Mindfulness can be especially useful for children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), who may have difficulty getting themselves back to a relaxed state once they become stressed. Grownups who’ve experienced childhood trauma may have trouble sleeping, too: A systematic review has found an association between ACEs and multiple sleep problems in adulthood.

Children exposed to ACEs may also have more difficulty with impulse control when faced with stressful situations. But mindfulness exercises can really help. Mindful parenting can help improve your child’s behavior and build their resilience. And mindful practices help clinicians more effectively treat youth and their families. Here’s a quick mindfulness exercise to incorporate into your own day, and one to work on with your kids:

How to self-regulate when facing a challenging situation:

1. Stop

Ask yourself: What am I feeling right now?

2. Take a Breath

Ask yourself: “Am I breathing too fast right now or holding my breath? Can I take a deep breath?”

3. Observe

Ask yourself: “What else am I feeling in my body? What are my thoughts right now?”

4. Proceed

Ask yourself: “Am I OK with what happens next if I ____?”

Decide to respond in a way that works best for you.

How to teach your kids to self-regulate:

Listen to what they are saying and help them name their feelings.

Acknowledge how hard it is being a kid.

Help them examine consequences, e.g. “If you do_________ then_________ can happen.”

Offer them an alternative.

EXAMPLE

“I hear that you wanted to go out in the street and get that ball. It sounds like you are really angry that I didn’t let you go in the street to get it.

EXAMPLE

“I know it’s hard being 3 years old and not being able to do everything you want to do.”

EXAMPLE

“If you run out into the street by yourself, you might get hit by a car and that would really hurt you and I would be sad that you were hurt.”

EXAMPLE

“How about we go get that ball together? You can hold my hand and we’ll look for cars before we go on the street so we don’t get hurt.”

Listen to what they are saying and help them name their feelings.

EXAMPLE

“I hear that you wanted to go out in the street and get that ball. It sounds like you are really angry that I didn’t let you go in the street to get it.

Acknowledge how hard it is being a kid.

EXAMPLE

“I know it’s hard being 3 years old and not being able to do everything you want to do.”

Help them examine consequences, e.g. “If you do_________ then_________ can happen.”

EXAMPLE

“If you run out into the street by yourself, you might get hit by a car and that would really hurt you and I would be sad that you were hurt.”

Offer them an alternative.

EXAMPLE

“How about we go get that ball together? You can hold my hand and we’ll look for cars before we go on the street so we don’t get hurt.”

These exercises will help you and your kids respond rather than react to stressful situations—always a good thing!

Belly breathing is another simple mindfulness strategy you can teach your children and use to relax yourself as well:

  • Have your child sit or lie down.
  • Have your child place one hand over the belly, the other hand over the chest.
  • Model how to inhale through the nose and feel the belly push out.
  • Exhale through the mouth and feel the belly pull in.
  • Continue modeling this deep breathing until your child understands.
  • Repeat three to five times.

 

Make it fun by pretending to blow out a candle or that you’re blowing up a balloon as they inhale and exhale. You can also have your child hold a stuffed animal on his belly and watch it move up and down while they breathe deeply. These “breathing buddies” can help children see and feel what deep breathing looks like, so that both their brains and bodies remember. If children get used to belly breathing at a young age, they may carry this healthy ritual into the rest of their lives.

Mindfulness Rx

How does mindfulness work? According to neuroscientists studying the strategy, practicing mindfulness appears to reduce activity in the parts of the brain called the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. This helps people react less intensively to stressors and to bounce back more easily from stress when they experience it. There’s also some research suggesting meditation may reduce the inflammatory response in people exposed to psychological stress. In addition, some studies indicate an approach called “loving kindness meditation” — based on mentally sending kind wishes and warmth to others through a series of silent mantras — may help cultivate compassion toward others.

Ongoing research suggests kids can benefit from a mindful approach. A 2015 study in Canada found that 4th and 5th graders had greater emotional control and lower levels of stress hormones after going through a mindfulness program. In 2018, researchers in the Netherlands announced a plan to test mindfulness with a group of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A few minutes a day

The science behind mindfulness may be incomplete, but it’s not too soon to enjoy the benefits. Take a few minutes for mindfulness every day to improve your and your child’s physical and emotional health. It is easier to be mindful in your everyday life when you try it regularly. Breathing practices can be a nice addition to your child’s bedtime routine, but you can practice any time of day. The more you do, the faster it becomes a habit, and the more easily your stress response goes down.

Apps and websites offer easy ways to try different mindfulness techniques. Other simple ways to practice include paying close attention to details while playing with your child, walking, or exercising. Research shows that mindfulness can help reduce all kinds of stress, including the stress of parenting.

 Prompt your child to try breathing deeply when she feels stressed or worried. Set a good example by doing it yourself, and model how to take deep breaths when you yourself are stressed. For example, you might tell your child, “I am so frustrated by this traffic, but I can’t change it. Please help me calm down by taking three deep breaths with me.” Afterward, talk to your child about how it felt. It may be awhile before your child has to deal with traffic on her own, but she can learn an important lesson: A little mindfulness can go a long way.