I’m sure every mother, and father, spend countless hours worrying about what type of future our children will be living in and what we can do now to support them to get the most out of life.
The way we teach children at school and at home has a big role to play in the mental health and resilience of our next generation as we head towards a world with more technology connectivity, increasing employment uncertainty and increasing housing affordability issues.
By this I don’t mean that we need to teach kids more about technology, coding or robotics, these are important but we also need to teach them the skills they need to be mentally resilient and healthy.
When I was first introduced to mindfulness I have to admit I was a bit sceptical – it seemed a bit too alternative for the scientific approach that I had been taught throughout my eight years at university.
I was a practising psychologist, working with people going through the traumatic experience of being diagnosed with cancer. I would sit and talk with them about their life, their triumphs and their tribulations and try as I might to help them mentally rationalise this life-altering situation they had suddenly found themselves in, it wasn’t something that was easily made sense of.
There’s often no explaining why or how some people are diagnosed with cancer, and others are not. The tidal wave of emotions and fears that every human would experience in this situation was all encompassing.
So, when I dug a bit deeper into the world of mindfulness research I was pleasantly surprised to find out that mindfulness was a scientifically validated approach to help people in exactly this situation; and more excitingly, a practice that could actually help everyone develop the skills needed to manage life’s challenges.
I explored mindfulness a bit further and soon realised that the people that I worked with who showed remarkable resilience in the face of adversity were actually the people who were the most self-aware, the people who could regulate their emotions and not get sucked into that terrifying vortex of thinking that the worst case scenario was going to happen.
You know that conversation in your head that predicts that everything that could go wrong will go wrong? These people were able to shut the gate on those thoughts, and instead were focussed on living, and enjoying, the present moment for what it was.
I started to wonder what life would be like if we were all taught these skills, and this mental approach to the world, from a young age – how different would our life experiences be if this approach to life was automatic, instead of having to learn to live this way in the midst of a life crisis? The worst time to learn a new skill. This brought me to the work I now do at Smiling Mind.
The simple definition of mindfulness is ‘paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, with curiosity and without judgement’ – sounds simple, right?
Well apparently, it’s not.
Research from Harvard University indicates that we spend about 47% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing right now.
That’s almost half of our waking hours. The alarming thing about this is that this research also found that when our mind is wandering we’re less happy, in fact, when we’re focussed on what we are doing we actually report the highest level of happiness.
This makes sense when you think about those times when you feel ‘in the flow’– nothing else matters, and there are no worries in the world.
Imagine if we did teach kids from a young age to be more mindful?
The research suggests that the benefits of mindfulness practice are cumulative. That is, the more we practise the bigger the benefits, so if we start teaching kids these skills from a young age by the time they reach adulthood they will have accumulated at least 12 years of benefits – setting them up for a future where they are resilient and able to manage all of life’s challenges.
These benefits aren’t just emotional. Regular mindfulness practise has actually been shown to change the brain, reducing the stress response and developing structures that support executive functioning – that’s our ability to pay attention, plan and problem solve. Pretty important skills that we all need to work on developing, I think.
That’s why Smiling Mind has developed a new Mindfulness Curriculum for primary school years. We think that these skills are as important as reading and writing and need to be part of every child’s learning throughout primary school.
But the most important learning takes place at home. I think every mother, and father, should introduce mindfulness to their kids – not only for their kids benefit but because these benefits will also help you. Imagine helping your kids to be emotionally resilient, able to manage their own emotions and less likely to throw tantrums during your next shopping trip.
To make it easier I’ve listed the 10 reasons I think mindfulness should be introduced to every child:
This is the first thing you will probably notice when starting to use mindfulness – a sense of calm and relaxation. A five or 10 minute guided meditation with a focus on breathing helps to slow down the body, reduce stress hormones, calm the mind and de-stress. It’s a simple way to bring a moment of calm to a hectic day.
Mindfulness teaches self-awareness – that’s the ability for your child to know how they are feeling, without reacting to it. Often children are ruled by emotions – they seem to lurch from one state to another without any awareness or ability to tell you what’s going on for them. Practising mindfulness helps kids learn to pay attention to how they are feeling, and provides them with the tools they need to tell you so you can both do something about it.
This is the ability to stop an emotion getting out of control – it’s not about not feeling emotions at all but more about knowing how to manage emotions. Mindfulness gives kids the skills they need to do just that. Imagine if your child could notice that they were feeling worried and take 10 deep breaths to calm themselves down.
Mindfulness is known to reduce disruptive behaviour with kids. It helps kids learn how to manage emotions without throwing a tantrum and it also helps kids learn how to listen to others and respect boundaries.
5. Focus and attention.
Mindfulness helps kids learn how to pay attention and focus. How often have you told your kids to pay attention – but have you ever actually taught them how to do it? Mindfulness practise does just that.
6. Friendships and relationships.
Mindfulness builds empathy and respect for others. It helps kids see other people’s perspectives and respect differences. Mindfulness has also been found to reduce bullying in some environments and can support kids to make good friendships at school.
The most common time to practice meditation for many people is before bed. This helps wind down and prepare for a good night’s sleep. Mindfulness also helps reduce thinking and worry that can often disturb sleep. All in all, mindfulness can help kids get a better night’s sleep.
Mindfulness has a big impact on learning for kids. Practising mindfulness sets kids up to be ready to learn. It helps them focus, pay attention and reduce distractions so that they can take on new information and learn.
All the benefits outlined above lead to resilience. Resilience is the ability to manage life’s challenges and to do that we need to support kids to be emotionally aware, know how to manage and self-regulate, build and develop good relationships and have the resources to bounce back when things go wrong. These are all things that mindfulness can help develop.
10. Good mental health.
Ultimately good mental health will be the result of all of these benefits. If we start early enough in life to learn these important skills we hope to see a new generation of kids growing up with lower rates of mental illness and increasing wellbeing – imagine that!
Dr Addie Wootten is a Clinical Psychologist and the CEO of Smiling Mind. Smiling Mind recently launched a new Mindfulness Curriculum. Wootten says it’s a resource like no other and Smiling Mind have been amazed by the support and interest – it sold out in record time and they're now crowdfunding to support the next print run.
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