Meditation and Mindfulness for Kids
By Audrey Stempel, PhD

What is mindfulness and why is it important not only for adults, but for children as well? Mindfulness, in very simple terms is focusing on the present moment, taking it one step at a time. When you are eating, pay attention to your eating; when you are walking, pay attention to your walking; when you are playing, pay attention to your playing and so on. It is not worrying about the past or the future and clearing your mind enough to focus. Learning to clear the mind helps us to stay present and helps to calm not only our minds, but our bodies as well. Once we have learned to calm our minds, we can approach our daily stressors with the clarity needed to “think it through.” The whole idea about breathing is to get your child to calm down so that they can think. I use the phrase “Stop - Breathe - Think” when needing to make a good choice.

In order to change their anxious thoughts, children first have to calm down to be able to stop their anxious thoughts. Then they can decide whether their thinking is “reasonable” or “unreasonable.” Once they have cleared their minds and calmed down, they can challenge their unreasonable thinking and reframe their thoughts or make a plan. Now they are able to get rid of their anxious thoughts.
"When my brain is hot
I cannot think
And my choices aren't good
But when I breathe
And cool it down
I think the way I should."
In order to help children calm down, it is important for them to practice their breathing and meditation. Meditation has many benefits including: improving memory, focus and attention,  managing stress and improving sleep. By practicing meditation, children learn to identify their “calm space” and then they are able to find it when they need to slow down and calm down, which often helps them change the way they are thinking or make a better choice.

So, what’s a calm space? It’s defined differently for each person but it’s really just a feeling. It’s the “ahhh” feeling you get sometimes when you take a warm bubble bath or a hot shower. By practicing meditation and the relaxation breathing, a child becomes familiar with feeling calm. The more a child practices, the quicker they can get calm because it is a familiar feeling to them. That’s their calm space.

There are many different ways to meditate. It’s important to remember that children especially need some guidance in meditating because although they are creative, they often have difficulty sustaining their concentration especially if they are anxious. Therefore, guided meditation is very helpful for them and there are apps for Smartphones that can help. A few that I recommend are Calm, Headspace and Mindworks. Children enjoy the directed meditation provided by these apps and it helps them to pay attention and stay on track, all while learning to stay calm. By listening to a directed meditation they are distracted from the everyday concerns they have. Children are used to paying attention to instruction, so listening to someone direct their meditation is in keeping with what they do at school. It’s a nice way to tap into their “electronic age” because they get to “plug in” when in actuality they are plugging into themselves.

These apps also give children a choice as to how long they want to meditate. I advise children to start with 3-5 minutes and then increase as time allows or as they begin to enjoy the act of meditation. This feature is great because it allows children to take some control about how long they want to meditate depending on their schedule. Once children have established a routine of listening and begin to appreciate their calmness, it is easier for them to replicate their “calm space” without listening.

Children work very hard all day. They have to listen, pay attention, sit still, transition and socialize appropriately. Just as we recharge our electronic devices, we too need to recharge our inner selves and re-energize. Meditation is how we can do that by plugging into ourselves and increasing our self-awareness.
In my practice, I teach children 4 meditative phrases from the work of Thich Nhat Hanh including:

  1. On the inhale: I calm my whole body. On the exhale: My whole body is calm
  2. On the inhale: I see myself blooming like a flower. On the exhale: I feel fresh
  3. On the inhale: I see myself as a mountain. On the exhale: I feel solid
  4. On the inhale: I see myself as space. On the exhale: I feel free.

We then shorten it up to be:
• body/calm
• flower/fresh
• mountain/solid
• space/free

Kids can change the words if they like, some kids like mountain-strong instead.  I have kids try to visualize their favorite flower and to see the color of the flower while they say flower/fresh. We talk about how a mountain doesn’t really change no matter whether it is snowing or raining and how all the creatures on the mountain still don’t change it, because it is solid.  In that way, they can see how they can be solid regardless of what happens and stay calm. It helps children to feel powerful and strong and have faith in themselves. When we do space/free I have kids visualize themselves in a bubble floating through air. They can make their bubble any color they like and inside their bubble it’s quiet and calm and peaceful and safe.
Audrey D. Stempel, PhD has been a practicing clinical psychologist for over 13 years.  She specializes in children and adolescents as well as parent management training.   Her practice includes children with ADHD, high function autism, anxiety, and behavioral problems.  She has extensive training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as well as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.  She works with her goldendoodle therapy dog, Mickey.