Simple Concept, No Easy Feat: Mindfulness for Kids in These Challenging Times

Andrea Roy, project coordinator of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness Engagement for Kids

It’s no secret we’re living through challenging times. COVID has removed us from what we know as “normal” life, our nation is grappling with painful questions of racism and equity, it’s a divisive election year, and omnipresent social media gives platform to our meanest impulses.

Against this stark background, we have children who look to us for reassurance and stability. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix it all for them? Sure, great. But not likely. However, we can teach them to develop the skills to cope with these uncertain times, to calm themselves, and to express their emotions in healthy ways. Mindfulness strategies that are age-appropriate and trauma-informed can help.

Mindfulness counteracts anxiety by focusing our attention on the present moment. It’s a simple concept, but it’s no easy feat. How often do we fall into the habit of chasing our thoughts down endless mental rabbit holes? Before we know it, we’ve driven home without any recollection of the trip or we’ve impulsively snapped at our partner or children without recognizing what was actually troubling us. Developing a greater awareness of our physical and mental state in the moment allows us to respond to the stressors of our daily lives more thoughtfully and to feel our joys more fully.

For children who have experienced trauma, mindfulness can be particularly useful. Traumatic events and toxic stress can activate a child’s sympathetic nervous system beyond its ability to regulate, resulting in a mismatch between stimulus and reaction. Even minor occurrences can trigger a full-blown “fight, flight, or freeze” response, the body’s automatic and natural reaction to danger. For the sake of self-preservation, this response inhibits the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for functions such as complex cognitive behavior, social behavior, and decision making.

Trauma-reactive behaviors span the gamut – loss of temper, withdrawal, edginess, fatigue, just to name a few – but regardless of how they manifest, the only way to bring that prefrontal cortex back online so that the child is able to learn and interact is to calm the nervous system. Mindfulness practices target the nervous system directly and provide experiences that not only calm but also, with practice, demonstrate to the child they can calm themself.

Online mindfulness resources abound. To get you started, below are some of the TIME4K team’s favorite activities and links, many of which may skew toward the elementary school children we serve. However, a high school counselor told me that most of what we do appeals to the students who show up in her office, too. Some of this stuff is ageless. (Think adult coloring books.) 

TIME4K mentee Gage Bowen uses giant bubbles as a focal point for breathing exercises at Wayne Elementary.

Sensory activities – Sensory input is a great connection to the present moment, and the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise is effective with kids and adults, individuals and classes. To begin, look around the room and notice five things you can see, then four things you can feel, notice three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. By the end, you’ll feel more grounded in the present moment.

Other activities that appeal to the senses include

Breathing exercises – Breathing deeply so that you fill your diaphragm calms the nervous system. Belly breathing increases the supply of oxygen to the brain on the inhale and triggers a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure on the exhale. To practice this, sit upright with your hands on either side of your belly; inhale through your nose and feel your hands move apart slightly. Exhale through your nose or your mouth and feel your belly contract. If you can, make your exhale slightly longer than your inhale. Repeat this 3 – 5 times.

To make this more engaging to children, add props like a pinwheel, bubbles, or a small stuffed animal that a supine child can balance on their belly and ride up and down. An inexpensive oximeter allows the child to see how breathing deeply can cause physical changes in their body.

Other breathing exercises include 4-7-8 breathing, Take 5 breathing, and square breathing. When doing any exercises with a count, remember that little lungs fill more quickly!

Meditation – People typically think meditating means sitting cross-legged on a cushion and focusing on your breath while keeping your mind clear. This is one method, but if you try it with kids, please don’t get too attached to the results. Start with a short session – maybe one minute – and add time gradually.

Other techniques to try include guided visualization, body scan, and loving kindness meditation. Videos can be helpful when exploring a meditation practice, but meditation scripts allow you to be part of the exercise. When leading your child or class in a guided meditation, read slowly in a gentle voice, give them time to follow any instructions, and take ample pauses for your own deep belly breaths. It will help with the pace and your own nervous system!

Movement – Human bodies need to move, and children need an outlet to burn off excess energy. Mindful movement can serve this purpose while building body awareness and physical literacy.

Yoga may be one of the most well-known mindfulness techniques, and there are many online resources to help you practice with your child or class. Cosmic Kids is a robust resource for younger children, while Yoga Ed. offers free classes for children and teens when you create an account. Karma Yoga Institute is a local source for kid-friendly yoga videos.

We must maintain a trauma-informed mindset when teaching and practicing these strategies with the children and teens in our lives. Sounds, settings, and even smells we find calming may have the opposite of our intended effect. Consider investing in a small chime or harmonica to get your children’s attention and to begin and end mindfulness activities. Raising your voice or clapping should be avoided. Be aware that flickering lights off and on and darkened rooms can negatively affect children who have been traumatized.

A little girl searches for butterflies hidden among a sensory bin full of dyed, dry bowtie pasta.

Choice is a crucial component of trauma-informed mindfulness. We always invite kids to participate, invite them to close their eyes, invite them into a particular posture, like lying down on their backs. If they don’t wish to do it, we modify the activity or change it entirely, we suggest alternate focal points or anchors or postures. These are body-based interventions, and we must respect the child’s autonomy and comfort level. In a classroom setting, if a child would rather sit quietly or draw or read, they should be allowed to without being made to feel embarrassed or chastised for it.

And if your child just isn’t into the above techniques, remember that any activity we undertake can become a mindfulness exercise depending on the quality of attention we bring to it – taking a walk, eating a meal, making our bed, petting our dog. As you spend time with your child performing these and other tasks, you can prompt them to be more mindful by asking them to reflect on the sensations of an activity. What do they notice?  What does it feel like? How do they feel?

Planting seeds of mindfulness now can help our children develop into adults with the skills to manage their stress and be more present in their own lives, improving their focus, performance, and ability to connect meaningfully with others. Couldn’t we all use a little more of that, especially in 2020?

Andrea Roy is the project coordinator of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness Engagement for Kids (TIME4K), a DOJ/OVC grant-funded program that teaches mindfulness skills to children impacted by Substance Use Disorder in eight elementary schools. Check out more ideas and activities with the TIME4K team via their YouTube channel.