Empowering Kids with Mindful Awareness (998 words)
By Katherine Davis-Gibbon
If I asked a room full of parents to identify the most formative figure in their child’s early life, the majority would point to themselves. After all, we are the ones who attend to our kids’ basic needs. We are there when they go to sleep and again when they wake. We can scarcely carve out the time to make a phone call, take a shower, or use the toilet without fielding some sort of question, comment, exclamation, request, or demand! As parents, we feel the gaze of impressionable eyes on us around the clock and strive to be the best companions and role models we possibly can.
But if you stop and think about it, there is someone your kids spend even more time with than you: someone who is literally always there, who they can never escape, not even for a second. That someone is themselves—their inner selves–who they experience through the stream of consciousness (aka self-talk) that flows through their minds.
Thoughts bubble up constantly, whether we like them or not. They join hands and form narratives, like children at a park, who become fast friends and create wonderful, elaborate games together, despite never having previously met. These stories are typically rooted in something tangible–a memory from the past or an idea about the foreseeable future—which the mind expands upon, to create something new. One child might clutch a fear to his chest and run with it, as fast and far as he can. Another might chew on some old memory–pulling it apart and piecing it back together, like a collage—overprocessing it, in her attempts to understand.
Whatever narrative a child is left with can be extremely compelling, especially if the body gets involved. When kids physically respond to whatever virtual reality is playing out in their minds, imagined events can feel nearly as imminent as the real thing. A child’s heart may race in anticipation of something scary or exciting, like getting a shot, performing in a recital, or playing a soccer match—long before the big event has arrived. So, too, may their heart race at the thought of a monster under the bed, even though they have never seen this monster and understand intellectually that it is not real. In this way, a single, seemingly random thought can snowball into full-blown belief, which is difficult to reason with or back away from—especially for children, whose imaginations are so wonderfully wild and free.
So how do we guide the awesome, generative power of children’s minds to ensure that it helps, rather than hinders them? How do we validate kids’ thoughts and feelings, without allowing them to spiral out of control?
It all boils down to awareness. When a child is able to climb outside their thought and stand to one side of it, they gain the perspective necessary to see it for what it really is: just a thought that their mind created–nothing less and nothing more. Instead of feeling abject terror, a kid can say to themself, “Yikes! That was a scary thought!” Instead of acting out, a child can articulate, “Boy, am I mad!”
As children grow more adept at observing and naming their thoughts, they learn to differentiate between helpful impulses and unhelpful ones. They can weigh up the potential of a troubling thought, which makes them feel small and sad, against that of an awesome idea, which fills them with excitement and pride. Then, fortified with this deeper understanding and acceptance of self, they can coach themselves through pivotal moments, consciously choosing to invest more energy in thoughts that are productive, and less in those that hold them down.
This is what mindfulness is: the “awareness,” per Jon Kabat-Zinn, “that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment … in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.” The practice is neither too complicated nor esoteric for children, who are naturally curious and excellent observers—who delight in showing adults all they are capable of, and switching roles sometimes, so they can teach us!
This brings me to an important point. Mindfulness is not just good for children; it is equally useful for the adults who are raising them, because we also project into the future and rehash the past. We, too, exaggerate on occasion–blowing things out of proportion, wasting time and energy on events that are long gone or will never come to be. We tend to worry most about our kids, precisely because of how much we care. We “care” in the passive sense of feeling deeply for our children and wishing for their happiness, safety, and well-being–but also in the active sense of pouring our resources into them. As caregivers, we are perpetually tired and juggling hats–riding the rollercoaster of our kids’ temperamental moods, which trigger us even as they beg for response. Ideally, we want to meet these moments with level heads and open hearts, so that we are best equipped to show up for our kids, and freest to enjoy them. Mindfulness helps parents do just that. It enhances our mental and emotional agility, so we can demonstrate great strength one minute and tremendous flexibility the next.
Instead of framing mindfulness as a skill to teach your kids, I would encourage parents to embrace it as a way of life that families practice together. When each member of a household aspires to pay closer attention to what is happening, both inside and outside themselves, communication improves for everyone involved. Individuals speak more authentically from the heart and appreciate how well others are listening. Will every family member get it right every single time? Of course not! But each time someone gets carried away by a thought, emotion, or narrative, the group’s collective commitment to mindfulness helps tug them back into orbit alongside their loved ones—like a kind of gravity that helpfully reorients people, again and again, when family dynamics go topsy turvy.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Defining Mindfulness: What is mindfulness? The founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Explains.” Mindful.org, Mindful Communications, 11 January 2017 https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/#:~:text=The%20Definition%20of%20Mindfulness%3A,self%2Dunderstanding%20and%20wisdom.%E2%80%9D