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The Mindful Child

I have had the privilege of working with some wonderful children in therapy. Inevitably, each will stare out from the depth of his or her confusion as if to ask, “How do I operate this thing anyway?” I will volunteer that noticing your feelings and letting yourself feel them is a pretty good start, and I might initiate a game called “Do you notice when?” (Only would children confined to a therapist’s couch consider the exercise a “game.”)

“Do you notice when,” the game might begin, “a grownup treats you like a little kid?”

Nods head emphatically.

“Do you like to be treated that way?”

Shakes head emphatically.

“How does it make you feel? Angry, hurt, annoyed?”

“Annoyed. Verrrrrry annoyed.”

Talking with a child about her feelings might open up into an exploration of more significant issues, or it might not. If not, I will likely start the game again: “Do you notice when…someone says something nice about you?”

The elements of the game—noticing feelings, feeling them, and putting words to them—though seemingly unremarkable, are actually powerful tools in mindfulness training. The child who becomes skilled in mindfulness—defined by mindfulness godfather Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally”—claims her personal power by standing in the center of her experience and consciously participating in it. In learning to consciously participate in her experience, a child initiates a way of relating to herself that will benefit her all of her life:

Let’s start with brain health. “Mindfulness,” writes Bessel A. van der Kolk, the psychiatrist known for his pioneering work in the field of post-traumatic stress, “increases activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and decreases activation of structures like the amygdala that trigger our emotional responses” (p. 286). In other words, when children engage their medial prefrontal cortex by describing their emotional experiences, they often avoid getting swept away by their feelings and feel more in control. And the more children practice engaging their medial prefrontal cortex, the more it becomes a healthy habit because their brains have started to “myelinate” a set response.

The irreducible self. As children become skilled in mindfulness, they start to gain confidence in their capacity to “ride out” emotional responses, knowing that they are not reducible to their parts. They condition in themselves the implicit understanding that they are larger than temporary episodes of shame and irritation. This is huge, for it builds in children a broader sense of self and a greater sense of self-agency: They allow themselves to take risks for goals they value because they trust they can manage fallout emotions such as disappointment.

Relational competence. Being mindful also allows children to participate in relationships with greater confidence. Because they have improved their capacity to own and articulate their emotions, they can avoid helplessness, enforce healthy boundaries, and have the ability to be flexible in conflict. Unsurprisingly, children who learn to be candid and compassionate with their own emotional experiences tend to participate in relationships with the same capacity for openness and empathy.

The wise witness. Mindfulness also trains children in stepping back and taking a panoramic view of their lives, which allows them to recognize the big-picture patterns that cause suffering or happiness and gives them the choice to either upset those patterns or deepen their grooves. Mindful children give themselves the power to make decisions that shape their lives for the better.

Implicit in the above list of benefits is the child’s capacity to feel her emotions. That capacity is often more easily discussed than achieved, for children are conditioned from the earliest age to recognize what parts of themselves are acceptable and worthy of love and what are not. Instinctively, the child senses she must adapt herself to the environment by hiding away vital parts of herself (like anger) in order to ensure her survival. So for a child conditioned to bypass anger, opening to it can feel annihilating.

Still, avoiding emotions that feel dangerous does not serve us in the long run and holds powerful sway over our lives: The compulsion to escape feeling those emotions can lead to addictive behavior, illnesses, or the dissolution of relationships. Becoming mindful of them and their quiet power over us, however, can prevent us from walking blindly into destruction or, more subtlely, prevent us from arguing with our partners after work. Take, for example, this brief scenario: Your boss off-handedly insults your work ethic. It fills you with shame, but since you don't do shame, you push it out of your mind. At home, you are cold and distant, which makes your partner think you're angry at her. The tension builds for another hour until the WiFi blinks out. Your partner yells at you for subscribing to a cheap WiFi provider (she is actually yelling at you for being cold and distant) and you yell back at her for shaming you (you are actually yelling at your boss for shaming you earlier). Ah, life. We really do need an owner’s manual to operate this thing. To my knowledge, a mindfulness practice, which asks us to stand at the center of our experience and live in the power of our wakefulness, is a foundational step in taking ownership—for people of all ages.

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