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According to a 2010 American Psychological Association’s (APA) Stress in America Survey, almost a third of children studied reported that in the last month had experienced a physical health symptom often associated with stress, such as head and stomachaches or trouble falling or staying asleep. What’s more, parents often don’t realize that their own stress impacts their kids. While 69 percent of parents surveyed by APA said their stress had only a “slight or no” impact on their kids, just 14 percent of youth say their parents’ stress doesn’t bother them.
What Is Stressing Kids Out?
Transitions, such as switching schools or relocating residences, and over-packed schedules are common stressors, says Susan Verde, a yoga and mindfulness teacher and best-selling children’s author whose new book, I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness is out this month.
“It’s hard to shift gears and be on-the go all the time,” Verde says. In addition, “Sitting still for so many hours in school, the adrenaline just pools—it doesn’t have anywhere to go.” And, there are social pressures, too. “Being a teenager is difficult to begin with. Today’s teens are constantly bombarded with tragedy and scary things through the media, and with social media, there’s the ability to post, threaten, and smear, which revs up the nervous system. They’re not at an emotional age to process it all or put it into context,” Verde says.
What Can Help Kids Handle Stress?
For those who care to embrace it, the practice of mindfulness, and attending to the present moment in a non-judgmental way can be of help, Verde says. “Once you cultivate mindfulness within yourself, you are able to find your own inner calm and inner peace. Once you do that, you can share it outward.”
Along with their kids, parents would serve themselves well by developing such internal awareness, too, she points out. “You can’t really care for others until you can care for yourself. And you can’t be kind, peaceful, and lovely to others, if you’re not finding that within yourself.”
To implement more mindful habits into your own life, begin to pause more—to stop, notice, and check in with yourself and the world around you, Verde says. “When I say, ‘do mindfulness,’ I mean check in with you. If you’re feeling an emotion, pause, and notice where you’re feeling it in your body. Don’t judge your feelings, just recognize and acknowledge them and let them pass,” she says. “Find your breath. Breathing more deeply in through your nose and out, calms the nervous system. This can make you feel empowered…like life is manageable.”
How to Introduce Mindfulness to Kids
To introduce the concept to kids, lead by example. “When having a conversation with your child, “Put down your phone and listen to what they’re saying. Look them in the eye and let them know they’re being heard,” Verde says.
And, release expectations, Verde says. “You don’t have to sit in meditation for 20 minutes to cultivate mindfulness. It’s not about that. It’s about disconnecting from mind chatter and emotion.”
It’s about changing your relationship to thoughts and emotions. Often, “we feel emotions are what we are at any given moment. For example, instead of saying ‘I am sad today,’ take a moment. You may feel sadness, your shoulders may be rounded, but sadness is not what you are—it’s just what you are feeling and it will pass. Everything is temporary. The more you practice attending to your own experience and the kinder you are about it toward yourself, then it becomes who you are—a part of you.”
And the payoff extends beyond lowered stress levels. “With more self-empathy, research is showing a greater ability for kids to attend to school work, test scores go up and anxiety and bullying goes down. There’s a greater collective compassion that begins to happen,” Verde says.
Guided meditation is a great way to help your child cultivate mindfulness. “It’s a way to pay attention to your breath. As you focus on this one aspect of your being, the breath is there to give space, to calm physiologically. It’s one of the best tools kids have at any given time,” Verde says.
To prepare, find a place that makes you feel comfortable and good—it doesn’t have to be near an altar or anything elaborate out of your norm. “If you want to make it more special, or create a dedicated practice space, pick things that are meaningful to you like a nice cushion—kids love this too,” Verde says. Then read the following practice from Verde’s new book I Am Peace aloud to your child.
A Guided Meditation to Bring Kids Peace
Either lie down or find a comfortable seat. If sitting in a chair, make sure your feet are touching the ground. Close your eyes and gently place your hands on your belly. Notice your breathing at this very moment. Is it fast or slow? Can you feel it filling your belly as you breathe in?
Lift a hand and place it in front of your mouth. When you breathe out, what does the air feel like on your hand? Is it warm? Cool? Just notice. There is no right or wrong answer.
With both hands back on your belly, start breathing in through your nose if you weren’t already. This will help slow down your breathing and filter the air going into your body.
Imagine your belly is like the ocean. With each inhale, the waves rise, and with each exhale, they fall. Feel your belly rising and falling as you breathe.