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How to Practice Mindfulness With Kids and Teens

A psychologist on how to help kids cope with anxiety

Published on: February 07, 2019

Dad and son having a deep conversation

When Christopher Willard dropped out of college, his parents dragged him to a mindfulness retreat.

“It blew my mind and got me back on track after a difficult few years,” says Willard. 

He eventually studied this new passion while in graduate school, turning his Ph.D. thesis into the book “Child’s Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm, and Relaxed.”

Now a Boston-based psychologist and educational consultant, he’s passionate about bringing mindfulness practices to kids, teens and parents. 

In anticipation of his Feb. 22 talk “Making Mindfulness Stick With Kids and Teens” at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus, we conversed with Willard about practicing mindfulness at home.

How can incorporating mindfulness in a parent’s life help their children?

The way to create mindful kids is to surround them with mindful adults.
If our child is having a tantrum, and we go into fight-or-flight mode, it shuts off our empathy, along with our memory of how to access what we know will help them.

Learning mindfulness practices is about finding more ways to calm our bodies and brains. Then we are better able to come up with solutions and we are not going to say things we regret. Like: "If you don’t do the dishes, I’m going to get rid of the family dog!"

Of course, we are going to mess up or make up a totally unreasonable punishment, but the most important thing we can model for our children is how to resolve a fight.

We want to show our child that we can be upset and still be connected to them. Say you yell, "Stop!" to your child who ran into the street. Then they are scared because you sounded angry. Once you’re calm, you get down at eye level with them and say, "I’m not mad. I was just scared." Soon, everyone calms down and reconnects to each other.

Using mindfulness skills to calm yourself so that you can help your child means they won’t feel shame and fear every time they walk into the street. 

What are two mindfulness practices for teenagers?

For teenagers, we need to fit mindfulness into their lives and interests. Athletic directors and drama teachers talk to me after my presentations because they’ve used similar tools to help students regulate anxiety on the playing field or onstage.

If they’re worried about their college interview, teens will be interested in learning a breathing tool. If a teen is having a brain freeze during a test, a way to re-focus is to listen to sounds far away and then zoom into sounds close by.

I also tell teenagers that the people everyone wants to be around are the ones who are really present. That presence is also called charisma, and it draws people to you.

By the time young adults are out of college, one in four of their friends will have had a panic attack. They can offer that friend the 7-11 breathing regulation tool: Breath in for a count of seven and out for a count of 11. 

Another very simple idea to pass on is the fact that our senses are in the present moment. Our brain might get stuck in the past or the future, but doing the dishes, taking a shower, listening to music mindfully, changing the temperature in the room or even turning the light off will short-circuit the brain, putting us back into the present moment and helping us become calmer.   

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