You’ve probably been there – your shopping cart is overflowing with groceries, the checkout line is a mile long, and your toddler is hanging on by the tiniest thread. As the line eventually trickles down and you allow yourself to think you might actually make it, an epic meltdown ensues. Your kid completely loses it. Meanwhile, you’re sweating bullets, your heart is racing and your own temper starts to flare. Mindful parents in this situation take deep breaths, recognizing that if they are calm, the child is more likely to follow suit.
Right. This is real life, and unfortunately it doesn’t always go down like that. Mindfulness can be extremely difficult to achieve for anyone in the heat of the moment. So imagine how hard it can be for a child, who is still learning how to handle their emotions and feelings. But as challenging as it may be for both of you, it’s not unattainable. With a few simple but effective strategies – such as body awareness, deep breathing and positive thinking – you can not only help your child become more mindful, but you can practice your own mindfulness along the way.
The mindful parent speaks in slow, soothing tones to their child, firmly but gently urging him to channel those big emotions in a more responsible way. The mindful parent doesn’t threaten or punish, but instead demonstrates peacefulness, the ultimate example of cool and composed.
While some emotions, such as sadness or anger, are easier for kids to identify, other feelings like anxiety can be difficult. Attaching a tangible, physical feeling can help. Is your heart beating fast? Does your tummy feel funny? You can help children take notice of their own bodies by asking these questions. Eventually, children will learn to relate how their body feels with what they are feeling in their minds – and once that awareness is established, they can then begin to implement strategies for managing their emotions. In this process, take notice of your own body as well. Ask yourself these same questions when your child is struggling – Is my heart beating fast because I know my child is nervous in this large crowd? Recognizing how your body reacts in these situations increases your awareness and prepares you to stay calm.
Take deep breaths. We know this, we’ve heard it a million times. But as automatic as breathing is, deep breathing is not. It is a conscious, mindful activity that we have to remind ourselves to practice. When your child seems to feel anxious, sad, angry or you just want to practice mindfulness activities, try breathing together. If your child is crying or having a meltdown and is unwilling to join in on the breathing exercise, you as the caregiver can continue the practice. This will not only provide an example for your child, but will help you stay calm when you might otherwise react in a certain (unfavorable) way to your child. Your child will almost always calm down quicker if you remain calm.
Positive Thinking and Visualization
Those with anxiety can often dwell on their worries, and they build and build, only making things worse. Learning to interrupt that cycle of thoughts can be one of the most effective tools for keeping anxiety under control. So when anxious feelings take over, help your child refocus her thoughts on something happy or calming instead. Even simple things – like the excitement of opening a present or rocking in a rocking chair at her grandmother’s house – can be suggested to help calm her anxious mind. Practice this strategy yourself first. If you believe in its ability to help, then you can more effectively walk your child through the process of identifying visualizations that will lead to her own “happy place.”
Parents quickly learn how important it is to practice what we preach, and mindfulness is no different. But when we’re having a particularly tough time, a mantra can help. Here’s an example from Leah: When a meltdown is happening and I’m starting to feel at my wit’s end, I repeat to myself, “this is when he needs me the most.” I am a child therapist with training and experience. And that all seems to go out the window when I’m exhausted and my patience is gone. Having this mantra helps bring me back to a place of patience and understanding. It is my reminder to give my child some grace, that he is four years old, and his brain is not capable of having self-control at all times. He will feel dysregulated at times, and this is normal. So, this is when he needs me the most. Reminding yourself during trying times helps to stay present and focused to help them through it.
Just like you do for your child, give yourself some encouragement when you succeed, and give yourself forgiveness when you feel you’ve failed. But most importantly, keep trying. Mindfulness, for both you and your child, is definitely more achievable with consistent, intentional practice.