Inside: Neuroscience tells us why mindfulness for health is so important, especially for kids.
I wish mindfulness had another name. I always cringe a bit when I write or talk about the importance of being ‘mindful’. This wasn’t helped today when our intern at work told me I was starting to sound like a hippy.
Anyway, I’d like to dispel the myth that mindfulness requires an apprenticeship in wearing tie-dye and singing Kumbaya. It doesn’t. It’s for everyone. And it’s especially good for kids.
Kids are going through so much change and their lives are all about transitions. It’s stressful. Think about a day at high school:
- A new teacher every hour, each one with different expectations
- New subject matter constantly
- Testing and assessment constantly
- Hundreds of other kids and personalities to negotiate
- Complex and evolving social networks to navigate
- Changing bodies and hormones
What’s the point?
Lots of schools, are now teaching mindfulness for a bunch of good reasons.
Mindfulness training for children can help them:
- Focus and concentrate
- Cut down stressful thoughts and feelings
- Have better, calmer relationships
- Improve sleep
- Calm the nervous systems
- Decrease negative, self-destructive thoughts
So…What Is It?
Mindfulness is the process of consciously listening to your own thoughts and being aware of which ones are useful and which ones aren’t. It’s part of ‘metacognition’ in science speak.
The most important part of this brain management is that you stop yourself from obsessing about the past or the future. You keep yourself in the here and now. Our past is often connected to regret, guilt and shame. Our anticipated future is often tied to anxiety and worry. If we can stay in the ‘now’, life is much calmer.
Mindfulness is great if your child is a bit of a worry wart or a stress head. It is also great for kids who are suffering from illnesses such as anxiety and depression. It’s actually good for all of us.
Is there any proof this works?
One of the big breakthroughs came in a 2007 study called Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference out of the University of Toronto. Awful title, but their findings were interesting.
The team found that when humans experience life moment by moment, they use two distinct networks. These networks have come to be called the default network and the direct network.
The Default Network
The default network is so called because it is what we default to when we aren’t doing much else. When we are waiting in the car for school pickup or in line at the supermarket. Our mind wanders off and starts to explore the past via our memories. It also goes into the future and what might happen.
As the default network is by nature creative, we start to create stories about our past and future. We start to give events meaning that they may or may not hold. You’ve seen it happen in your kids and you know the angst it causes.
For example, your daughter is sitting on the bus, reliving the comment made by her besty after school yesterday, “Nice shoes”. Hmmm…thinks your daughter, was it a compliment or a snide comment? Then she connects that comment with the fact that she hasn’t figured out what to wear to the school social next week. ‘Maybe I’m fashion challenged?’ Stress. Self-doubt. Shame. Anger. Before she knows it, she’s created a fight in her mind. Her friend might have meant, “Nice shoes”.
Don’t get me wrong, the default network can be fun. Daydreaming about happy possibilities and smiling over lovely memories also come from this circuit.
The Direct Network
The other network is the direct network. It takes in and processes information from your senses. It pays attention to what you can see, hear, smell etc.
What the neuroscientists have discovered is that we can switch our attention from one network to the other. They also found that we use them in inverse proportion. In other words, if you are daydreaming heavily you won’t notice the smell of the toast burning. Or you may have had that scary experience of driving from one place to another but not noticing anything along the way because you were ‘lost in your thoughts’.
Now this is the good bit…If we put all our attention on the direct network and consciously listen to the sounds of birds around us, or the smell of the rain or the colour of the carpet, we block out the mind wandering and the stress that comes with it. That’s why mindfulness works!
Mindfulness isn’t some complicated meditation routine, it’s just putting your attention on your senses. That means we can do it easily. And most importantly, we can teach kids to do it.
Some mindfulness activities for kids
- Identifying all the sounds you can hear
- Notice your breathing or your heartbeat
- Body scan
- Colouring in
- Watching a candle flame
- Feeling a breeze on your face
- Guided meditation
- I find playing sport mindful because I can only focus on what is happening in that moment
- There are lots of activities you can teach kids
A good example of a mindfulness app…. calm.com
There are also tonnes of apps to help with kids’ mindfulness
- ReachOut Breathe
- Smiling Mind
- Calm – meditate, sleep, relax
- Insight Timer App
- Rain Rain App
- Audible App
Being mindful isn’t hard. The difficulty lies in remembering to take the time. 15 seconds is all you need.
As a parent, role modelling mindfulness is particularly important. So, be in the now. Don’t ‘do’ all the time. Just be. Just be present for yourself and those you love.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-eight years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is a writer, speaker and consultant in Western Australia. You can find out more about her work here.