Sitting on cushions in a dimly lit corner of the living room, a family of five struggles to relax. But when a lithe woman in flowing yoga pants and a pale grey ballet-wrap top brings her hands together and the gentle sound of Tibetan meditation cymbals fills the air, their eyes close, their shoulders relax and they begin to breathe deeply.
“This is how I like to begin all of my family sessions,” said meditation teacher Pleasance Baechli of The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, Md. “It allows people to calm their minds and bring their attention to the breath and what’s going on in their bodies. For a moment, there’s nowhere else they need to be and nothing that they need to do.”
“Unfortunately, the older the kids get and the more activities they have, the harder it gets to make time for quiet and meditation, even though we need it more, of course.” —Elizabeth Rees, Associate Rector, Saint Aidan's Episcopal Church
This is the nature of a family mindfulness session, a chance for families to unplug and disconnect from a world of tablets, smart phones, long commutes, sports practices, homework and errands. Such sessions, says Baechli, offer opportunities for families to reconnect with one another and strengthen their bonds, and are not as difficult to establish as one might think.
“Mindfulness can sound complicated and confusing, especially for children,” she said. “But it’s simply a state of awareness, and that just means noticing what we’re feeling and what we’re sensing at the present moment. And it’s noticing those thoughts and feelings without judgement or criticism. It’s accepting them and letting them pass through our bodies.”
Carving out time to meditate in an overloaded schedule can be a tall order, but simplicity can help overcome that roadblock. “Unfortunately, the older the kids get and the more activities they have, the harder it gets to make time for quiet and meditation, even though we need it more, of course,” said Elizabeth Rees, a mother of three and the associate rector and leader of meditation practices at Saint Aidan's Episcopal Church in Alexandria. “I try to teach my kids breathing techniques and we have a few favorite meditations that we practice periodically before bed. There are also some great [smartphone] apps [like] Insight Timer, Calm and Headspace.”
Understanding what mindfulness is and what it is not can help avoid frustration from unmet expectations. “Grasping the concept of mindfulness is tough for some kids and sitting still for long periods of time to practice can be torture,” said Baechli. “Mindfulness is simply focusing on your thoughts and feelings as they are right in this moment. That’s it. Mindfulness is not a cure-all. Don’t expect it to turn your high-energy son into a quiet child or your daughter who has trouble paying attention and is struggling in school into a straight-A student. That’s probably not going to happen.”
What it can do however, when practiced over time, is help regulate emotions and strengthen one’s ability to concentrate and focus, advises Anne Navolio, Ph.D., a child psychologist based in McLean. She points to a 2012 study by researchers at the University of Washington which credits weekly mindfulness sessions with an improved ability to concentrate. She also references a 2016 study by the University of Wisconsin which showed that even a five minute meditation session each day can increase one’s ability to deal with stressful situations. “For beginning a daily practice, start with shorts sessions, especially for young children. Even one-minute of sitting can be beneficial,” she said. “And if your kids aren’t even interested in that, don’t force it.”
Incorporating meditation music and concepts that children can understand can make the process easier, advises Baechli. “I like to use cymbals at the beginning of a practice or sound a bell,” she said. “Those sounds usually last about 30-45 seconds and sometimes I tell kids to sit quietly and focus on what they’re hearing until they can no longer hear it. I also tell kids, especially boys, to use their superhero senses to determine what they can hear and smell all around them.”
Spending time outside, either on a hike, nature walk or a trek through the park, can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness as a family, says Navolio. “Simply walking in silence for even a few short minutes and noticing birds, squirrels and cars that are passing or even the scents of freshly mowed grass or food cooking in a restaurant you pass can be a mindfulness practice.”
Leading by example can get children engaged in mindfulness practices. “I encourage and model gratitude and attention to small things in the world around us,” said Rees. “I definitely think the more mindful and present we can be, the less angst we will have about the past and the future, neither of which we have much control over.”
Correction: Pleasance Baechli is not a licensed or certified Transcendental Meditation teacher.