They can be some of the most frustrating and embarrassing child behaviors—temper tantrums, lashing out at others, impatience, and short attention spans. So what can you do about them? Research has found that having a sense of mindfulness, or the ability to be present and think before reacting, can provide children with the skills they need to better understand their feelings, to pay more attention and to make wiser decisions. Mindfulness also means paying attention to the moment without judgment and intentionally pausing before reacting. Mindfulness is a wonderful way to help children manage their emotions, reduce their stress, improve their academics, and even develop greater empathy. The hidden benefit of practicing mindfulness with your family is that as parents you get to reap the benefits too. Here are eight easy ways to get started:
1. Take on a Family Mindfulness Challenge: When you model the mindfulness you want to see in your children, they understand it on a whole new level. So, give it a try. You can sit on a chair or floor with your back straight but not tense. Close your eyes and use your other senses, like listening. A simple minute of mindful breathing is one great way to start. There are also free apps and websites available to help guide your practice, which can be great for beginners.
2. Choose a “Mindfulness Corner”: It could be in a bedroom or main area. Make it special and uncluttered. You can have everyone in your family put a personal symbol, like a pillow, photo or blanket, in the middle of the room so it becomes like a “zone of peace” that is there at any time. Designating a physical location literally “holds the space” for mindfulness to become a regular family habit, much like sitting down together to eat a meal.
3. Set a Time: Just like athletes schedule practice sessions to improve their skills, having a designated mindfulness time helps make it a go-to habit. Before bed is a wonderful time, as the mindfulness practice relaxes everyone into a more peaceful state. Some families use a special chime to take turns bringing everyone together. As your family gets used to practicing mindfulness, the special space in your home can serve as a good place to go when anyone in the family needs to take a break from anger, or frustration. If you practice moments of calm, it makes going to that space in moments of stress easier.
4. Have Mindful Mornings: Getting out the door for school is stressful. Consider ways to de-stress, like waking up a little earlier for some quiet time, or encouraging your children to help (as they can) to pack their lunches the night before. Dr. Christine Carter of Greater Good Science Center prepares for the morning rush by placing sticky notes on her fridge. They are reminders to NOTICE emotions, NAME the emotion, ACCEPT what is going on, and BREATHE (pausing to take a few deep breaths) before jumping into action.
5. Practice Mindfulness around the Table: Remember how good it feels to express gratitude at the Thanksgiving table? What if you could do this once a week? Schedule a time where everyone talks about what they are grateful for in their life and something they appreciate about others at the table. This is all about being in the moment and taking time to notice the good stuff (there’s always good stuff, even if it’s just a hot meal or the smile on your child’s face!). It will uplift everyone there.
6. Designate Mindful Boundaries: Having established boundaries promotes a feeling of consistency and safety. They provide a perimeter, within which children can exercise their autonomy. If the boundaries are mindfully thought out in advance, then there is less reason for you to constantly say no. It’s equally important to create situations where your child can experience autonomy (e.g., “You can be the leader on the hike.”). In Mindful Discipline, Dr. Shauna Shapiro makes the case that children need both boundaries and autonomy. Shapiro asserts that children need a degree of autonomy to develop a sense of responsibility over their lives. They also need clear boundaries, which gives them a sense of safety, and a clear idea of who is the parent and who is the child. The author suggests that you ask yourself, “What is most needed in this moment? Is it space, autonomy, or a boundary? Or maybe it’s some of each: you can run around the park, but here’s a line you can’t cross—a non-negotiable line.”
7. Be Mindful with Discipline: There’s no getting around it - discipline is part of parenting. Why not address it mindfully? If you see discipline as teaching, rather than confrontation, the first step is pausing enough to be mindful of what your child is feeling. In No-Drama Discipline, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson suggest:
Communicate comfort so your child feels safe to open up. Get down to your child’s eye level, and put your hand on his arm or hug to give him a sense of reassurance. You can also tell him, “It’s hard, isn’t it? Can you tell me about it?”
Validate and say something like, “If I were in your shoes, at the same age, I might feel the same way.”
Listen. Rather than lecture, breathe.
Reflect. Say back what you hear like, “I understand that you’re upset because you don’t want to go to bed right now.”
Redirect. After you understand what was happening internally to your child, you can determine what you want to teach and how best to do it. For example, you may want to say, “If you get your rest now you won’t feel tired at school tomorrow. Would you like to read one more book and then we can tuck you in so you can go to bed?”
8. Share Your Experiences: The more you and your child practice mindfulness, the more natural it becomes. You will draw on it in all aspects of life. If you used mindfulness when you felt your emotions rising, (in traffic, at the office, with friends), and you were able to pause before reacting, share that experience with your child. Encourage her/him to do the same. You will inspire one another in ways you might not even imagine.
Randy Taran is the CEO and founder of Project Happiness, a global organization which specializes in emotional resilience-building programs that are used by people of any age and endorsed by public schools, private institutions and universities in the U.S. and 90 countries around the world. Randy is also co-author of the Project Happiness Handbook and producer of the award-winning film Project Happiness.