Using Mindfulness to Teach Patience to Your Children
by Sandra Graham, Director of Training, Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care
With ancient roots, the concept of mindfulness made a resurgence as a trendy spiritual practice in the last few decades and has since gone mainstream as a way to combat stress and anxiety. You need not look very far to find books, podcasts, apps, live events, products, and more to help learn and enhance your own mindfulness practice.
The benefits of mindfulness go far beyond mental health and wellbeing.
You can use very simple mindfulness techniques with children as young as three to help them develop patience, self-regulation, and emotional flexibility. In fact, I prefer using mindfulness to teach patience to children more than any other teaching tools I’ve seen.
Mindfulness, at its essence, is the practice of paying attention to the present moment. It’s accepting what you are sensing and feeling without interpretation or judgment. Mindfulness is basically a filter for your mind—it helps you keep what you need and strain out the pressure. When practiced regularly, mindfulness can help improve your attention and focus, combat stress and anxiety, improve social skills and empathy, lead to better emotional regulation and attributes to better overall health.
And, best of all, it works for kids, too.
If you’re picturing practicing mindfulness to Teach Patience to Your Children in a candle-lit room, sitting upon a $75 cushion, committing to 60 minutes of uninterrupted time, you’re probably thinking teaching mindfulness to kids sounds a bit impossible. But mindfulness doesn’t have to be time-consuming, expensive, or complicated. In fact, when I train Kiddie Academy teachers on using mindfulness with young children as part of our early learning curriculum, I can boil it down to a very easy-to-remember process.
A recipe for self-regulation: Stimulus > Pause > React
Neurologist, the psychologist, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, said, “In between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. And in those choices also lie our growth and our happiness.”
In other words, at any given point in your day, something happens (a stimulus). That stimulus leads to a reaction. This can be a good stimulus (your morning alarm clock goes off) and a good reaction (you turn it off and get right out of bed, on time). It can also be a bad reaction. Someone cuts you off in traffic and you blare your horn and start driving more aggressively. For children, it’s not hard to imagine what that might look like. One friend takes a toy from another friend without asking and the other friend cries, screams, grabs the toy back, hits their friend, etc.
The upgraded process includes just one extra step between the stimulus and the reaction—a mindful pause. And as Dr. Frankl says, what happens during that time can mean the difference between choosing stress and anxiety or choosing self-growth and happiness. In that moment of pause, the practice of mindfulness asks you to be patient before reacting. Rather than immediately honking your horn at an aggressive driver or hitting your friend when he steals your toy, take a sec. Breathe. Consider what your reaction could be. Then react in the way you thoughtfully chose.
What does a mindful reaction look like in practice with children?
In our classrooms, teachers often use mindfulness as a tool to help children transition from one activity to the next. Here are some easy examples you can use with your child any time:
- Listen to the bell. An easy way for children to practice mindfulness is to focus on paying attention to what they can hear. You can use a singing bowl, a bell, a set of chimes or a phone app that has sounded on it. Tell your children that you will make the sound, and they should listen carefully until they can no longer hear the sound (which is usually 30 seconds to a minute).
- Practice with a breathing buddy. For young children, an instruction to simply “pay attention to the breath” can be hard to follow. To make it easier for younger children, grab a stuffed animal, have the child lie down, and put the stuffed animal on your child’s belly. Ask them to focus their attention on the rise and fall of the stuffed animal as they breathe in and out.
- Make your walks mindful. One of my children’s favorite things to do in the summer is a “noticing walk.” We stroll through our neighborhood and notice things we haven’t seen before. We’ll designate one minute of the walk where we are completely silent and simply pay attention to all the sounds we can hear—frogs, woodpeckers, a lawnmower.
- Establish a gratitude practice. I believe gratitude is a fundamental component of mindfulness—teaching our children to appreciate the abundance in their lives, as opposed to focusing on all the toys and goodies that they crave. My family does this at dinner when we each share one thing we are thankful for. It is one of my favorite parts of the day.
These activities are simple and very effective in getting children to calm down and focus on the present moment.
How does a mindful reaction teach patience?
With enough consistent practice of mindful activities, children will be ready to move on to using the Stimulus > Pause > React process I described earlier. Rather than using it for the first time in a heated moment, ask a calm child to think of a time a friend or family member made them upset. Ask them to describe what happened, what emotions they felt, how they felt physically, and what they did. Then ask them to imagine if it happened again right now. Encourage them to imagine taking a patient’s pause to identify how they feel. Then, ask them what they could do differently to be less upset/frustrated/etc.
Opportunities come up many times each day for you to help your child practice being patient with the Stimulus > Pause > React process. It won’t always go smoothly, but over time, you might notice your child taking a split-second to think about how to react to adversity.
Some important things to keep in mind
Establish your own practice. You would have trouble teaching your children ballet if you had never danced. To authentically teach mindfulness to your children, you need to practice it yourself. You can start slowly with a meditation practice of just five to 10 minutes a day. Find ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily activities. Don’t let this step intimidate you—you’re probably practicing a lot of mindful habits already!
Keep it simple. Mindfulness is a big word for young kids to understand. Put simply, mindfulness is awareness. It is noticing our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and anything that is around us and happening right now.
Check your expectations. Are you expecting mindfulness to eliminate tantrums? To make your active child calm? To make your house quiet? If so, you are likely to be disappointed. While feeling calm or being quiet are nice side-effects of mindfulness, they are not the ultimate purpose.
The purpose of Using Mindfulness to Teach Patience to children is to give them skills to develop their awareness of their inner and outer experiences, to recognize their thoughts as “just thoughts,” to understand how emotions manifest in their bodies, to recognize when their attention has wandered, and to provide tools for impulse control. It is not a panacea, and it will not completely get rid of what is normal kid behavior, like tantrums, loudness, whining, exuberance, and arguing. Additionally, children under the age of three are typically not cognitively developed enough to understand and follow your mindfulness prompts in a meaningful way.
Don’t force it. If your kids aren’t interested in your lesson or activity, drop it. This is a good time for you to practice non-attachment to outcomes!
Above all, remember to have fun and keep it simple. You can provide your children with many opportunities to add helpful practices to their toolkit—some of them will work for them and some won’t. But it’s fun to experiment!