Did you know that mindfulness can help us improve our mental wellbeing?
Being mindful means being present – whether it’s to our external surroundings, or our internal thoughts and feelings. It’s about focusing on one object or idea or thought. When we are mindful to the current moment, we are less likely to become bogged down in future worries or fears, or ruminate on past disappointments or regrets.
Being mindful is a valuable skill in our toolkit to ward off mental illness. We often think about preventative medicine in terms of exercise and a healthy diet to reduce our risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. But preventative medicine can, and should, also include mental health.
Unfortunately, many of us largely ignore our mental health until we start showing symptoms of psychological distress, such as sleep disturbances or eating problems or difficulty coping with our emotions. And this problem is becoming worse, particularly in the younger generations. Around a third of the adolescent population (aged 12-17) experience high levels of mental distress – significant enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis.
One of the ways to improve mental health in youngsters is to teach them to be mindful. And it can be taught right from infancy. In fact, children are better at mindfulness than adults, because they haven’t quite developed their multi-tasking skills. And it’s multi tasking that can be counterproductive to mindfulness, especially in today’s world when we routinely complete many activities at a time (drinking coffee when driving a car, whilst having a conversation with the radio on in the background – sound familiar?).
We can easily teach our children to be mindful, provided that we do so in a developmentally appropriate way.
Kids learn by watching and doing. So, for even very small children, we can ask them questions to help them focus on the present moment. What does that playdoh feel like? What sounds can you hear right now? What colours can you see on your shirt? What animals are on the cover of that book?
As children become older and more aware of their thoughts and emotions, we can begin encouraging them to describe their internal state in the same way. When we notice our child becoming excited, we might ask how their stomach feels, or what their heartbeat is doing, or what they are imagining right now. This is a platform to begin teaching the link between thoughts and emotional state (positive thoughts create positive emotions, etc).
Once children understand the link between thoughts and emotions, this is where the fun can really begin! We can encourage them to take control of their emotional state by changing their thoughts. This is the foundation of resilience, when children become aware that they can create their own emotional state with volition, rather than being at the mercy of what’s going on around them. We can encourage our children to transform undesirable emotions into desirable emotions (e.g. annoyance into amusement, by thinking about something funny).
Mindfulness is a skill that unfolds with time, experience, and cognitive maturation. Just like learning to cook, we can expect young children to require lots of guidance and supervision for basic tasks, and the level of support can gradually be withdrawn as the child becomes older and more independent. The best thing we can do is to be patient, be encouraging whenever we notice opportunities to practice this skill, and above all – make sure that WE adopt this practice, and allow our children to observe us doing so.