Zen. Mindfulness. Manifest. Blessed. On the surface, these all appear to be buzz words of the moment, often dismissed as new age trends. However, the theory of our mindset at it correlates to our overall well-being and life outcomes is an old one. Ancient, in fact. The same idea has been said many times, many ways, over many centuries. Visionary Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, businessman Frank Outlaw, and spiritualist Gautama Buddha, just to name a few, are all credited with conveying the same idea - our thought patterns dictate our actions, creating habits, which determine our character, and therefore our destiny. Regarding Wellness, attitude is the absolute foundation. And by mastering it, you will master all of the other components.
Imagine what an incredible opportunity it is for our youth to learn mindfulness and become skilled in managing their attitude early in life! It sets the tone for everything they do and empowers them in every facet. Having said that, it's not always an easy task. As caregivers and parents, many times we struggle to maintain our attitudes. So how do we facilitate mindfulness in the lives of our children or those in our care?
Facilitating mindfulness in the lives of tiny humans is much the same as we, as adults, practice mindfulness. Albeit simplified. Before we can teach our kids how to be mindful, however, we have to understand what it means to be mindful. Simply put, mindfulness, or being in a state of mindfulness, is the practice of allowing yourself to be completely present - regarding an emotion, an experience, or a physical sensation at any given moment. It's training the mind to cope with anything - be it anger, pain, or fear while acknowledging the feeling, yet remaining calm. Most importantly it also allows us to savor and appreciate moments of love, happiness, and peace.
I attribute coping with an unmedicated labor/delivery, surviving challenging days with my girls, managing my anxiety, and truly savoring my five minutes taking out the trash (alone) to my mindfulness practice. I am an advocate of the benefits and believe in passing these life skills onto our youth. Below I will share three ways we practice mindfulness in our home.
1. Begin a Gratitude Journal
At the end of every day choose three things you are grateful for and write them down. There is no right or wrong way. As long as you thoughtfully identify moments of appreciation. I don't write mine down. I do, however, review mentally, and verbally, my three things in the shower every evening. Jose keeps a little notebook in his pocket, and as moments of gratitude present themselves, he jots them down - reviewing them at the end of the day. With the girls, we talk about three things that made them "really happy" during evening prayers. You can do it during any quiet time available with your kids. For older kids, gift a gratitude journal for a birthday or holiday!
We don't have to dig too deeply, either. Being thankful we switched the laundry before the mold set in, or made it through the critical light along our commute allowing us to work on time are all moments of gratitude. The kiddos might need a little guidance at first. Ask open-ended questions. "How did you feel when you got to watch five extra minutes of T.V?". Or, "How did it make you feel when you got to talk to Mimi on the phone?" Follow through and explain that those "happy moments" are also called thankful moments.
And there's science behind this. Psychologists, Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, and Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, conducted a study on the effects of practicing gratitude on the brain. For ten weeks they had three sample groups keep journals. Group #1 wrote weekly about moments of appreciation. Group #2 wrote weekly about moments of irritation. And Group #3 wrote weekly about incidents that affected them, neither positive or negative. At the end of the ten weeks, the thankful folks in Group #1 reported feeling more satisfied with their lives and more optimistic. Even more, the study found they exercised more and had fewer medical visits than negative Group #2.
2. Rely on Your Breath
No matter what situation you or your kids find yourselves in, you can always count on your breath. It takes a little training, but through practice, it will become instinctive. Scientifically speaking, slow deep breathing helps to slow down the production of stress inducing hormones and kicks in a calming bodily reaction called the parasympathetic response. This calming response is the opposite of the "fight or flight" mode. There are many different variations of breathing that can be used, depending on the severity of the emotions that someone is feeling. However, when teaching this to kids, I suggest a deep inhalation through the nose (mouth closed) followed by completely exhaling through the mouth.
One of my biggest challenges as a parent is coaching my oldest through emotional situations. She feels everything; deeply. Having spent a good portion of my adult life striving to find comfort in the vulnerability of my emotions, I want desperately to help her preserve this characteristic. The challenge is equipping her with the life skills needed to be productive about it. When she is experiencing overwhelming emotions, that she does not have the tools to control we breathe together. Hand in hand. Practically nose to nose. Eye to eye. We breathe together. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. There are times when she is too out of control to even attempt this. I will continue the clear breathing pattern, and inevitably she will follow suit. Once she is in a calm state, we can try to identify emotions.
3. Identify Feelings/Sensations
Did you know that attaching a word to your feelings allows you to feel the sensation, whatever it may be (anger, sadness, pain, etc.), less intensely? When we or children in our care are experiencing intense emotions, it's because the part of our brain that controls our survival (the amygdala) or "fight or flight" response is in a heightened state. During this heightened state, the part of our brain that controls rational thought and critical thinking is temporarily disabled. The key is to flip it back on. When we can identify, and name the emotion, or physical sensation we are feeling we are turning our critical thinking abilities back on, allowing us greater coping mechanisms.
Kids will need guidance with this. Once everyone is calm and has regained composure, talk it out. Ask open-ended questions with older kids, teaching them how to get to the root of what the emotion is. Younger children may need straightforward questions, "Did it make you angry that your sister wouldn't share with you?". The second piece of this is explaining that it's OK to feel the way they are feeling. Allow them freedom in expressing their feelings while setting limits on the behavior that can be displayed. Explain that while we have emotions, we don't have to let our emotions control us. Most importantly, practice compassion. Remind yourself that the majority of adults have yet to master this, and be realistic with your expectations while teaching these skills. Injuries and boo-boos provide an excellent arena for practicing this skill.
Mindfulness is something that can feel a little odd at first. There will be days when you feel like Gandhi and others when you feel like the Tanzania Devil, but keep practicing. Our kids can learn this. It becomes second nature to them, and it will benefit them, and society, throughout their lives.
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