behavior

Mindfulness for Children

Contributor Dr. Elise Herman

We live in a busy and often stressful world. Mindfulness is a simple concept that can help parents and kids be calmer and enjoy life more. Mindfulness means being present, paying attention to what is happening, and accepting it non-judgmentally. This technique is helpful at all ages but learning this when young means children will carry it forward as they grow up. Kids’ brains are still developing, including the prefrontal cortex, which directs focus and control. Mindfulness targets this part of the brain, so it is an excellent opportunity to encourage these skills while the brain is actively growing. Research has shown that mindfulness helps decrease anxiety and improve attention in school-age children. As a result, many schools include mindfulness in their curriculum.

Like so many other things in parenting, modeling behavior is very influential. Practicing mindfulness also helps you parent more effectively. Slowing down, noticing the ‘little things’, making good eye contact, and eliminating distractions (e.g., phones) will help you be present for your child. Start this mindful practice early, beginning with feeding your newborn. Put your phone out of reach (or turn it off), so you won’t be tempted to be looking at it instead of your child.

You can promote mindfulness with your toddler by engaging in activities encouraging focus, such as looking at books, going on walks, and coloring. Just looking closely at grass or flowers (and maybe you’ll find a bug!) teaches patience and calm. Toddlers can also learn to take slow breaths when upset or frustrated. You can demonstrate this, too, and be an excellent example of handling difficult emotions.

Preschoolers can practice mindfulness and focus by being quiet for a short time and increasing this as their patience and ability to “be” increases. Some parents do this at bedtime, starting with kids having eyes closed, being quiet and calm for 15 seconds, then working up to several minutes or more. Your child may then be able to calm themselves more quickly at other times, such as when upset. Taking walks in nature and being attentive to clouds, leaves, birds, etc., encourages your child to be present and focused. Notice and discuss the five senses as you go about your day. What is your child aware of in terms of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling? You can include mindfulness in eating– enjoying food slowly and being aware of taste and smell instead of just eating in a rush without truly paying attention.

Older kids can understand more about the concepts of mindfulness and master mindfulness techniques. By learning to observe something with curiosity and acceptance instead of having an immediate emotional reaction, your child will be better able to handle complex and stressful situations. By fully paying attention to the present, it is easier to let go of regrets about the past and worries about the future. A simple technique is focusing on the breath; counting each breath up to 10 (‘one breath’ equals breathing in and out) helps with this. Imagining each breath as a gentle wave can also be very calming. Mindful breathing is a form of meditating and can be done for just a minute or more throughout the day. This really does train the mind to focus and be more grounded.

There are lots of helpful online resources. “Smiling Mind” is an Australian website and free app with good info about kids and mindfulness, regulating emotions, and how to promote empathy and connectedness. Other apps have fees but can be very valuable including “Headspace for Kids” and “Calm.” Your child is always learning from you, so the more ‘present’ you are with your child (this means putting down phones), the more both of you can be mindful, calm, and enjoy life.

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Dr. Elise Herman

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Dr. Herman is passionate about community health outreach, school programs, and child/family health and wellness. She has more than 31 years of experience as a pediatrician in Ellensburg, Washington, the last 3 with KVH Pediatrics. In 2022 Dr. Herman retired from practice and continues to contribute blog posts and remain a visible advocate for kids in the community.

Sibling Rivalry

Contributor: Elise Herman, MD, KVH Pediatrics

If we have more than one child, we hope they will get along and be good friends, and more than likely that will happen one day. But before that time and almost as soon as the second child arrives, sibling conflict and rivalry can start. Especially now with so much family together time given the COVID pandemic and its restrictions, it is helpful to understand sibling rivalry and to have strategies to help your kids live (somewhat) peaceably together.

Sibling rivalry occurs because kids are vying for their parents’ attention, and negative attention (attention for bad behavior) is better than none. Often times, parents give much more attention when behavior is troublesome than when it is ‘what is expected’.

Children also want to ‘become their own person’; to stand out and make a name for themselves within the family. Squawking the loudest and trying to be better than their siblings accomplishes this. Sibling rivalry is more common if family members don’t have functional ways to solve conflicts and resort to yelling and getting very angry. If life is stressful and parents are tired (thanks, COVID!), behavior may worsen. Likewise, hunger and fatigue may contribute as well.

So how can we our help kids get along?

  • Give lots of positive attention to functional behaviors and they will increase– being kind, helping a sibling, letting someone else go first, etc. Practice these skills as they take time to develop.
  • Teach kids to use “I” messages (“I feel upset when…”) instead of “you” messages (“You make me so mad!”) which make people feel defensive.
  • Help kids understand that things may not always be exactly equal, but they will be fair. For example, kids at different ages will have different chores and privileges.
  • Do not compare your children as this just fuels competitiveness.
  • Establish ground rules: no name-calling or physical aggression, etc. and clear consequences if these rules are broken.
  • Try to stay out of conflicts and let kids know that if you do step in, it will be the same ‘solution’ for all. Turning off the TV if they can’t agree what to watch solves the problem and teaches kids that they are better off resolving their own conflicts.
  • Have routine family time that is positive like family meals and getting outside regularly as this helps minimize the negative impact of occasional conflicts.
  • Try to have at least 10 minutes alone with each child daily and let your child choose the activity (within reason). Even a few minutes of your time one-on-one helps that child feel valued. No cell phones or distractions during this precious time.
  • Help kids learn to resolve conflict by discussing the issue when calm, troubleshooting what happened and having strategies to do better the next time
  • Teach your kids to say 3 nice things to each other every day; simple things like, “Good morning!” with a smile counts, as does “Thanks for helping me with…” and “You are nice to be with!”. Remember to do this for your kids as well, and everyone will have a more positive attitude.
  • Take heart that most siblings do become friends as they get older. Learning how to solve conflicts with siblings is very useful for future relationships be they with a coworker, spouse or boss. These important lessons from growing up certainly come in handy later in life.