Helping children meet trauma with mindfulness

Using mindfulness and meditation activities for kids may help them weather the stress of COVID-19
Mother playing on floor with her young daughter

In our previous article, Mindfulness for kids, we shared how introducing mindfulness and meditation techniques to your children is linked with increasing activity in the part of the brain that helps kids concentrate, focus, and control emotions. Now in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, having these tools to help regulate emotions can be especially helpful for children. This article takes the theme of mindfulness one step further to help you support your children’s mental health during the pandemic.

Regular routines often help support mental health. However, with many schools and daycare centers temporarily closed or unavailable, children may have to adjust to new routines, along with the rest of the family. According to the CDC, “not all children and teens respond to stress in the same way,” and some changes in behavior, such as unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, excessive worrying, or sadness, may occur.

According to a Cambridge University study, meditation and mindfulness can offer a helpful way to live with constant change. Meditation has the potential to complement treatment, and it’s a low-cost, beneficial method of providing assistance with anxiety.

The pandemic might be the first crisis your child has encountered, so it can be a good opportunity to teach them habits to develop resilience now and in the future. Introducing mindfulness and meditation practices may be a way to do that. But remember; practice, not perfection, is the goal. Change happens over time, so stay patient rather than push for immediate results from your kids. Pushing can increase their stress (and yours) and end up being counterproductive. Even if you only practice for two minutes per day, that’s a great start.

Below are a few ways you and your family can begin to practice mindfulness and meditation together while also encouraging each other’s healthy coping habits. It’s typically best to check with your primary doctor first before implementing any new health routines.

Simple exercises to help you get started

Folding mindfulness and meditation into your routine takes time. So at the beginning, focus on the fact that it is bringing you together, rather than whether or not you’ve fully mastered it.

Simple exercises can help you and your children make a habit of being aware in the present moment. Some effective mindfulness techniques include meditating on the breath, repeating mantras about compassion and loving-kindness, body scans, focused movement, and noticing one’s thoughts. Experiment with a playful approach; you may be surprised at how well your children respond.

Here are some potential starting points* for you and your children based on commonly used mindfulness and meditation techniques:

  • Start at the little piggy body scan: Starting with the toes, tell your children to pick one muscle and squeeze it tight. Count to five. Tell them to release, and notice how their body changes. Repeat, moving up the body through different muscle groups.

  • Air in the balloon breathing exercise: Suggest to your kids to put one hand on the stomach and one hand on the chest. Encourage them to slowly breathe in from the stomach (expand like a balloon) and slowly breathe out (deflate).

  • Notice the nom noms mindfulness technique: Pay attention to the smell, taste, and look of your food. Don’t do anything else. Just be with your food and each other.

  • Notice the breath meditation: Sit together in a relaxed, comfortable position. Pick something to focus on, like your breath. When your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath. Check in periodically and prompt with soft reminders like, “If you notice your thoughts drifting, that’s ok. Just start again.”

  • Bathe in music mindfulness exercise: Enjoy music together with a focus (on the whole song or a voice or instrument). Every once in a while, check in and ask if your kids notice whether they’re still focusing. If they’ve drifted that’s ok; just encourage them gently to bring back the focus as part of the meditation practice.

  • Slow walk meditation: Go for a walk outside. Encourage your kids to move slowly so they can feel every step. Have them notice various sensations such as the ground beneath their feet and the air on their skin.

  • Calming words compassion-focused meditation: Pick a word or phrase that you and your kid can say to themselves when upset or scared. Practice saying this word or phrase over and over until it becomes easy. It can be as simple as saying “safe” or “I am loved.”

* Always consult with your doctor before making any additions or changes to your or your child’s wellness routine.

Some of these will feel natural to do together. Starting with what’s comfortable helps encourage revisiting. Why not enjoy the process?

You can also discuss as a family the ways that you feel differently after the exercise than you did before. Even subtle changes are worth sharing. Noting these effects expand your awareness and help you appreciate what comes to life for each of you.

Set aside family time to practice mindfulness together

Spending time as a family doing meaningful activities together can help support your children’s (and your) mental health. Taking time to implement regular routines, such as mindfulness and meditation practices, can potentially help everyone feel less anxious in this incredibly difficult time. There are many ways to create new habits. Explore different ones to see what suits you – and keep in mind that may vary for each family member.

  • Use dinner as a time to focus on staying present through conversation. You can go around the table and say one good thing that happened that day, or mention something you’re grateful for. This is an excellent way to learn how to choose your frame of mind.

  • Schedule a time slot for each family member to practice. Creating a routine helps. With commutes and errands gone, we each have fewer moments of alone time outside the home. Replacing those moments with mindfulness can give you much needed nervous- system regulation.

  • Plan family mindfulness activities like group walks or yoga sessions. As you walk, feel the ground under your feet. Focus on what you see and smell and hear. Engaging the senses with focus brings us right here, right now.

  • Make up your own fun approaches. This in itself can be a form of mindfulness. Ask yourself and your kids, what could help me be really present in the moment right now? Be creative and see what works.

Finally, the best way to understand how powerful mindfulness can be is through practice. It’s not about how well you do it, or how long. The important part is consistency and intention.

Learn about additional resources to help your children navigate this deeply confusing and difficult time.