Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. This simple phrase is a common component of mindfulness, which has become a powerful tool in teaching parents and young children how to regulate their emotions and behaviors. Mindfulness is defined as maintaining a state of awareness and attention to your thoughts and emotions and being fully present in each and every moment. Being mindful means that we try not to let what happened in the past or what will happen in the future distract us from experiencing what is going on right now, in the present moment. Mindfulness can be particularly beneficial for parents because it allows us to be in tune with ourselves, which helps us to develop better relationships with our children. We also become more aware of certain emotional cues that may produce unwanted reactions in response to our children’s behavior. Many say that mindfulness, or really being present, is a parent’s greatest gift to his/her children.
For adults, the most common way to cultivate mindfulness is through meditation-based exercises. During these activities, adults practice focusing their attention on their moment-to moment experiences, which often involves concentrating on the breath as it moves in out and out of their bodies. When a thought comes into the mind, adults are instructed to acknowledge the thought, but then redirect their attention back to the breath. These types of purposeful and reflective mindfulness exercises train our brains to rely less on automatic and emotional reactions (which we then often ruminate over!), and instead choose kinder and more compassionate responses.
Research suggests that adults who practice mindfulness incur many benefits, including reductions in overall stress levels and improvements in physical health, brain functioning, memory, attention, and social-emotional skills, such as coping, empathy, and emotion regulation.
In recent years, scholars have begun to explore the benefits of practicing mindfulness for young children. It was once thought that mindfulness was too abstract and complex for children to understand; however, new research suggests that when presented with developmentally appropriate activities, children as young as four years old can grasp the core aspects of mindfulness and enjoy mindfulness exercises. This research also demonstrates that children who participate in mindfulness exercises show improvements in their self-regulation and social-emotional competence. Specifically, mindfulness exercises have been shown to help children develop the skills needed to pay attention, remember and follow instructions, adapt to changing situations, wait their turn, regulate emotions, and engage in prosocial behaviors. Although most of these studies have taken place in preschool settings, parents can engage in mindfulness exercises with their children at home too. Below, we provide some ideas for parents for practicing mindfulness with their young children.
Breathing meditation can be done anywhere (e.g., in the car, waiting in line), but the easiest place to get started is in a quiet comfortable space at home. To begin, either sit in a comfortable position with your child or lie down. Then, ask your child to close his/her eyes and take deep breaths, in and out, through his/her nose and concentrate on the breath. You may want to have your child place his/her hand on the belly to feel as it goes up and down with his/her breath. For young children, placing a stuffed animal on the belly when they are lying down can also help them visualize the breath going in and out of their bodies. Practice breathing in and out with your child and explain why breathing is so important to us (e.g., it brings oxygen to our lungs, can help us feel relaxed, and can help us calm down if we are feeling upset). When you first begin to practice mindful breathing with your child, he/she may only be able to concentrate for a short amount of time (e.g., 30 seconds for a 4-year-old); however, over time and with continued practice, your child will be able to concentrate for longer periods of time.
Walking meditation can be a fun and engaging mindfulness exercise for children as you are on your way to school or a neighbor’s house or if you’re on a hike! Paying close attention to how we feel as we walk and what is going on around us can help us bring awareness to the present moment. To start a walking mediation, ask your child to pay attention to how his/her feet feel as they are walking on the ground (e.g., does the ground feel hard under your feet or soft? Bumpy or smooth?). Next, ask your child to pay attention to the sites and sounds he/she sees and hears (e.g., do you hear birds? Cars? Wind?). For some children, it can help to make walking meditation more of a game. For example, you could pretend to be turtles walking silently and slowly, paying attention to your legs as they move up and down. After a few minutes, try walking even slower! Or, you could pretend to be foxes, walking as slowly, steadily, and silently as you can as you search for food or hide from a mountain lion. As you are walking like foxes, ask your child to pay close attention to his/her feet to make sure he/she is walking as quietly as possible and listening to the sounds around him/her.
Yoga is another mindfulness activity that children of all ages can enjoy and benefit from. When practicing the poses with your child, it is important to help him/her focus on their breath (e.g., let’s hold the pose for three long breaths, 1 – 2 – 3). There are many yoga poses that children enjoy, including, but not limited to, tree pose, frog pose, and downward dog. To get into tree pose, ask your child to stand up tall with his/her feet about shoulder width apart. Then, ask your child to put his/her right foot on his/her left ankle or calf. Finally, ask your child to “grow his/her tree” by slowly moving the arms above his/her head like branches. To get into frog pose, ask your child to stand up tall with his/her feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Then, ask your child to turn his/her feet outward slightly and squat down so their bottom almost touches the ground. To get into downward dog, ask your child to stand up tall with his/her feet about shoulder width apart. Then, ask your child to bring his/her hands to the ground and walk them out a bit in front of his/her feet. The goal here is to have children’s bodies look like an upside down “v.” A fun yoga exercise to do with your child after a few poses is lion’s breath. This can be done standing or sitting in a comfortable place. Ask your child to take a deep breath in, and when it is time to breathe out, ask your child to open his/her mouth wide, stick out his/her tongue, and loudly sigh out the breath.
We hope these recommendations are helpful as you begin to practice mindfulness at home with your child! Remember, the benefit of mindfulness for parents and children is just a deep breath away!
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About the Authors
Dr. Sara Schmitt is an Assistant Professor at Purdue University. She joined the Human Development and Family Studies faculty in the fall of 2013 after receiving her Ph.D. from Oregon State University. Her research is broadly focused on optimizing young children’s development in multiple contexts. Dr. Schmitt studies factors that support children’s school readiness, with an emphasis on self-regulation, executive function, social competence, and early academic skills. She incorporates mindfulness practices into her research and also into her personal life.
Irem Korucu is a graduate student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and master’s degree in Developmental Psychology from Koc University, in Turkey. Her primary research interests focus on children’s social, emotional and socio-cognitive development, self-regulation, school readiness as well as the influence of family processes and parenting on these domains. She is also interested in intervention development and evaluation in early childhood.