Why Mindfulness Is Critical For Kids - Dr Louise Clegg
Dr Louise Clegg is a Clinical Psychologist and has been working with children and families within mental health for 10 years. She founded Calm Strong Minds – courses and workshops on mindfulness for primary and secondary school children. The classes encourage children to be more aware and stay in the present moment through guided meditations and breathing exercises, art and craft projects, and learning about different emotions. She believes that these techniques are the key to children building resilience, managing difficult thoughts and emotions and developing self-compassion.
Life has got more stressful for kids. This is because of several factors including school pressures, social pressures, and the increase of technology in our lives. For some, the day-to-day stressors start to accumulate and snowball and kids can get to a point where they can’t think straight or cope. It is now estimated that 10% of children under 16 years have a diagnosable mental health difficulty.These small issues by themselves wouldn’t cause any problems but they can slow burn and potentially snowball. Kids can get to a point where they can’t think straight or cope.
Keep an eye out for the warning signs in your child. They might include:
Not going out and doing the things they used to enjoyHiding away or avoiding people for prolonged periods of timeChanges in sleeping or eating over a prolonged period of weeksChanges in their personality, such as becoming quiet or explosive at the smallest things
Most parents know their children well and know when something’s up. Trust your instincts.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment; the here and now. Being mindful allows us to observe emotions, thoughts, and events with curiosity and without judgement. It helps us to stay in the present and enables us to respond with clarity rather than being ruled by emotions. It can alleviate low moods, anxiety and improve emotional regulation skills; it can also help people learn more effectively, improve sleep, and cope better with difficult situations.
TOP TIPS FOR PARENTS
It’s important for everyone to have ‘down days’. We as parents need to allow the time and space for kids to take time out. Even families can get caught up in the business of life and it’s vital to take a walk in the park, watch a film, have dinner together, slow down, and reconnect with each other.
Find a way to check in with your child. Create spaces and opportunities for conversations. Put away your phone and let your child know that you’re there and that you’ve got time to listen. Perhaps gently comment: “I’ve noticed that recently you’ve been doing this, and that it’s different to usual? Anything I can help with? If you don’t want to talk now then come and find me when the time is right for you.”
If they won’t open up, then do an activity together that allows time for a conversation to crop up naturally, like shopping, sports or doing a craft together. It offers a diversion so that the focus isn’t on the conversation but gives the space and opportunity for the conversation to happen.
Try not to use blaming or shaming language. Instead of saying “You’re being sulky and ruining our Saturday,” try saying “You’re obviously feeling upset and it’s affecting how you and we can enjoy today, do you want to talk about what is making you feel upset?” When they’re hitting out or damaging things one thing to do is separate the behaviour from the anger. Say it’s ok to feel angry but it’s not ok to hit, throw or break things.
Separate behaviours from emotions, and the child from the problem. Ensure that it is not the child who is the problem, but the problem that is the problem. One way to do this is to 'externalise' the feeling by creating a character that represents the child's experience of the emotion. You can ask the child to imagine the feeling as a character or animal and get them to describe it in a lot of detail, for example is it big or small, does it move quickly or slowly, is it cheeky, sly, curious, naughty? Depending on the age of the child you might draw a picture of this character or even make it out of playdoh. Then give it a name, for example "Mr Worried". Then, everyone around the child can start to talk about Mr Worried and the trouble he is creating, for example stopping the child from doing activities they want to do, making them feel that they cannot do something, or making them worried about what others are thinking. Once everyone is working together, the child can start to build confidence in starting to learn how to manage Mr Worried by being able to 'play detective' to learn how to make Mr Worried smaller, stop him from causing trouble, and hopefully make Mr Worried go away all together.
THE BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS
There’s a biological reason we feel calmer when we think about breathing. Focusing on the breath helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to immediately calm us. It counters the hormones and biological responses that we have to stress, anxiety and anger.
Try the Five-Finger Technique. Hold up your left hand and with your right hand trace your hand slowly as you breathe in and out. Breathe in as you trace up, and out as you trace down. It triggers the reverse systems, so instead of the breath getting shallower and the body releasing adrenaline and bringing on a fight or flight or freeze response, this technique will stop adrenaline being produced and put you in control. A young girl patient of mine had panic attacks as she moved between classes each day, scared about whether she would get there in time and who she might sit next to. This technique gave her focus and calmed her breathing.
It’s important to understand how anxiety affects our body, physically and emotionally. By understanding what happens – that it’s a normal biological process – we can recognise it in ourselves and learn how to manage it before it gets too big and overwhelms us. It’s at the point that it overwhelms you that you get the outburst or the panic attack. Being more aware of our bodies in the present moment can help us ‘catch’ the emotion early for example when we begin to sweat, get clammy hands, headaches, feel butterflies, and our hearts beat faster.
An “emotion thermometer” is a great tool for parents to use at home. So the bottom is 0 and 10 is the volcano explosion, the worst that it could possibly be. You could mark on the scale what happens in the body as the temperature rises, and you can mark next to it what might help at the different temperature levels. So at the bottom, simple distraction might help – listening to music or watching a movie. Further up, the answer might be to tell somebody or sit and do some breathing. 8 plus is the ‘point of no return’, so when they’ve reached that it’s difficult to reverse the process. When a 3 year old is having a temper tantrum or a teen is having a panic attack you can’t talk to them in that moment and problem solve - you have to let them ride it out and talk to them afterwards. Try singing a song, holding their hand and talking softly. Invite them to listen to your voice and breathe with you until the episode passes.
Parents can encourage their kids to be in the present moment with them. On a walk, notice your feet touching the ground. It will make you walk slowly – what does that feel like? How many noises can you hear while you’re walking? How many different types of leaves can you find in your surroundings? Anything that connects your child to that moment and that experience will help them to let go of the “what ifs?”
Talk about the day at bedtime. After a routine of stories it’s a good idea to chat and reflect on the day. Unwittingly, by doing that you’re getting them to process their experiences. Then, if they have any questions they can ask them at that point.
DR CLEGG RECOMMENDS
Cosmic Kids – these are fantastic yoga, mindfulness and relaxation videos on youtube that you can even do with your kids.
Headspace – kids audio meditation sequences from a highly regarded company
Stop, Breathe & Think – an app to develop mindfulness and peaceful sleep
Sitting Still Like a Frog – a book of mindfulness techniques for younger kids
The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens – a book of strategies for older kids to deal with stress
Calm Strong Minds – Dr Clegg’s own website is a mine of resources and information on mindfulness for children, and details all the courses she offers