The short version?
- They sleep better
- They confide more of their feelings in you
- They calm down quicker (no, mindfulness is not the way to have calm children all the time, sorry if that's what you want!)
I was intrigued by evidence that children need mindfulness as much as adults do, so I decided to spend five minutes a day (sometimes less) using mindfulness techniques with my children, and began to notice tangible changes within just a week. Keep reading to find out more about the techniques I used and how they worked.
The longer read...
I have four children; a teenage girl, a pre-teen boy and two young twin girls. I've been practising mindfulness for 12 years but only began practicing with them over the last two years.
Lets begin with the main reasons I actually moved from wanting to practice with them to actually practicing with them. I'd started to feel like there was always one child missing out on some attention. I worried that when the children were sad or anxious, I didn't really understand an effective way to help them release their anxiety. I also felt like I was failing because I couldn't empower them with a way to help themselves when other children were unkind at school. I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by the fact that at least one of them would get up every night, and my lack of sleep meant that I felt unable to be as kind as I would like to be and had no "space in my head" to work out a way to make it better.
Most of my working life has been spent on projects which help organisations and people to create habits for increasing effectiveness and satisfaction. This meant that I had learnt from various scientific studies that anything I did would have to meet this criteria;
- aim low
- feel easy
- do at same time of day
- had already been proven to work by others so I really believed in it - motivation
I started by asking the children to practice as part of mealtimes, before pudding, as an incentive. This took the form of a Tiny Pause - 4 mindful breaths. This went okay, but felt more like an opportunity for the children to demonstrate how ridiculous they could make 4 breaths sound/be/last. Plus my plan of fitting into a daily routine meant that none of them were really getting the high quality attention they needed, or thought they needed, from me.
My next plan was bedtime. I would do a guided mindfulness practice with them (all parents taking our Mindful Parenting learn to do this, its really quite simple once you have the technique). I would do this at bedtime for the youngest three (individually, apart from the twins). This initially lasted 10 minutes or less, which I shortened to around 5 minutes because I felt too tired.
This worked really well - mindfulness lends itself to a moment when children naturally want to relax. Within four days they were asking me to do it! Within a week I noticed that they were all sleeping through the night (wake up times before had been 3-4 times per night, first week of mindfulness this dropped to just once a night).
I was so pleased with this promising start. But I also wanted them to confide in me the stuff they were anxious about. (You know when your child is anxious and you ask them if they want to talk about it and they just shake their head? No matter what you do for them, in that moment you feel like you're failing, you feel like the truth is out, that "I am a rubbish parent"). The technique of mindful listening would be my next approach.
I decided that aiming to do this everyday with all children was unrealistic for me. So I just aimed for one child a day. After school before supper, I would sit down, ask them to sit with me. Wait and listen. (Mindful listening is a recognized practice with an incredibly easy method). This was much harder than I expected as I was very tempted to ask, or prompt them in some way. Sometimes we would cuddle, sometimes we would just be next to each other on the sofa. No screens on around us.
So if I could keep from trying to guess the root of their problems or asking them all the questions I had tried before (its amazing how as parents, we know some things aren't effective but we just keep repeating the same behaviours hoping, like a miracle, it will change the outcome). Anyway with my lips kept firmly shut and my attention focused on them, something magical began to happen...
They would just start telling me stuff. From what they had just been building with lego or who had done what/ said what at school both funny and sad things. This continued. They began to express more of their feelings. The quieter I kept, the more they would share. Although sometimes they would ask me, "Dad, why are we sitting here?", I would reply “ because I love you and want to be with you", with the simple reply "Oh, ok." And then after a short pause, "I'm going to go and play". So this moment of mindful listening would last between 1-5 minutes, depending on what they felt like saying. I would always leave it to them to end that moment (although I confess to sometimes finding my attention drifting, to what I will make for supper, or why the school couldn't do choir at a time that meant we could get to swimming, or why was there new bit of pen on the wall...you know the drill).
And I noticed something else. I felt better. I felt better because I was making it clear, really clear through my actions, that I loved them, that I was making time to give them high quality attention. Sure it was short. But I least I did it and it was definitely an improvement from “ yes thats lovely", while work my way through house chores or “ I'm just in the middle of something can't you go and play? “ hoping, but knowing, they really don’t understand why I couldn't just be with them.
Although it may seem obvious, it's important to understand that part of the success was down to me feeling a bit better about me. Less internal criticism meant a reduction in exploding moments, when I shout because I’ve had it up to here (imagine my hand well above my head!) with all parts of life; work, play, relationships.
It's now routine for us, and has helped with exams, best friends falling out school, new teachers, general arguments, school productions, even football matches.
Click here to find out more about Mindful Parenting at Camyoga