Introducing Mindfulness Practice to Children

Research indicates that mindfulness practice helps children increase their emotional regulation, ability to demonstrate empathy, and ability to focus on an activity.  When children practice mindfulness, the part of the brain the controls executive functioning, the prefrontal cortex, is activated.  You can think of the prefrontal cortex like the air traffic control center of the brain.  This part of our brain helps us to see the big picture, understand cause and effect, make good decisions, and plan.  All skills which are essential to leading a happy, successful life and developing meaningful relationships with others.

Introducing the practice of mindfulness to children is one of the best ways that parents can equip children to develop strong executive functioning skills.  In some children with ADHD, mindfulness practice is as effective as medication in reducing symptoms.  Mindfulness also has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents as well as adults. little girl meditating in park

So, what is mindfulness?  Mindfulness refers to the ability to fully present and connected to one’s body in the present moment.  There are many different ways to practice mindfulness and no one right way.  The right way to do anything is always the way that works best for you and your family.  One of my favorite ways to introduce mindfulness to children is by using a fun practice called the “Mindfulness Minute.”  In the “Mindfulness Minute,” the parent or teacher sets a timer for exactly one minute.  During that minute, the parent or teacher and the child take deep breaths and try to focus just on breathing and being fully present.  I often use a river analogy with children before setting the timer.  It goes something like this:

“Imagine that you are in a beautiful forest.  You can see a river running through theforest and there are trees on both sides.  Every time a thought comes into your mind, imagine placing the thought gently into the river and watch it float away. Know that you can come back to the thought later, at any time.  The thoughts will still be there, in the river.  For right now, just notice that the thoughts are there and just allow them to float away.” 

Then set the timer.  For little ones, even a minute of just breathing is going to be quite tricky at first! That is ok.  This is a judgment free zone! Encourage your little one to notice how it feels to be still and quiet and then try again tomorrow.  Like so many other things, mindfulness is a practice and the more a child has the opportunity to practice, the better they will get at allowing their mind to be still.

Make space to practice the “Mindfulness Minute” with your children or students on a regular basis.  By intentionally practicing these skills during calm times, you can help your child strengthen their ability to access these skills during more challenging moments.

I’d love to hear from you.  What’s your favorite way to incorporate mindfulness practice into your child’s routine?  Leave a comment below or come on over to Facebook and share!

Introduce Mindfulness Practice to Children Using The Mindfulness Minute

Things I Know For Sure… Volume 1

Over the years, I have picked up various pieces of knowledge and wisdom as I navigate this crazy journey of life.  In this series, I will share a few things each week that I know for sure.  Here’s my disclaimer: I never say never.  I’ve learned my lesson on that one.  I’m pretty sure the reverse is true too.  So, while I am sharing what I know to be true, at the time that I am writing, few things are ever certain and truth can change.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the things I think I know for sure adapt and evolve over time as things tend to do.  In fact, I’d be surprised if they didn’t! So, take these truths with a grain of salt and know that you can hold on to ideas that speak to you and just let the rest go.  All of these things will be related to parenting or infant and early childhood mental health in some way or another.

So here’s what I know for sure, today…

  • Balance is not static. In fact, it’s kind of a slippery little bugger, always shifting and wiggling and just when you think you’ve gotten ahold of it, it’s gone again.  I am pretty sure that this is something that can be embraced and celebrated, but I’m not quite sure that I’m evolved enough to know how to do that just yet.  For the time being, I will keep grasping for the elusive ideal and try to remember to soak up all the joy in the madness when I can.
  • “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I’m not actually sure this is true 100% of the time, but I do know that it definitely can be true at times.  When we compare ourselves – our bodies, our parenting, our families, our relationships, our careers – to other people, we are comparing apples and oranges.  We know the messy, behind-the-scenes craziness of our own lives all too well.  Often, when we compare, we are comparing that behind-the-scenes view of our lives to someone else’s image, not their real life.  Think about Facebook for a second – what you see posted on each of your friends’ timeline is a carefully crafted image of the life they want you to THINK they are leading.  There are nuggets of truth in there, sure, but very rarely do you see the whole unedited, uncensored reality posted online.  My family and I recently went on a weekend trip.  What my friends saw on Facebook: beautiful beaches, arcade games, dressed up dinners, and lots of family fun.  What no one saw: My full-on panic attack the morning before we left because my four-year-old would.not.stop.screaming, my horrible packing job that left me having to buy new pajamas at an overpriced boardwalk shop, the borderline skeevy hotel room.  Those things are real; they happened and I’m not ashamed of them.  At the same time, they’re not part of the story that I want to share with all of my extended family, distant relatives, and high school friends either.  When you’re tempted to envy someone else’s perfect life, remind yourself that they’re only showing you what they want you to see and chances are, they’re behind the scenes view is just as messy as your own.
  • Parenting is not survivable without a sense of humor. Parenting is challenging, difficult, messy, hilarious.  Go ahead and laugh at it.  It’s probably fair to tell you that not laughing when I shouldn’t laugh is my biggest parenting fail.  Sometimes, it’s just SO funny.  Go ahead and embrace it.

Holiday Season Sanity Savers for Parents

Find Time to Soothe Your Soul and Save Your Sanity this Holiday Season

Ahhhhh, the holidays.  I absolutely love the holiday season.  It’s that lovely time of year filled with magic, wonder, excitement, and joy.  Unfortunately, there’s a downside too.  For both children and parents, the holidays often also come with lots of overwhelm, overstimulation, and dysregulation.  Amidst the presents, the wrapping, the baking, the in-laws, and all of the seemingly never-ending holiday to-do’s, how is a parent to keep their sanity?!

Let me ask you a question – what soothes your soul?  Maybe it’s yoga or meditation or time for stillness and quiet.  Maybe it’s a nice hot bath or a run in the snow.  Maybe you’re the kind of person who recharges when you spend time in the company of good friends.  Close your eyes and think about it for a minute.  What truly makes you feel better when everything feels like chaos?

Have you decided on your soul balm?  Ok, great.  Now, make MORE time for it.  I know that this seems like an impossibility in the middle of the busiest time of the year.  And yet, I also know that because this is the busiest time of the year, this is also the time in which taking care of ourselves first is most important.

You know how when you’re on an airplane, the flight attendants tell you, “If you’re traveling with a child, please put your own oxygen mask on first and then help your child?”  Well, it’s like that in life too.   If you are struggling to manage the frenetic pace of the season and feeling frazzled and off balance, you’re not being the best parent you can be to your little ones.  I don’t say that to induce guilt – just to highlight the fact that even in the middle of the craziness, what our children need most is US.  When the holidays have come and gone, what children remember is not the amazing gifts from Santa, or the impeccable wrapping jobs, or what was in their stocking.  What children remember, is the time they spent with their family.  They remember how it felt to make cookies together for Santa and how fun it was to go look at Christmas lights together.  What they remember is what they FEEL.  Think back to your own Christmas memories? I bet you remember one or two special gifts that you received, but mostly, what you remember is probably how the holidays made you feel.  Hopefully you have memories of feelings warm, loved, and cherished. Now, fast forward to the future. When your children look back on this holiday season, what do you want them to remember?  How do you want them to remember you?

So, to be that best version of yourself in your relationship with your children this holiday season, it is essential to make time for the things that soothe your own soul and fill your own cup.  What might that look like for you?  For me, it looks like getting up a whole hour earlier than I normally would.  What that time is used for varies depending on the day, but it’s typically a combination of meditation, yoga, journaling, and planning.  Not a morning person? Maybe you have time during your lunch break at work or during baby’s nap time to give yourself a few minutes of soul time.  If you’re a night owl, maybe you can stay up and savor some time after the little ones are tucked away in bed.  There is no one right way to do this, but it is important to figure out what will work for you consistently.  Don’t get too caught up in thinking you need a certain amount of time.  Don’t have an hour?  Start where you are, do what you can.  Take 10 minutes or 5 if that’s all you can manage.  5 minutes to just breathe deeply and experience stillness could be so healing in the middle of the holiday busyness.

Slow down.  Remind yourself to focus on what is most important.  Wishing you the most beautiful, magical, and peaceful holiday season.

The Social-Emotional Needs of Infants and Toddlers

Whenever I work with a childcare provider, preschool teacher, or parent, I am always thinking about social-emotional development through the framework of the 10 social-emotional needs of infants and toddlers, as outlined in the Promoting First Relationships curriculum.  I like to say that these are actually the social-emotional needs of all humans, but take a look at the video and let me know what you think.

For healthy social-emotional development, infants and toddlers need:

  1. To feel safe and secure
  2. To feel worthy and loved
  3. To feel acknowledged and understood
  4. To feel noticed and receive attention
  5. To feel a sense of predictability
  6. To understand and be able to manage upset feelings
  7. To feel a sense of control
  8. To feel safe and stimulated in exploration
  9. To feel competent
  10. To have mutually enjoyable relationships and feel a sense of belonging

The ways in which you meet these needs, as a parent or caregiver, often overlaps.  One strategy or interaction has the ability to – and usually does – meet more than one of them.  When these needs are met on a consistent basis, children develop a strong sense of self-esteem and resilience.  Take a look a the video for some ideas on how to meet each need and then let me know, what do you think is the most important way that you meet your child’s social-emotional needs?

The 10 social emotional needs of infants and toddlers

Dear Parents, Please Stop Making Your Screaming Babies Sit on Santa’s Lap

Dear Parents, Please Stop Making Your Screaming Babies Sit on Santa's Lap

Dear Parents,

I am aware that this is bound to be an unpopular opinion, but please, hear me out.  Please stop making your screaming babies sit on Santa’s lap.  I know, I know.  It’s the holidays and who doesn’t want a cute picture of their little one sitting on the big guy’s lap to commemorate this holiday season? I get it. It’s tradition.  Everyone else is doing it. And what if you didn’t have any pictures of your child with Santa to show them when they’re all grown up?  Here’s the thing, though… If your baby is screaming while you place him on Santa’s lap and slowly back away, is that really the kind of treasured holiday memory you want to have?

The other day I had to go to Walmart for some last-minute birthday supplies.  While I was there, I noticed that there was an (actually, really authentic looking) Santa and Mrs. Clause taking photos with children.  Parent after parent was lining up to place their little one on Santa’s lap quick enough to back away and snap a photo before the kiddo could launch him or herself off of Santa.  I watched as parents smiled at their children, verbally reassuring them, “Mommy’s right here!”  “Daddy’s here, honey, smile!”  And the children were crying and screaming and reaching for their parents and sending every possible signal they could think of to communicate that they were afraid and uncomfortable with this scenario.

The key to building a healthy relationship with your baby is through consistently sensitive and responsive caregiving.  This means that you strive to understand and interpret your baby’s non-verbal cues and provide caregiving that is consistent with the messages that your baby is communicating.  When you force your baby to sit on Santa’s lap, despite her obvious protest, you are causing a mini-rupture in the relationship.  In that moment, your child is sending a signal which clearly communicates that he or she is feeling afraid, and for the sake of a photo, you are intentionally ignoring those cues.

Is your child going to be permanently scarred for life because you forced them to sit on Santa’s lap as an infant?  Probably not.  Who knows.  But I do know this, there are enough unintentional mini-ruptures in the course of the parent-child relationship on a daily basis that it just doesn’t seem worth it to me to add to that for the sake of a photo.  When I see a photo of a crying baby sitting on Santa, I don’t think to myself, “How cute!” I think to myself, “Poor baby.”  I am filled with empathy and compassion. Because I know that when I feel afraid, I like it when other people take that seriously and don’t diminish my feelings just because they don’t understand.

As an infant mental health specialist, it’s my job help parents understand their child’s subjective experiences.  I help parents dig deep under the surface to learn what a child’s behavior communicates so that they will be able to to respond sensitively and appropriately.  In this case, as the parent, you know that sitting on that mall Santa’s lap for a few seconds isn’t going to put your baby in any actual danger.  But your baby doesn’t know that.  What your baby does know is that her parent, her source of comfort and safety in this world, is handing her off to some big, scary-looking guy in a red suit.  He probably doesn’t look like anyone she knows and he seems kind of scary and – wait! – now mommy is walking away.  Where is she going? Danger, danger!

I think it’s important that we teach our children from the very beginning that we have the ability to understand and meet their needs. I believe that building trust is an essential piece of a healthy parent-child relationship.  To me, this situation seems like an easy place to strengthen that trust by acknowledging your child’s feelings and not forcing them to sit on Santa’s lap if they aren’t comfortable with that.  Still really want a Santa pic? How about holding baby beside Santa?  How else could you preserve the trust in your relationship and still get those cherished memories?  Besides, there are going to be plenty of times when your child is going to feel scared and is going to have to do something anyways (doctor visits, anyone?) and you can support them through those experiences.  But sitting on Santa’s lap? Just not one of those times.

Also, if sitting on Santa’s lap is totally your baby’s thing, by all means, go for it! I am totally pro-Santa pics when the child in question actually wants to sit on Santa’s lap!

Please stop making your crying baby sit on Santa's lap