Doctor’s Tip: Mindful meditation can help kids and families
Columnist’s note: A previous column discussed mindful meditation and how it can help adult depression and anxiety. In people without those conditions, meditation can help relieve stress, and improve focus and quality of life. Meditation is not a new-age fad — practitioners of both Eastern and Western religions have used this “centering technique” for centuries. The following guest column is by Amanda Petersen, a former elementary teacher and mother of two young children, who with her husband, uses meditation techniques with her own family, and promotes their use in schools and in other families.
— Dr. Greg Feinsinger
The act of being in control of our emotions is called self-regulation. This is a set of skills that enables children, as they mature, to direct their actions towards a goal. We aren’t born with self-regulation — we have to learn and practice it to become proficient. Until children learn these skills, they depend on their parents and other authority figures to solve problems.
Until age 23-26, the part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) that is in charge of learning, problem solving and executive function — being organized, on time and focused — is not fully developed. When our child comes home after a long day and can’t control his or her emotions, we can blame it on their brain.
When a child is “out of control,” it’s important that adults remain calm and give the child time to recover. Breathing techniques help children (and adults) recover emotional control. Brain research shows that when we take deep breaths our nervous system calms, allowing us to think more clearly.
Before we can teach our children (or students in the case of teachers) to use breathing techniques to control their emotions, we have to learn this technique ourselves. Following are some suggestions for learning mindful meditation, and more can be found on the internet and from local practitioners:
• Sit still with your back straight, somewhere comfortable.
• Close your eyes and start breathing through your nose.
• Inhale for two seconds, then gently exhale for four seconds — finish by holding your exhalation for another second.
• Try to focus on your breathing, but if your mind wanders, gently bring your thoughts back to focusing on your breathing.
• Once you have it down, involve members of the whole family.
• For children 3-8, have in your home a “calm down basket,” with items such as a coloring book, a stuffed animal, a book to read or a squishy toy. Find a spot in your house that becomes your family’s “calm down center.”
When we start to see our children as little people who are still developing their pre-frontal cortex, we can begin to approach solving problems in a new and more effective way. Children don’t want to be unregulated, and parents don’t want to yell at their children. Try family meditation/deep breathing for family upsets but also on a routine basis. My husband and I and our two young children practice this together every evening, after a full day of school, activities, jobs and meetings. This habit changes a stressed out, unstructured home to a happy one, with effective problem solving.
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