If your child struggles with anxiety, you’ve probably already heard about the wonders that meditation and mindfulness can do for them. But is mindfulness and meditation effective in calming their anxiety or is it just another craze everyone is talking about? In this article I’ll tell you everything you need to know about mindfulness meditation. You’ll learn:
- What the research says about mindfulness, meditation and children’s anxiety
- Why you should add mindfulness and meditation to your anxious child’s “anxiety toolbox”
- Easy exercises your child can try out to get mindfulness and meditation into their everyday life
- The best onscreen and off-screen resources to incorporate these practices into your home
Meditation and mindfulness for anxious kids: what does the research say?
Although meditation and mindfulness have been around for a while, it was long thought that these practices were not adapted to children because they required them to act in ways in which they were not accustomed (keeping still, focusing for long periods of time, etc.).
It is for this reason that most of the research undertaken on mindfulness and meditation practices has primarily focused on adults and to date, there is still little research on the benefits of these practices for children. That said, an increasing number of researchers have begun to focus on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation for children. The majority of results have found that children who engage in these practices:
- Have an increased level of concentration and focus
- Are better able to deal with stress and anxiety. In other words, these children have better emotion regulation skills
- Have better planning, problem solving and reasoning skills
- Are better decision-makers than those who do not
- Display fewer “problem behaviors”
- Have fewer sleep disturbances
- Have higher self-awareness and empathy
When it comes to dealing with anxious children, several studies suggest that mindfulness can help boost your child’s ability to deal with difficult emotions (emotional regulation) and also reduce their stress and anxiety.
In one study, a group of researchers analyzed the “Attention Academy Program” which had been designed for children with high anxiety. 225 children aged between five- and eight-years-old had participated in this program. The children received 12 sessions revolving around mindfulness and relaxation practices. Each session lasted 45 minutes and the entire training was spread out across 24 weeks. Some of the activities proposed included breathing and movement exercises, bodyscanning and sensory awareness exercises.
The results of the study found major differences among the children who had participated in the program and those who had not. Participants in the program had lower test anxiety, fewer ADHD-related behaviors and more focus and concentration.
In a second study, researchers sought to understand how mindfulness would help decrease depression and anxiety among 17 minority children. The children were divided into two groups: one group received mindfulness interventions and the second group received a health education intervention. The children in the mindfulness group were taught exercises revolving around breathing, mindful movement and generosity. The researchers found that the children who had received mindfulness interventions had lower levels of stress than those who had received health education interventions.
In a third study, researchers employed a mindfulness-based approach to determine how such an approach could improve children’s self-regulation capacities and help reduce stress, behavior problems and poor academic performance. 97 children aged between nine and 10-years-old participated in the study. The children received breathing exercises, yoga interventions and guided meditation practice over a period of 12 weeks. The results found that not only were the participants and the school authorities pleased with the approach, but also the children who had participated in the study had reduced stress levels, less intrusive thoughts and were better able to manage their emotions.
Now that you know that mindfulness and meditation practices are good for your anxious child, how do you introduce them at home? Traditional mindfulness and meditation activities are hard even for adults, so you can imagine how hard they can be for children. The good news is that there are different ways to practice mindfulness that might be more effective for kids. Also, the impact of regular practice is often quickly visible, meaning that your anxious child can start experiencing the benefits of mindfulness quite soon.
Here are 33 easy ways to get started.
33 ways to help your child practice mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress and anxiety
Mindfulness meditation activities focus on helping your child become more aware of their surroundings and their senses: how their body feels, what they can hear, what they can smell, what they can see, and so on. When introducing mindfulness and meditation to young children, it is important to privilege short and regular sessions rather than long and irregular ones. Here are 33 short exercises that you can start doing today:
1) If you have bells of different sizes, ring them and ask your child to identify the sounds that match. This is a relatively common activity in Montessori schools but no worries if you have no bells – help your child distinguish between any different sounds.
2) Ask your child to identify different smells. Sensory exploration is a great mindfulness activity for anxious kids.
3) Have your child close their eyes then ask them to identify objects with different textures by feeling them. You can also blindfold them to make the activity more interesting.
4) Propose a nature walk and ask your child to collect five green things, or five things with different textures, or five different kinds of leaves…
5) Let your child help you in the kitchen when kneading dough. This activity not only stimulates their senses, it is also a great mindfulness activity that can help reduce their stress and anxiety. You can also propose playdough activities for individual play.
6) Give your child a bowl filled with grains and let them experience how those grains feel as they slip them though their fingers.
7) Playing “the silence game” is a great and simple strategy to introduce mindfulness and meditation to your anxious child. Ask them to be silent for a specific period of time and to pay attention to what they hear. When time is up, ask them what they heard during the game.
8) When you are outdoors, ask your child to close their eyes and identify at least four different sounds that they can hear.
9) Blindfold your child or ask them to close their eyes then ask them to identify the different things that you give them to taste.
10) Ask your child to make their body as still as possible and then describe what they feel or hear.
11) Help your child to practice breathing using a pinwheel. When they breathe out, their breathe should turn the pinwheel.
12) Adopt a family gratitude routine. Practicing gratitude is a great activity that can help your child focus on the present. Choose one day a week during which each family member says at least one thing for which they are grateful.
13) Place duct tape on the floor and ask your child to walk on the line. “Walking on the line” is a well-known mindfulness activity practiced in Montessori schools; it is commonly referred to as walking meditation. Ask your child to focus on their feet (the fact of putting one foot before the other) as they walk along the line. This activity can also be carried out outdoors on logs or even pavements if they are safe.
14) Give your child a bell and ask them to walk along a specific path (for example the walking on the line activity mentioned above) without ringing the bell.
15) Introduce a “family meditation tradition” in your home. You can choose a time and a space where each family member gathers for a quiet moment.
16) Essential oils can make mindfulness meditation easier for anxious kids. The available science suggests that the right age-appropriate essential oils can help reduce your child’s stress and anxiety. Having said that, many essential oils are unsafe for children. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about using essential oils with kids.
17) Ask your child to take their favorite teddy (or whatever else they would like) and place it on their belly. Tell them that when they breath in, their teddy should rise and when they breath out, it should fall. This is similar to what Goleman describes as the “Breathing buddy” exercise.
18) Helping your anxious child develop their emotion regulation skills is an easy way to help them practice mindfulness meditation. Strong emotions such as anxiety are manifested in the body in different ways: sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach and so on. Teaching your child to become aware of their “anxious body” is a great way to help them learn to better identify their anxiety and to deal with this emotion more effectively. Age-appropriate tools such as The Emotions Kit can give you the resources you need to talk to your child about difficult emotions.
19) Ask your child to pick a feather and place in or a flat surface such as a table. Tell them to use their breath to move the feather across the table. Instead of a feather, you can also use small pieces of paper or anything else that is sufficiently light.
20) Ask your child to imagine that they are smelling an imaginary flower then ask them to describe what the flower smells like.
21) Ask your child to look around them then ask them to close their eyes and visualize the things that they saw. How many things do they remember seeing?
22) Ask your child to lie on their back and look at the clouds in the sky. What figures can they see?
23) Introduce your child to yoga. There are great yoga resources for kids today. For example, the ThinkFun Yoga Spinner Yoga Game is a great tool for introducing your anxious child to mindfulness meditation. Your child is expected to spin the spinner and perform the pose on the corresponding Yoga Pose Card, then to hold steady for 10 seconds to keep that card.
24) Adopting a body-scan meditation routine is an easy way to introduce a stressed or anxious child to mindfulness meditation. It involves encouraging your child to pay attention to the different parts of their body. For example, you can ask them to lie down, close their eyes, and focus on their toes, then on their feet, then on their legs, etc.
25) Art and craft projects are great for helping children practice mindfulness because of the focus and concentration that they require.
26) I bet you’ve already heard of the “Pop It craze”. Well, as it turns out, squeezing or popping activities can be great tools to help your child practice mindfulness meditation. Simply get them the latest fidgets and let them grab one when they feel the need to calm down.
27) Blowing bubbles is an activity many kids enjoy, and it is also a great meditation mindfulness activity for helping your anxious child concentrate on something other than their anxiety. You can ask them to imagine that the bubbles are their worries disappearing as they blow them away.
28) Try guided meditation activities. Headspace and Stop, Breathe and Think are great apps that can help you child practice guided meditation.
29) Simply talking to your child and asking them about the events they experienced during their day is a great activity to help them focus on specific moments. You can ask them about: something that made them sad, something that made them laugh, something that made them mad, and so on.
30) Ask your child to listen to the sounds around them and pick out only one sound that they hear repeatedly.
31) Mandalas are great activities if you want to help your anxious child practice mindfulness. They repetitive actions required help your child concentrate, focus on the present moment and find calm. You can easily make your own mandalas or get books here (for younger kids) or here (from age 4 and above).
32) Ask your child to think of their favorite person and imagine that they are writing them a letter. Ask them to imagine what they would like to say.
33) Calming jars are effective tools for helping anxious children find calm through mindfulness meditation. When your child is feeling anxious, they can shake the jar and watch it to calm down. The best thing about these jars is that they are really simple to make. Here are simple instructions to make a glitter jar at home:
- Grab an empty transparent jar and fill it with warm water (about a third of the jar).
- Add glitter glue and a few drops of color (food color is great) and stir.
- Add glitter of your choice.
- Fill up the jar with the remaining warm water.
How to make mindfulness and meditation practice more effective for anxious children
- Incorporate “mindfulness moments” throughout the day. Incorporating regular moments to help your child find calm is more effective than proposing meditation mindfulness activities on an irregular basis. This can look like: a short breathing exercise in the morning, a kneading session and short yoga exercises in the afternoon and a bodyscan as a daily night-time routine.
- Privileging short sessions increases the chances that your child will adopt these practices. Remember that you can always increase session duration when your children are more comfortable with mindfulness and meditation exercises. Also, do not insist if your anxious child is not interested in a specific mindfulness meditation exercise. Take a break if necessary, then try an activity more in line with their interests.
- Make mindfulness meditation part of your child’s everyday routines. There are many activities that you can incorporate into your child’s daily routines such as yoga exercises, bodyscanning, a gratitude routine, and so on. This can make it easier to a adopt mindfulness practices with your anxious child.
- The more your child thinks that mindfulness meditation activities are fun, the more likely they will be to adopt those activities.
- It is important to give explicit instructions when you are starting out with mindfulness meditation practices (“make your body as still as possible, what do you hear”? “When you breathe in, the hand/object on your belly should rise”).
- Practice mindfulness meditation yourself. We know that our children learn many things by watching us, meaning that your child is more likely to try something that they have already seen you doing. Also, it is easier to teach them about mindfulness when you are familiar with different practices.
- It is important to teach your anxious child mindfulness meditation during calm moments rather than when they are stressed or anxious about something. Once they are familiar with different techniques, you can start incorporating these techniques into their “anxiety toolbox”.
- Anxiety in children is always a response to a trigger in their environment. Your child may be anxious because they are scared of jumping into the pool or because they are scared that they won’t make any friends in their new school. It is important to identify these triggers because the faster you child acts, the easier it is for them to avoid an emotional meltdown.
Meditation and mindfulness are great tools for helping anxious children deal with their anxiety, but they alone are not sufficient. If you have an anxious child, helping them learn to identify different emotions is an important step that will enable them to better manage big emotions. Emotional awareness is not an innate characteristic that children are born with: they must be taught to identify how different emotions feel in the body and helped to construct an “anxiety toolbox” that they can use to better deal with anxiety. If you need help, The Emotions Kit has all the resources you need to help your child learn to identify big emotions, understand how those emotions feel in the body, and select strategies that they can use to better manage those emotions.
So where do you go from here?
- Pick several of the exercises above and try them out with your child. Remember that children may find certain exercises difficult when they are just starting out so be patient but do not insist if there is a specific exercise that they are reluctant to do.
- There are many wonderful books that can teach your child about living in the present moment. While these books may not appear to focus specifically on mindfulness and meditation, they convey strong messages on mindfulness. The Important Book, The Lion and the Little Red Bird and The Story of Ferdinand are all great books with messages about peace, kindness, friendship and the importance of everyday things.
- Mindfulness and meditation apps are an easy and fun way to help your child get started with these practices. Here are several child-friendly apps you might want to check out:
Breathe, Think, Do With Sesame
This free research-based app is designed to help young children develop skills such as calming down and problem-solving. Your child helps a monster friend calm down by taking long, deep breaths
Sleep meditations for kids
Sleep meditations for kids is the perfect app if you struggle with bedtime battles! This app transforms bedtime stories into guided meditations that help your child relax and sleep peacefully.
Mindful Powers™ is an award-winning app designed to teach children struggling with anxiety or concentration issues. This play-based app helps them practice calming their own Flibbertigibbet™, a cute virtual pet. It uses voice-guided stories to teach your child about managing emotions and about the powers of mindfulness.
Breathing Bubbles is a great app for helping anxious children. It uses visualization exercises to teach them about meditation and mindfulness. Manny the Manatee helps them practice releasing worries and focusing on good feelings through deep breathing exercises and visualization.
Headspace for Kids
The Headspace app proposes breathing and meditation exercises, tutorials, guided relaxations, soothing sounds and visualizations for different age groups.
The app also has short sessions and simple techniques for young children. Headspace also proposes a family subscription, meaning that your entire family can enjoy the app.
Mindfulness and meditation practices are great for all children, and they are especially helpful for anxious children. The good news is that even short sessions can do wonders for your child within a relatively short period of time.