No one is immune to stress, least of all teenagers. In fact, according to a 2014 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, the generation that experienced the most stress was teenagers. On average, younger adults report higher stress levels, and are more likely than older generations to report that their stress has increased in the past year. In addition, they are most likely to say they do not feel they are doing enough to manage their stress. And stress impacts kids younger than teens. Tweens and younger children are often more stressed than their parents actually recognize.
So how we can help our kids handle the inevitable slings and arrows of stress? (This is an age when my six-year-old knows how to use the word glitch as a verb.)
The best defense against stress is mindfulness—that is a less reactive, more intentional response to real or perceived fear. Mindfulness offers the choice to respond to fear in other ways beyond our favorite default: fight or flight. Knee-deep in our current “mindfulness revolution,” there are now thousands of studies that show that mindfulness can reduce stress, boost mood, and improve concentration.
Mindfulness helps us slow things down-it deaccelerates the crazy pace of our lives. It helps us check in instead of check out. And just practicing mindfulness ourselves has a trickle down affect with our kids.
According to Christopher Willard, author of Growing up Mindful, “The research is clear: If you are a parent and practice mindfulness, you are likely to have a happy, healthier family with better communication and conflict.” Our mindfulness matters—call it mindfulness creep. But we can also directly teach kids the skills they need to become more curious about their experiences and to learn to identify their stress triggers. Here’s how.
3 ways to practice mindfulness with your kids
Name it to tame it
To name an emotion loosens its grip on us. Labeling our emotions helps us normalize them and accept them as they are, with less judgment and reactivity. One game, called Mind-body Go, developed by Susan Kaiser Greenfield, helps kids distinguish between sensations in the body and thoughts in the mind. They are connected but distinct—something we often lose track of. Willard explains how the game is played in his book: “In a group setting, everyone takes a turn identifying one feeling in the body and one feeling in the mind, but quickly and without thinking first. ‘I feel tight in the body, stressed in my mind,’ or ‘My body feels tired, and my mind feels sad.’”
Inspired by the Monty Python comedy sketch about the Ministry of Silly Walks, Jan Chozen Bays, a meditation teacher and author, came up with the idea of silly walking as a mindfulness practice. The idea is to create hilarious walks and crack your kids—and yourself--up. It’s a surprisingly effective way for kids to get the sillies out and for adults to shake off any restrictive self-consciousness.
Try this kid-friendly version of a lovingkindness practice, defined by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield as a meditation that “uses words, images, and feelings to evoke a lovingkindness and friendliness toward oneself and others.” This practice helps kids feel empathy for themselves first and then expands that compassion outwards. Willard gives an example of the wording for this particular practice in his book.
Make a kind wish for yourself.
Make a kind wish for someone you don’t know very well.
And if you feel comfortable or brave, make a kind wish for someone you don’t like very much or who bothers you.
Before we can help our kids with anxiety, we must model it for ourselves. So make a kind wish for yourself—and your own calmness—and from that centered, grounded place your children will get a glimpse of the way forward.