We all have our share of chaos and craziness to deal with during a typical day. It is simply not avoidable! It is no easy task for parents to manage their stress levels, hold things together for the family, and remember countless pieces of information with a reasonable degree of accuracy (such as where to pick up what child and when, what to buy at the store, or where did I put my shoes???) Daily demands challenge our own mental functioning. Our children become part of the experience of the day to day craziness, and some children do not have the intact executive functioning skills required to navigate through these tasks and responsibilities with success. Enter in emotional dysregulation (AKA “meltdowns”!), difficulties with focus and attending (“are you listening to me?!”), tasks not getting completed (“how many times have I asked you to…!”), and other executive functioning challenges.
How can Mindfulness help with executive functioning deficits? Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor, author, and developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”. Mindfulness activities and strategies are known to have a settling, or calming, effect on the brain and the body. Because mindfulness is a process of becoming aware and attentive to what is happening around you, as well as what is happening in your own mind and body, mindfulness-based strategies will naturally settle the nervous system and create a sense of relaxation and calm. According to MindfulSchools.org, children who use mindfulness in the classroom experience increased access to the functions of the prefrontal cortex and are better learners as a result. When students are experiencing high levels of stress, their prefrontal cortex goes “offline” and the primitive brain functions of fight-flight-freeze come “online”. The nervous system must be settled to access reasoning, communication, and conflict resolution skills, in addition to other executive functions. Simple strategies such as mindful breathing, mindful listening, or doing a body scan can be done in 1 to 2 minutes, and these strategies bring about immediate positive effects on executive functioning. I have seen this first-hand while teaching mindfulness strategies to classrooms of children.
An important note: mindfulness is not meant to be a “cure” for diagnoses such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorders; however, mindfulness strategies have been proven by research to decrease anxiety and emotional reactivity, improve attention, and help children become more able to handle daily challenges and choose their behavior. In one recent study, Hwang and colleagues (Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2015) studied families who underwent an 8-week mindfulness program, and found that it led to an increase in the quality of family life, reduction of stress in parents, and reduction of anxiety and thought problems in children with ASD. I have used mindfulness techniques with children with ADHD and ASD diagnoses with a great degree of success. For children who are “sensory” (both hyper-sensitive or sensory seeking), many are drawn to the experiential and sensation-based elements of mindfulness strategies.
One of the fantastic benefits of teaching mindfulness to children, is that you are actually teaching them how to notice, and gently change, their thoughts and emotions on their own, which builds their capacity to stay regulated and focused for longer periods of time. Who wouldn’t want a more focused, present, and emotionally regulated child? Well, here is where we as parents have to take a gentle peek in the mirror (non-judgmentally of course!) and ask ourselves, are we taking a few moments throughout the day to be mindful? Remember, we model for our children constantly. If you have not made the time to bring mindfulness-based activities and strategies into your home, now is the time to do so. There are many resources out there that have been developed to help children of all ages and parents practice mindfulness in a way that is fun and interesting. One of my favorite resources is “Sitting Still Like a Frog” by Eline Snel. It is a little gem of a book that comes with a guided exercises CD. The mindfulness exercises can be done alone or with your children.
Creating moments between the episodes of chaos and craziness in life to practice mindfulness will, over time, make those episodes more tolerable...and you and your children will enjoy the benefits of improved executive functioning.