How can Mindfulness help children process their emotions?
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Lena Henderson of The Mindful Steps to find out more about mindfulness for children and help our children process their big emotions. As a parent, I had always heard of the terrible twos, the threenager phase, and even the fournados, but I was unprepared for the emotional 7 & 8-year-old phase. The big emotions that come with a surge in the adrenal hormones took me completely by surprise!! My eldest is 9-years-old now, and my youngest is 7-years-old, so I’m still, well and truly, in the thick of it.
If you want to find out more about the emotional 7 and 8-year-old phase, do check out this post from several fellow parenting bloggers where we all share our perspective, experiences and helpful advice on how to support our children.
It’s part of this journey that led me to Lena. I had heard of mindfulness for children, and I’m willing to give anything a try at this stage. I want to help my children process those big emotions that they seemingly have little control over. I want to be a better parent by learning how to help them, and I realise that I have work to do on myself. With so many children now experiencing anxiety, stress and other childhood mental health issues, it’s up to us as parents to explore all the different ways we can help our children.
The following is a summary of the conversation Lena and I had on my Facebook page. It’s a little different from my usual blog posts because it’s a Q & A Session from a 40 minutes live video, but I hope you find some of this content useful.
Welcome and Introducing Lena Henderson
Hi Lena, Welcome, please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about you and what you do.
Hi Carly, thanks for having me. I’m a mindfulness teacher. I mainly work with children, because I feel very passionate about nurturing children and helping them to grow with their healthy minds and healthy bodies.
I have always been teaching or educating in various sectors to tell you a little bit about myself. I started as a school teacher back in Ukraine, where I’m from, teaching English as a second language. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve always been passionate to find out the answer to the question of how to make teaching more engaging to children. When they engage, they have fun, and when they have fun, they want to learn more because they’re motivated and they follow through.
When I came to the UK, I worked in various universities with E-learning advisors. I was really interested in investigating how technology and E-learning can help engagement in the learning process. So I followed, doing a Masters in E-learning and Multimedia. I worked with students in York St John University.
When I had my little girl seven years ago, I realised that I missed direct contact with children. I missed their energy – it just really keeps me alive. I requalified to teach yoga to children, which I then did for five years teaching to babies, in nurseries, and schools. It was fascinating for me to see the physical aspects of doing yoga and teach them about the world, but doing it physically.
Every yoga session for the younger children finishes with relaxation and will have a little bit of mindfulness and relaxation at the end. I found it so powerful to see how their little bodies are really following the guidance, and they literally, physically, right in front of me, relax. They start yawning, and they start relaxing, sometimes they’ll even fall asleep.
There are lots of yoga teachers out there nowadays, however, there aren’t many mindfulness teachers. There have been recent studies done in the last 30 years with scientific evidence to prove how mindfulness and meditation can change our brain in a positive way. My business is now called The Mindful Steps For Children, and you can find me on Facebook.
What is Mindfulness?
As someone completely new to mindfulness, I have a few preconceived notions that I hope you can educate me on. I have questions such as can you do mindfulness if you’ve never done meditation or yoga? Is mindfulness the same as hypnotherapy? What is the concept of mindfulness? Do you hypnotise the children? So let’s tackle each of those questions if it’s at all possible to separate them.
What is mindfulness? Many people think of it as if it’s relaxation and escaping reality, but this is not quite correct. Mindfulness is about being present. It’s about really just trying to tune in into your body and to your feelings and your thoughts.
Mindfulness focuses on breathing, concentrating on focusing on breathing and just experiencing what your body feels. So the easiest way to start is to think about how your feet are touching the floor, how you can feel the fabric of your clothes touching your body. If you’re outside listening to the sounds around you, try to feel the air and the movement of wind on your skin. The whole concept of mindfulness is about being, not about doing.
When I teach mindfulness to adults, I say we’re just here to check in with ourselves.
Is mindfulness religious or based on any particular religion?
Mindfulness has become more secular in the last 30 years since it’s been brought to the Western world. As such, the mindfulness term is detached from the religious associations that it used to have for centuries before because mindfulness has existed since the dawn of man. So the mindfulness as we practice it now doesn’t have any religious connotations.
Is Mindfulness the same at Hypnotherapy?
Excuse my ignorance here, Lena, but I think this is a question many parents have who have never used mindfulness before for themselves, never mind considered the benefits of mindfulness for children. So quite simply, is mindfulness for children hypnosis in any way? Do you hypnotise the children?
Mindfulness is not hypnotising because, with mindfulness, you are in control of what you’re doing and how you’re connecting with yourself. Quite often, we have so many thoughts going through our mind every day. According to studies, we have over 50,000 thoughts going through our mind every day. We have lots of emotions, sometimes the same sort of different emotions happening to us. Sometimes we might be excited and nervous at the same time, but we’re not aware of it quite often.
The science shows that 47% of the time, as we’re going through the day, we’re not actually aware of what we’re thinking; we’re working on auto mode. Just like when you’re driving a car and taking the wrong turn because you are not actually present in that moment, you’re lost in your thoughts.
So mindfulness teaches us how to be in the present and how to enjoy the present; for parents, it helps them to learn how to enjoy little things and take one thing at a time. So, for example, if you’re drinking your juice or your coffee, really try to feel the flavour of your drink; consider how you’re sitting and relaxing, how great it feels to be supported by your chair, and really listening to the sounds around you. Just take this five minutes to yourself daily. So it is definitely not hypnosis or hypnotherapy.
Take Us Through What To Expect In A Mindfulness For Children Session
The great thing about mindfulness is that it is us discovering what we’re feeling and what we’re thinking. Quite often, thoughts come first, and then thoughts cause emotions, and then the emotions cause actions. So, for example, if a thought came into your mind that you’ve got a deadline. And then you follow it up with an emotion, and you might start feeling nervous or anxious about whether you have the time, and then you might feel some physical body sensations about it, such as sweaty palms or tightness in your chest. This is why it’s good for us to try to connect with our body.
When you understand how you feel, you will be able to make the right decision about it. Do I need to worry about it? Shall I take a breath and really look at it objectively? I’ve got all this work done … I’ll be to do it on time. Or maybe you’ll realise that you need to adjust your day, prioritise it so that you can meet your deadline. But if you were not aware of your feelings, you might be just really stressed all day and keep on working, maybe just feeling that feeling of something’s not quite right. But you didn’t pause to understand what was causing this feeling.
For children, it’s a lot harder to process their emotions to identify them because neurologically, children’s brains are not developed enough to tell them what they’re feeling and why. So that’s why they need even more help to process. So this is why mindfulness for children is so helpful.
What Are The Benefits of Mindfulness?
There are many kinds of mindfulness; Mindfulness and meditation help us process stress and its effects on our body. The nervous system is the one that deals with stress. It has two divisions: it’s got a sympathetic system and a parasympathetic system. A sympathetic system is the one that is responsible for mobilising our body in stress. It mobilises our muscles, our nerves, so we’re going in to fight, flight or freeze response so that we can run away from a tiger or a car when crossing the road.
And then, the parasympathetic system counterbalances the sympathetic, and it brings us back into this state of the baseline state of calmness. So when we meditate, or when we do mindfulness, we activate the parasympathetic state, which is why meditations are so helpful for children to go off to sleep because they unwind their busy minds. They relax their bodies, taking them into a parasympathetic state.
There are dozens of scientific studies now to show that people who meditate regularly have changes in the way their brain processes stress. The part of the brain that is becoming stronger and bigger is the prefrontal cortex, “the smart brain”, which is responsible for, executive functioning for decision making, all the great stuff. It’s also making the stronger the happiness centre , the memory centre, the hippocampus. It also stimulates our happy hormones, and it actually shrinks the fear centre, which is amygdala. So, all this is quite powerful; meditations also help with anti-ageing.
And so this is not something that is just made up. It’s something that is proven by 1000s of studies and it is very helpful.
What is Mindfulness For Children?
When I teach the mindfulness for children programme in primary schools, I teach six lessons. The first lesson is about neuroscience. It’s fascinating how much information children can take in. I teach them about four parts of the brain, I show them, and then teach them how they are responsible for thought processing and emotional regulations.
It is really powerful because, actually, through these lessons, they understand how thoughts happen, and thereby their emotions, and how these processes develop. They understand that our brains are the same. And they find it quite empowering. So, for example, when I had a coaching session with a child who was five, I told him that we all have worries. He said, “No, grown-ups don’t have worries”. So it is quite powerful for them to understand that it all happens in our brain and we can change it.
How does mindfulness for children help them process their emotions?
Mindfulness for children objectifies what happens in their head so that they understand that, ‘it’s not me being naughty; it’s my amygdala being switched on, and that’s why I’m having this strong emotion’. And when they understand that, they can manage their thoughts, and they can choose what thoughts they want to go with and act on and which thoughts they want to let go of. Then, they are more stimulated to work, to follow it up with mindful practices that help this regulation.
The reason why we do mindful practices and breathing and meditation is because it is the way to train our mind to pay attention to what is happening in our mind, and our body right now. So then they are more likely to go with it, with more engagement in the mindfulness process. They also stick to it for quite a lot longer. So when I do it for six weeks, many children choose to practice mindfulness every day at home or school with their teacher. So this is mindfulness for children and generally for adults too.
Are there different types of meditation that support different concerns or stresses?
Yes, certain techniques help you focus on something specific, but I would generally make it simple. And also, I must say that there are different types of mindfulness. There is informal mindfulness and formal mindfulness.
Formal mindfulness is meditation, and not everybody has to do it. This is a deeper level of mindfulness. But there are many informal types of mindfulness that we can do every day with children and ourselves.
Informal mindfulness is mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful drinking. For example, when you’re having your coffee outside in the garden, and you enjoy the flavour and the sounds. When you’re having dinner with children, you could just encourage them just to eat a little bit slower, and talk about how they’re feeling, to describe the food and their preferences. What do they like about the flavour of the tomato? How does it feel in, in your mouth, what does the texture feel like and encourage them to describe everything about the experience?
One of the favourite meditations in the schools is chocolate meditation! They actually afterwards, go and teach their daddies how to eat a chocolate cake a lot slower. And they say that it’s a lot tastier because they took that time and enjoyed it so much more, and the flavour is more intense. Whatever activity you’re doing, really switch on your senses and engage with it.
How can Mindfulness Help Children Who Are Stressed or Anxious?
These are also really powerful techniques for distressing children as well. So, if they’re feeling worried about something, or if they’re angry, again, it is good to get children to switch over to their senses. The amygdala is firing up when they have a strong emotion; they’re upset or angry.
So we need to shut down their amygdala and engage with the prefrontal cortex, where they can thank again. You know when you ask them to calm down, and they’re not able to do so, even to think – they’re just not able to do this because they’re just not in the thinking mode, their amygdala is firing up their hormones and emotions and their adrenalin.
It’s at this point that they need to engage their logical brain to their prefrontal cortex. And there are different ways of doing it. You don’t have to do just meditation. To help them deal with their strong emotions, you can do either a top-down approach or a bottom-up approach. You can either do calming techniques, such as stroking their back or their hair; it could be listening to music or some breathing exercises. Breathing can be very simple.
Children like to do visual things. For example, if you’re eating, ask them to imagine that they’re holding a cup of hot chocolate, they must breathe in the smell of chocolate, and then they breathe out and blow on the hot chocolate. So they’re really doing it. Or you could blow out a daisy and blow out all your worries. And if we still have any petals left, do a few more breaths.
The calming techniques are the bottom-up approach. In the top-down approach, you activate mental activity, get them to think of something. You could do mental games, like asking them to spell their name backwards, or quickly name all the things they see that are yellow.
Does Mindfulness For Children Need Parental Support Or Can They Do It Alone?
I asked Lena if a mindfulness programme for children would require parents to get on board with the mindfulness practise or if it’s something that can be done simply by teaching the child the techniques and letting them get on with it. My reason for asking this is not because I’m not interested in it, but I know that every child is different and every family dynamic is different. Sometimes one parent might not be on board with it, or the parents are super busy, unable to commit to a full programme. This is what she had to say.
First of all, like anything, if we want our children to go with something that we think will be beneficial for them. Of course, it needs to come from us; we’ve got to live by example. The good thing about mindfulness is that it will help you as the parent, simply by helping you to pause. It helps if we understand our thoughts and emotions to teach our children how to connect to their bodies and understand what they’re feeling right now.
One day they will understand and be able to tell you, “Mummy, I’m feeling a bit funny in my chest right now. My face feels hot and red.”
You can then talk to them about how you feel when you are frustrated, or you discuss afterwards, “How did it feel being frustrated in your body?” Eventually, they learn that when I’m frustrated, there’s tightness in my chest, and I feel quite hot.
What really helps them too is when you talk about your feelings as well. When we are teaching them how to speak about it, we are role modelling for them and also normalising it. It is normal for us to have open conversations about how we feel and what the physical reactions are to those feelings and emotions. They need to understand that we parents, as adults, also have these tricky feelings. And this is how we manage them.
It is also good practice sometimes to make fun of ourselves, as parents, and say how silly it was of me to not think about it first, for example. Talking about how you made a mistake helps them to see that it can be tricky for us too. It makes your connection stronger, brings you closer. Children think that we know and are great at everything and that everything is easy for us and everything is hard only for them. Talking about our experiences makes them feel that we are a team.
What is the best age for Children to Start Mindfulness and Meditation?
Is there a right time to start mindfulness for children? What is the right age to start mindfulness for kids?
I would say that as early as you can, and again, it depends on how you do it. So for the very, very little ones. I would use a relaxing game where you engage senses. So, for example, I know that when my little one was a toddler, so when they’re two, three and four years old, they’re very active when they’re going to bed. You know, they are just running around full of energy. So lots of fun sensory games for them to do laying on a furry, soft fabric, blowing on silk scarves, blowing feathers, gentle massage.
The Mindful Playful Families Support Group On Facebook.
On Facebook, Lena has a free group called Mindful Playful Families. It’s for parents, and it’s full of resources and tools. Lena, please tell us more.
In this group, I have lots of different games and activities that you could do that engage the senses, encouraging children to pay attention to various things. So it could be just to pay attention to different colours on the soap bubbles or things they can observe during the walk in the woods. There are lots of different examples of what you can do because it’s just hard to think of everything by yourself all the time. There are video resources where I go Live on different topics like worries, and I have another one coming up about growth mindset: how to develop a positive mindset. There are also children meditations there as well.
The Charming Forest Meditation For Children
I have a meditation album coming out soon and have already pre-released the first song of the album called Charming Forest. It is the first meditation on the album that is coming out in May. The Charming Forest mediation is available for free to the members of this group. Anyone can join it, but you need to be a Facebook group member to get access to it to try and see if you like it.
Please click the button below to go straight through to the Mindful Playful Families group on Facebook where you can apply to join.
My eldest daughter is why I wrote the original post that spurred on this quest to help our children process their big emotions. Lena kindly let us have access to the Charming Forest meditation, and my daughter absolutely loves it. She requests it on especially anxious and emotional days, and I personally can’t wait for the full album to be released. It’s going to be amazing. Make sure you join Lena’s group and follow my Facebook page – A More Intentional Life – so you don’t miss the album release.
So if you landed on this page about mindfulness for children because you googled ‘8-year-old emotions’ or ‘why is my child so emotional’, I’m hoping you will follow us on our journey to bring you more useful and resourceful content. If you want to watch the video in full, here it is. Please bear with us at the beginning as we had a few tech issues before we got started.
I really hope you enjoyed learning more about mindfulness for children and how mindfulness can help children to process those big emotions. It’s something I personally can’t wait to learn more about. Over the next few months, you can expect to hear a lot more about it as Lena and I work together to bring you more useful information about how to help our children process their big emotions.