Over the past decade, mindfulness has steadily gained attention as a tool to improve wellness for both physical and mental health. Yet despite the growing popularity of mindfulness, there is confusion about what it is and how to practice it. Sometimes we confuse mindfulness as a relaxation skill. Although some mindfulness activities may provide a relaxing experience, other mindfulness practices include the experience and acceptance of difficult emotions such as anxiety, depression and boredom.
As a starting point, it’s helpful to think of mindfulness as being in an open and focused mind state, says Children’s Hospital Colorado pediatric psychologist Jenna Glover, PhD, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado. Having an open mind is when we are aware of the present moment without judgment and without trying to change it. For example: being open and curious to observing the sensations that arise in our bodies when feeling bored rather than trying to do something to remove the feeling. Having a focused mind is when we practice control of our attention by staying focused on one thing at a time.
Benefits of mindfulness
The purpose of mindfulness is to help us take control of our minds rather than letting our minds be in control of us. Teaching children to take on a mindful state allows them more choices and frees up the space between urges and actions. Consistently practicing mindfulness can help strengthen a child’s parasympathetic response, improving their ability to calm and self-regulate their body.
Additionally, as youth learn to observe their sensations, thoughts and emotions, they become more capable of reflecting and responding to situations based on their goals and values rather than reacting in automatic and reflexive ways that may cause more problems and stress in their internal and external lives. Underscoring the benefits of consistent mindful practice can help motivate youth and parents to adopt this as a consistent practice in their daily lives. According to the research studies “Mindfulness and Self-esteem: A Systematic Review” and “Effectiveness of Mindfulness in Improving Mental Health Symptoms”, researchers have identified many benefits of this practice for children and adolescents including:
- Increased self-control
- Lower anxiety and stress
- Increased positive moods
- Improved emotion regulation skills
- Increased self-esteem
Mindful breathing is often used as a common practice because the breath is something that is always available to us. It can help us anchor our attention at any time. During mindful breathing, youth are instructed to focus attention on their breath flowing in and out of their body for a short set period (3 to 6 minutes). They may choose to focus on air coming in and out of the nostrils or the sensation of the abdomen rising and falling.
Before practice begins, youth are instructed to:
- Notice when their attention goes away from the breath
- Note where the attention went instead without judgment (such as thoughts, sensations and emotions)
- Return their attention to the breath
The purpose of mindfulness is not to keep attention on the breath without disruption, but rather to catch the mind again and again going to thought, emotion and sensation. As youth practice the “noticing” of their mind wandering and bringing it back, they strengthen their awareness of their mind and ability to stay in the present moment. It is important for providers to help youth and parents understand that minds do not stay calm and focused. It is normal to have to bring attention back to the mindfulness anchor (such as breathing in and out) dozens of times during a short mindfulness practice.
For young children, it can be helpful to start with concrete breathing activities, asking them to breathe in like they are smelling a flower and breathe out like they are trying to blow out candles on a birthday cake. This orients young children to the practice of deep breathing, which can serve as the foundation for future mindfulness activities related to noticing thoughts and emotions as children’s cognitive development moves toward metacognitive abilities.
There are a variety of apps available that provide education and guided practice sessions to help youth and families practice mindfulness in their daily lives.
- Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame: This free app from Sesame Street is designed to introduce very young children to breathing techniques that help them calm down their body. In the app, kids help an animated monster who is in a frustrating situation calm down by taking long deep breaths.
- Headspace: The Headspace app was originally designed for adults but has developed five areas of mindfulness practice for kids including: calm, focus, kindness, sleep and wake up. Each of these areas has specific guided practice for three ages groups (under 5, 6 to 8 years and 10 to 12 years). Headspace offers a free trial and then a monthly subscription cost for continued use.
- Stop, Breathe & Think: This app is designed for middle and high school age youth and offers guided meditation and breathing exercises as well as written instructions on how to meditate. There is also a feature in the app that allows kids to identify their sensations and emotions, and the app will recommend a guided meditation based on what they are feeling. Stop, Breathe & Think offers a free trial and then a monthly subscription cost for continued use.