By Joel McNenny, LPC. LSC.
“I wish I had learned this when I was a kid” said a young lady. Around the room there were nods of agreement in response to my question regarding their opinion of mindfulness. We had just finished day one of a three-day mindfulness seminar for a group of teenagers. We spent the day learning about the human brain, what happens when it is under stress and how we can take charge of our mental processes. We also learned to meditate and for a good part of the day, these teenagers, who usually have their attention distracted by a multitude of electronic gizmos and gadgets, learned to sit in gentle awareness, following their breath.
I, too, wish I had learned mindfulness as a child and as a parent, I wish I had learned it when my children were much younger. Better late than never, I guess.
When I was teaching mindfulness techniques to elementary school children I was absolutely amazed how quickly the students responded to it. It was as if they were eager to learn, almost desperate. All their lives people had been telling them to “pay attention” and “calm down,” and yet rarely did anyone tell them how to do those things (mostly because the adults in their lives did not really know how either). Mindfulness is the how.
Mindfulness is quickly becoming a 21st century skill as a plethora of businesses and corporations are teaching it to their employees. A less-stressed, more-focused employee is also a more productive worker. Mindfulness is being taught in prisons, hospitals, police departments, schools and even sports programs. Many people associate mindfulness with meditation but it is much more than that. Yes, mindfulness meditation is an integral part, but it goes beyond the formal practice. As is often stated, the purpose of learning mindfulness meditation is to be able to take the mindful experience off the cushion and into our lives.
Children, like most of us, are living in an overstimulated world. The amount of electronic gadgetry that surrounds us has become so prevalent that we often do not even notice it. Televisions and video games are the obvious examples but there is also the low hum of refrigerators, air conditioners, and car engines, etc., etc., etc. Much of this we do not even consciously pay attention to but our brains and minds are always absorbing the stimulation. It is no wonder we, either consciously or unconsciously, are looking for ways to give our brains a break. So it is not surprising a child’s first reaction to a mindful experience is “It feels good.”
Mindfulness has been found to impact the symptoms of ADHD, anxiety disorders and depression among teenagers. In schools that have mindfulness programs test scores go up, discipline issues are reduced, bullying incidents decrease, and people report a more relaxed, productive school environment is created. However, mindfulness need not be left only for the schools to teach.
I am often asked by parents what is the best way to bring mindfulness into the home. I tend to give them this advice. First, mindfulness is not just for kids. Mindfulness is for everyone. If you expect to teach mindfulness to your children, you must practice mindfulness yourself. That is why I encourage parents to make it a “family affair.”
Second, mindfulness needs to be developmentally appropriate. Although adults can learn to sit for thirty to forty minutes rather quickly, that kind of time would be excruciating for children. I start the young children (ages 4-7) with a one minute sit and build up to three or four minutes. I have found it better to sit for a few short sessions than to try anything that resembles a long sit. As the children become older and more experienced, the time can be increased. We had fourth graders sitting up to ten minutes and once teens get through the “This is boring” stage, they are usually able to sit between ten and twenty minutes.
Third, make it fun. There is a wealth of children’s books on mindfulness. Two of my favorites are Moody Cow Meditates by Kathy Lee MacLean and Anh’s Anger by Gail Silver. Make it a part of the bedtime experience. A great time to “sit” for a few minutes is right after story time and/or prayers before being tucked in. Allow those last few minutes before that kiss goodnight to be moments of quiet awareness following the breath and acknowledging the miracle that is life.
Fourth, make it an integral part of the family environment. A friend of mine was hiking with her family along the shore of a lake when they came across some large rocks. The youngest boy exclaimed this would be a perfect place to practice a few moments of mindfulness. So they all found their own semi-comfortable spot on top of a rock and proceeded to sit quietly for a few minutes. She described it as a “magical family experience.”
There is a great deal of scientific studies that indicate practicing mindfulness meditation actually helps our brains work better. As parents we want what is best for our children. We watch what they eat and provide proper exercise for their bodies. Why not practice mindful meditation and exercise their brains as well? If we do, instead of hearing “I wish I had learned….,” we might just hear, “Thanks mom and dad for teaching me real tools to cope with this crazy world of ours. Thank you for the miracle of mindfulness.”
Joel McNenny, LPC, LSC, is a mental health therapist with over 21 years of experience. He uses mindfulness-based therapy with his clients who range in age from 4 to 84. He has taught mindfulness in schools, senior centers and churches. If you would like more information about mindfulness contact the Total Health and Wellness Center at 330-956-5681.