Using mindfulness to help children deal with stress

By Susan Cranston – Susan is a mother of two daughters. Her youngest is a Grade 9 student at Sir John A. MacDonald Secondary School. She is a volunteer on the Parent Involvement Committee (PIC) and a Certified Meditation, Yoga and Vedic Educator.


Stressed-out kids

Stress is a result of how we cope or relate to life’s pressures. Some children are better able to tolerate stress than others. These days, children experience stress from a host of different sources. It challenges their coping skills, self confidence and resiliency. Whether in the form of changing routines, sibling conflict, bullying, peer pressure, social media, unrealistic expectations, unhealthy comparisons, or challenging family dynamics, stress can leave children feeling out of control, angry, isolated and unable to effectively problem solve. Many factors can help relieve stress including getting enough sleep, being active and eating healthy. There is also a growing body of research to demonstrate that mindfulness helps children improve their mental health as well as their ability to relax physically.

Mounting mindfulness research

Whether in the workplace, at home or in schools, neuroscientists, educators and therapists report the proven benefits of developing a mindfulness practice. These benefits include increased empathy, compassion, self awareness, optimism and happiness as well as decreased aggression, depression, anxiety and stress.

What exactly is mindfulness?

Before we dive further into the topic, let’s take a moment to define mindfulness. It is the “mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” This dictionary definition might not be as easy to understand as saying something like, “Mindfulness is about paying attention, in this moment, to your thoughts and feelings, what your body feels like including what you hear, see, smell and touch as well as anything else that is happening around you.”

Through mindfulness, we understand how thoughts get translated into emotions that show up in our body and trigger a reaction in our limbic system — the emotion centre of our brain. When we acknowledge that thoughts are just thoughts, we create a window for neurons to run a communication pathway between our wise brain or prefrontal cortex and our emotional brain.

Mindfulness for stress management

Mindfulness helps children improve impulse control, reduce the need to argue or engage in other unhealthy behaviours. It is a powerful method for building self awareness of both their inner and outer experiences and refocuses them on the present moment so the question, “what if?” becomes the awareness of, “what is.”

Here are some mindfulness techniques to try out with your child:

  1. Use your Spidey-Senses. With superhero movies being as popular as they are, it might not be a stretch to ask your child to be like Spider-Man and use his/her spidey-senses (or five senses) to focus on what they see, hear, taste, touch and smell in the present moment.
  2. What’s your weather report today? Just like the weather, our emotions can feel sunny, rainy, cloudy or even stormy. Ask your child to check in with how they are feeling now and share it as a weather report. This example demonstrates that while we can’t change the weather outside, we recognize that how we relate to our feelings is in our control. For example, “You hear the thunder, but recognize that you are not the storm.” or “You might feel frightened, but that doesn’t make you someone who shies away from facing their fears.”
  3. Breathing Buddies. Daniel Goleman, author and science journalist known for his work on emotional intelligence, shares a video, geared toward young children, called breathing buddies. In the video Goleman describes the mindfulness breathing technique where children lie down on their back with a stuffed animal on their belly while watching the rise and fall of their breathing buddy as they breathe in and out.
  4. Squish & Relax. Good for any and all ages, this mindfulness technique involves lying down on your back with closed eyes. From there, it is the process of squishing and squeezing, as tightly as possible, every muscle in the body  Ask your child to start at their toes, and squish and squeeze them as tightly as they can for a few seconds and then release and relax. Next, ask them to tighten and release all the muscles in their legs, back, hands, arms, shoulders and head. The process of squish and relax is intended to loosen up the body and allow the mind to be present.

As a parent, one of the best ways to help your child benefit from mindfulness is to develop your own practice. Children learn by example and if you demonstrate its importance by including mindfulness as part of your emotional self-care toolkit, your child will likely be more willing and eager to follow suit.

  • Susan Cranston

Parent Posts are written by parents, for parents in collaboration with PIC. This series features guest parent bloggers where they share resources and information with other parents. We invite you to email and let us know if there are other topics you’d like to learn more about on Parent Posts.