"Dear fears. Thanks for trying to protect me but I got this." So wrote my 8-year-old daughter who, like an increasing number of children of her age, finds herself struggling with anxiety. Teachers and mental health workers in the developed world are reporting an alarming rise in the number of young people who are suffering from anxiety and depression as a result of examinations, peer pressure and social media. In the UAE and abroad, teaching mindfulness meditation in the classroom has become a popular way to help students gain some perspective and control over negative thoughts, but its proliferation is not without controversy. Some practitioners complain that it is all too easy to "teach" mindfulness meditation, particularly in schools, without a proper understanding of the theory or any concrete objectives.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have also called for a more rigorous scientific examination of its benefits; simple proof, if you like, that it actually works. But what does seem beyond doubt is that mindfulness meditation has been practised in different forms by different cultures for thousands of years as people have attempted to make sense of themselves and their place in the world. With that in mind, here are a few tips for bringing mindfulness into your home.
You go first, mummy
The bad news is that you shouldn’t set out to teach mindful meditation to your children, but rather to lead by example. The best way to circumvent an almost guaranteed rebellion against parental authority is to encourage your kids to sit down alongside you. There are a plethora of apps, such as Headspace, that offer free introductory courses on how to meditate using techniques such as focusing on the breath. Try to make it into a daily routine by scheduling five minutes for meditation practice at the same time each day.
Take a step back in trying times
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is known as the godfather of mindfulness because of his pioneering work in the 1970s using meditation to help patients with chronic pain. His book Everyday Blessings: Mindfulness for Parents, written with his wife, Myla, is a practical guide to mindfulness at home, written from a parent's perspective. First published in 1997, it is now in its second edition. "Parenting can be viewed as a kind of extended and at times arduous meditation retreat spanning a large part of our lives," the authors write. "Mindful parenting involves keeping in mind what is truly important as we go about the activities of daily life with our children… the thread of meaning and direction in our lives is easily lost. But even in our most trying, sometimes horrible moments as parents, we can deliberately step back and begin afresh, asking ourselves as if for the first time, and with fresh eyes: 'What is truly important here'."
It’s not just about meditation
Not everyone can or wants to take time out to meditate, but there are other ways to bring mindfulness into everyday family life. Substitute the word “awareness” for “mindfulness”, and you’ll be on the right track towards slowing life down and living in the present moment. Keep smartphones away from the dinner table, for example, and encourage your family to take a moment to be together without any outside interference. Ideally, try not to argue.
Update an old game and keep playing
It’s an age-old parenting technique to calm an angry child: take a few deep breaths and count to 10. Mindful Games Activity Cards by Susan Kaiser Greenland and Annaka Harris, fellow authors and childhood mindfulness practitioners, contains 55 games designed to help children improve their ability to focus their attention, regulate their emotions and promote compassionate thought. Aimed at children and teens, each card contains a step-by-step guide for adults leading the game, talking points and tips. Games range from straightforward relaxation and visualisation techniques to giving children a safe forum to voice their feelings. In one example, a participant rolls a ball to another player who says what is bothering them before rolling it back with the assertion “and life is good”. In another, Thank the Farmer, children pick up a raisin and imagine all the different steps it has been through, from the worms that nourish the soil to the person leading the game who brought the raisins, and say “thank you” to each one before eating the treat.
Let kids take control
Stop, Breathe & Think Kids is a brilliant app designed to be used by children based on Mindful Games (above). It asks the user how he or she is feeling before recommending a “mission” led by the soothing voice of a narrator that fosters mindfulness and helps to develop what Kaiser Greenland calls a non-judgemental or “kind inner voice”. Favourite ones in my house include Five Finger Breathing and Imaginary Hugs.