Editor’s Note: The Power of Moms is a website for mothers of all religions (and for mothers who are not necessarily religious). Each Sunday, we post a spiritual essay, and we would love to gather a wide variety of perspectives and ideas. Our goal is to be respectful of all beliefs while simultaneously offering opportunities to share meaningful, spiritual thoughts with one another.
Mindfulness is everywhere these days. From the psychologist’s office to elementary schools to the executive board room, people are incorporating mindfulness and meditation into their lives in order to combat stress and to live fully in the present moment.
I have been practicing mindfulness and meditation for a few years, and I have recently begun teaching these practices to my children. My daughter is six years old, and in the last few months of the school year, she had some problems with emotional outbursts and controlling her anger. (Nothing serious, but if she was playing a game and someone went out of turn, her reaction was to upend the board and send game pieces flying rather than to politely remind her friends that it was her turn.)
When my husband and I asked her about what she should do when she gets angry, she told us, “I need to calm my body and breathe.” Clearly, she knew what she should be doing. She just wasn’t doing it. So I began teaching her about mindfulness.
At first, I would just tell her to breathe or relax when she got upset, but then she would yell, “I don’t know how!!” I quickly learned that she needed specific directions for how to breathe and calm her body.
I taught her to breathe to the count of ten, and then start over again. We talked about paying attention to the sensations of the breath: What does it feel like on your lips or your nose when you breathe? What does your tummy feel like when you breathe in and out? I lead her and her little brother in “guided meditations” to help them relax. I believe these concrete exercises can help young children learn how to breathe and calm their bodies when they are upset.
In the months since we’ve started practicing mindfulness together, my daughter is becoming more aware of her emotions and how to calm herself so she can respond instead of react when she gets frustrated. In turn, I have discovered new insights about mindfulness and parenting from teaching these techniques to her.
It’s Okay To Feel What You Feel
I make sure to validate my daughter’s emotions; mindfulness is not about suppressing anger any more than it is about suppressing joy. Instead it teaches us to recognize our emotions and take a moment to pause so that we can respond skillfully rather than react without thinking.
My daughter had a great week at school last week. When I asked her why, she said, “Well, when I got mad, I said, ‘Hi, Angry. I feel you, but I’m not going to show you.’” She had learned not to feed her anger.
Learning to Self-Soothe is a Skill
My daughter has learned how to calm herself. She’ll count her breaths or massage her hands. We gave her the pebble meditation cards from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, which contain short meditations for kids about being still like water or calm like a mountain.
The other day, my daughter stormed out of the kitchen in a huff. I followed her, ready to clean up the path of destruction I was certain she was about to create. I found her at our “quiet place” in the living room, reading the meditation cards and calming herself down. Teaching our children to “self-soothe” doesn’t stop with infant sleep training—it’s an important life skill.
Our Emotions Do Not Define Us
I’ve learned a new mantra: “My children are not their tantrums.” Mindfulness teaches us to realize that our emotions are fleeting, that we can simply acknowledge an emotion and not identify ourselves with it. I can now see that just as I am not my anger, my children are not their outbursts. I am learning to see inside my daughter; she is not the tantrum or emotion her little body is still learning how to control. This insight has made me a more compassionate parent.
We Must Be Present in the Moment
Being mindful is like being a child again. Our children live entirely in the present moment. They don’t have the past regrets or future worries we adults have. When we play with our kids, we should play dolls like it’s the most important thing in the world to do. I try to focus on coloring pictures of a cartoon character with my kids as if it were the top item on my to-do list (come to think of it, why isn’t it?).
The most important gift we can give our children is our attention. Our children need and crave connection with us, and when we mindfully devote our full focus to what we are doing with them —eating, playing, cleaning—we show them our true love.
In the past few months, my daughter has learned how her mind and emotions work. She knows that just like a snow globe looks all frantic and busy when you shake it, it eventually settles into peacefulness; similarly, her mind can be full of angry thoughts, but her breath can calm her mind and help her find the stillness within.
I have learned so much from teaching my daughter about mindfulness. It is exciting to realize that these efforts are making a difference in her life and in mine.
QUESTION: What strategies do you use to help your children deal with strong emotions and anger?
CHALLENGE: For at least 20 minutes today, engage fully in the present moment with your child.
Images provided by Sarah Rudell Beach.