attunement in your relationship, more settled moments, improved emotional regulation or better concentration.
What resources are there to support traditional mindfulness meditation?
Various centres normally offer 8 week courses or retreats over weekends, but these are not running at present due to coronavirus.
There are various apps with audio guides to try, such as Headspace and Smiling Mind.
There are also various books written on mindfulness. In a parenting context, I’d recommend Mindfulness for Parents by Myla and Jon Kabat Zinn. Another acclaimed book is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression by Segal, Williams and Teesdale although this one is aimed at clinicians rather than parents.
Where do I start with doing activities mindfully with my young children?
If you head on over to my blog, you’ll find ideas of what I do with mine. For starters though, how about –
Mimdful baking – let them pick what to make. Pick something they can take an active role in where you don’t need to be too directive or controlling. Cookie mixing works well as it can tolerate quite a bit of toddlerdom and forgive mistakes. As you work through the recipe steps, ask them what they can see happening to the mix, what they can smell, how the dough feels during and after, what sounds they can hear (crackle or rustle of foil, snapping of broken chocolate?) and – if you’re like me and let them – what they can taste when the lick the bowl at the end.
Mindful toothbrushing – Can they focus on brushing each individual tooth? What does the paste taste like? How does their mouth taste before vs after? What sounds go with toothbrushing?
Mindful plant watering – What colours, shapes and sizes are the plants? Do they need to reach high or low to water, and how does their body feel as they stretch to do that? Does the water pour fast or slow? If they can use the hose, can they see a rainbow if they move it across the sunshine in a curve shape? What sound does the hose make? Can they tell if the water is turned on or off? Is the water warm or cold?
Music and movement – Play musical statues or musical bumps – or get them to clap or tap along to a piece of classical music.
Mindful painting – try water colour painting so they can watch colours move in the water on the painting paper in a non-directive way.