Mindfulness for kids: ‘Right now, I’m OK’

Even as an adult, sorting out some of life’s biggest feelings — whether it’s frustration, annoyance or grief — can be difficult. As a kid, those feelings can feel even bigger.

We know mindfulness can help us find a place of calm and understanding as adults. And there’s nothing stopping us from teaching our children the same techniques in ways they can understand.

Susan Kaiser Greenland, an educator with 30 years of training in meditation, works with children to teach them mindfulness and has written several books that guide others in doing the same.

How would you explain to a child what mindfulness is?

Susan Kaiser Greenland: Paying attention with kindness and curiosity to yourself, other people and the world around you.

How do people, and specifically kids, benefit from mindfulness?

Kaiser Greenland: The first thing is that kids and their parents become more aware of their nervous system and what happens when their nervous system gets worked up. Then they learn tools on how to settle and ground themselves.

A lot of the mindfulness you see stops there. And that’s OK, because that’s a huge thing. But the real meat of it is that mindfulness introduces these themes that help you see the world in a different way — through a lens of kindness, openness and empathy.

How can children’s struggle be helped by mindful activities?

Kaiser Greenland: Usually when a kid is struggling, it starts with big feelings. One of the things that happens with big feelings is that we tend to notice the big feelings that are expressed like tantrums, right? But for some people that same big feeling results in withdrawing. Either way, it’s the same big feeling — the difference is just how a particular person responds to it.

We notice the big feelings and how we respond to them, and then we have these strategies that help us settle so that the big feelings aren’t taking over anymore.

Then we start to put them into perspective. And we start to see that they’re not really solid, they’re not just one thing, and that they’re always changing. We let go of these strong attachments to these perceptions and remember if we’re just patient, the feelings are going to change.

Are there any activities for children to self-soothe when an adult isn’t there?

Kaiser Greenland: Slogans are really helpful. They’re just words that you remind yourself. One that is very helpful is just to remind yourself: “Right now, I’m OK. Right now, I may be worried about what is going to happen in the future or something lousy that might have happened in the past, but right now, I’m OK.”

What can we do as a grounding exercise for when kids feel overwhelmed?

Kaiser Greenland: If you have a strong emotion, one of the general rules for helping you handle a strong emotion, whether you’re four or 40 is to move — because there’s kind of a nervous energy that gets stored up.

One thing you can do is “shaking.” You just shake your arms and your legs for just a little bit, as long as it feels good; and then you stop. You put your hand on your stomach and you feel your breathing a little bit.

And once you feel grounded, you can shake again. And you can repeat that a couple of times. This toggling between controlled movement and stillness has a way of calming you down.

How can we help children get in touch with their breath?

Kaiser Greenland: First, you just start breathing naturally, you don’t change your breath in any way. And you just notice what it’s like breathing, in and out. You notice whether your breath is long, short or deep. What does it feel like?

And if you’re working with a little kid, one way to do that is the “Rockabye exercise.” You put something on your tummy, with a little bit of weight like a bean bag or stuffed animal. And you feel your breath, move up and down. And your mind is going to wander, that’s what happens, that’s what minds do. You don’t beat yourself up about it, you just go back to the feeling of the breath.

How can we introduce kids to meditation?

Kaiser Greenland: The pink bubble exercise is amazing. And with that one, you imagine placing whatever is upsetting you into a bubble. It can be pink, but if you’re leading the child through the exercise, you can say, “What color is the bubble, what does it look like? Does it have sparkles on it?”

And whatever is bugging you goes in the bubble, and then you imagine and watch it float away — and you wave goodbye and wish it well. You acknowledge it first; you don’t pretend it didn’t exist. You don’t sweep it under the rug. But it’s about changing your mindset toward it.

Whether you’re a parent or you’re a teacher, the best way to introduce kids to meditation is to meditate yourself, and have them watch how you use meditation in your daily life. And let them see how an adult’s view of the world — behavior and the tone of voice changes when they practice themselves.