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Mindfulness and Children

Mindfulness has become one of the hottest words in the mental health field, and within popular culture as well.  Interest and participation in mindfulness-based activities such as meditation, yoga, tai chi and Qi-gong are skyrocketing.  Within the therapy room, a similar surge in popularity is being seen as more and more clinicians begin adopting mindfulness-based approaches in their work, either by using manualized mindfulness-based treatment interventions such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), or by incorporating mindfulness practices such as various forms of meditation or yoga in an integrative fashion.

Regardless of the particular mindfulness-based method or technique used, the core teachings are similar.  Mindfulness-techniques aim to improve one’s ability to stay present in the moment, to reduce distractions from past or future-oriented thoughts or fears, and to increase one’s awareness of their bodily sensations as well as their thoughts and feelings.  Crucially, mindfulness advocates taking a non-judgmental stance to this awareness.  In other words, the more one learns to pay attention to their thoughts, feelings, and body states, the more they also learn to avoid judging any particular thought or feeling as good or bad.  This can be particularly helpful for those suffering from depression or anxiety, in which the internal monologue of thoughts can frequently exacerbate a person’s distress.

Mindfulness-based methods, despite being around for thousands of years in various forms across the world, have begun infiltrating the practice of psychology only in the last few decades following the groundbreaking work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the late 1970’s.  The numerous positive effects of mindfulness-based methods for adult populations have since been increasingly well documented, and include increased subjective well-being, reduced emotional reactivity, reduced levels of physiological stress, and improved behavioral regulation.

Adults are not the only ones who can benefit from mindfulness-based techniques.  Children and adolescents have also been found to react positively to a mindful approach as well.  While research on mindfulness and children is relatively nascent, results thus far appear promising.  For example, studies with adolescents have found that mindfulness-based methods can improve cardiovascular functioning, academic performance, and internalizing and externalizing symptoms of anxiety.  In addition, it has been suggested that the tenants of mindfulness may prove especially helpful in improving children’s memory, attention, focus and self-control.

Utilizing a mindfulness-based approach with children requires the clinician to modify or adapt mindfulness techniques or exercises to be developmentally appropriate for the client’s age.  For example, while adults may be able to sustain their attention on meditative practice for thirty minutes, most children and adolescents would find it difficult, at least at first, to control their focus to such a degree.  Instead, shorter meditation intervals can be used, such as beginning with three minutes and gradually increasing the time as children gain comfort and mastery.

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In a previously-published article, this author (SM) suggested several mindfulness-based techniques suitable to use with children and adolescents (Mihalas & Witherspoon, 2013).  These recommendations are summarized below:

  • Attempting to focus on internal thoughts or sensations (such as breathing) may be too esoteric a task for children to start mindfulness training with.  One possible alternative is mindful drawing.  In this exercise a child is asked to draw anything they like.  During this time they are instructed to pay special attention to the lines, shapes, and colors which constitute their drawing.  After 10 to 15 minutes, the child is asked to draw the same thing again.  Afterwards they compare the differences in details between the two drawings.  Clinicians can help the child process what it is like to pay particular attention to the small details, which normally we miss due to being on “automatic auto-pilot.”
  • One way to help children or adolescents learn to become more mindful and aware of their surrounding environment is by encouraging their imagination.  Hooker and Fodor (2008) recommend telling children to imagine that their eyes are like looking through the viewfinder of a camera.  What does their lens capture in the world around them?  Similarly, children can be encouraged to imagine they are newspaper reporters, documenting their everyday experiences.  Through these techniques new awareness can be brought onto the minutia of our surroundings, such that previously hidden beauty becomes much more noticeable, and the child gains experience in focusing their awareness on the present moment.
  • Finally, mindful texting can be particularly helpful for teens.  One of the goals of mindfulness is to increase the space in between a stimulus (such as a person snapping at us, or a negative thought) and our reaction (e.g., snapping back or becoming angry at ourselves). Texting provides a simple and concrete example in which to practice this skill.  Teens are encouraged to “check in” with themselves when each text is received: Do they feel a particular urge to respond right away to texts from a specific person?  What kinds of emotions, thoughts, and feelings does a particular text illicit in them, and why?  What are their different options for responding?  Teens are encouraged to view their texts as responses instead of reactions.  Skills learned in this method can then easily be generalized to in-person social interactions.

One of the great attributes of mindfulness-based methods is that they can be seen as adjunctive to other interventions or styles of treatment.  The core mindfulness virtues of self-awareness, compassion, non-judgment and patience can be seen as beneficial skills to develop regardless of one’s theoretical orientation or temperament.  While mindfulness-based techniques may not be a catch-all method to cure any presenting issue for any population, they do appear to be powerful and increasingly validated methods to enhance one’s quality of life.

Be mindful,

Dr. Stephanie

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