Margaret Galbraith’s four-year-old son hated washing his hair. He expressed this contempt each time she tried washing it a new way, exhausting them both.
One night, her husband remembered their son enjoyed whale music in his preschool yoga class.
He turned on the bath water, cradled his son’s head, and began describing the relaxing feeling of floating in water. He prompted his son to imagine the whale music.
If a single phrase could stop a child’s temper tantrum in its tracks, the parenting aisle at the bookstore would be significantly smaller.
There is no magic spell, but Margaret’s family was onto something.
Mindfulness is a buzzword with merit to its acclaim. Research in Canada and the U.S. suggests children who learn mindfulness meditation skills can invoke key words, phrases and images to calm themselves, instead of door-slamming, screaming and rolling on the floor.
Mindfulness, simply put, is, “paying attention to what’s happening right now with kindness and curiosity,” says Dr. Lee Freedman, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Centre for Mindfulness Studies.
She has seen children with especially poor impulse control, such as those diagnosed with ADHD, learn to curb volatile reactions by feeling their breaths. That moment of quiet gives pause to more rational thoughts and less reactivity.
These skills develop over time before they can be useful in specific upsetting moments, says Dr. Freedman. Talking about mindfulness techniques in a calm setting can set the stage for the child to use those skills before a tantrum erupts.
Start inside your wrist. “Check your own pulse,” says Dr. Freedman. A child’s tantrum upsets our own nervous systems so it is important to ground yourself, mindfully. At three to five years old, children’s brains don’t process words when they are feeling upset. They instead read faces, hear tone of voice and interpret body posture.
Let your child watch you take a few deep breaths, slow down your movements, and return to a calm state. If all else fails, at least you brought yourself some harmony amidst a challenging parenting moment.
Sherry Leblanc, a longtime yoga teacher, works with children to capitalize on their natural penchant for living in the moment mindfully. It’s harnessing all their energy that is difficult, she said.
“I challenge them to see if they can sit quietly for 30 counts, then 45 counts, up to a minute,” she says. She teaches them to sit and breathe in quiet.
In time, she says this practice teaches kids to recognize when they are beginning to feel upset and take a break to calm themselves before returning to an activity.
At home, parents can remove noisy distractions and devices, set up a quiet space to practise sitting and listen to their breathing together.
Showing a preschool-aged child to breathe mindfully need not be serious work.
Dr. Freedman suggests blowing bubbles, drawing attention to long, slow exhales. This accesses the nervous system’s calm-down response.
She also recommends pairing deep breathing with a physical movement, like holding a yoga pose.
Leah Dilley, RMT and author of What’s Your Spaghetti? A children’s guide to self-regulation, offers parents ways to help children navigate big feelings with simple tips:
Use simple exercises to give children a memorable action to recall and initiate when they are beginning to feel upset. Dr. Freedman suggests teaching this exercise in a calm moment for use later:
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November/December 2015.