Mindfulness – Essential Life Skill for Children

“We do not know what specific knowledge our children are going to need ten or twenty years from now, because the world, and their work when they come to it, will be so different from ours. What we do know, is that they will need to know how to pay attention, how to focus and concentrate, how to listen and learn, and how to be in wise relationship with themselves – including their thoughts and emotions – and with others.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness is about living in the now. Essentially, it is about being more aware and awake in every moment of our lives. Mindfulness involves intentionally paying attention to each moment, being fully engaged with whatever is happening around us (externally) and within us (internally). It involves bringing an attitude of curiosity, acceptance and friendliness to whatever is being experienced, rather than judgement and criticism. Mindfulness therefore means maintaining a present-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, or surrounding environment. It also includes the intentional nurturing of positive states of mind such as kindness compassion and gratitude.

Mental Illness is a major concern facing all Australians. One in five adults will experience mental illness in any one year and one in two people in their lifetime. Data from the Australian National Mental Health Survey shows that young people have the highest incidence and prevalence of mental illness across the lifespan, with almost one in seven 4-17 year-olds assessed as having mental disorders in the previous 12 months. Mental health is an essential part of children’s overall health and has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work and in society. As such the emotional wellbeing of children is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

COVID-19 has brought about a complex array of factors such as uncertainty, social isolation and parental angst that have an impact on the mental health of children and adolescents. Predictability which is a major stabilising force for children and adolescents, has been disrupted. Children have worried about whether they will see their friends and extended family, go to school, or get sick. I have experienced this firsthand in my own household with my 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. We as parents are usually adept at making plans for children, however, our future plans are also on hold. The challenges facing parents have interfered with their usual ability to address their children’s emotional needs. At times it has been difficult for parents to calm their children’s anxieties because of the uncertainty in their own lives.

An online survey administered to children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 years during the spread of COVID-19 in China found higher than previously reported scores of youth depression, anxiety; youth who had a family member or friend with COVID-19 had higher levels of anxiety than those who did not. The emotional impact of the COVID-19 quarantine was also assessed for children and adolescents from Italy and Spain. Participant parents of children aged 3 to 18 years who completed a survey about the effects of the quarantine on their children, compared to before the home confinement period. The study found 85.7% of parents reported changes in their children’s emotions and behaviours during the quarantine. The most frequently observed changes were difficulty concentrating (76.6%), boredom (52%), irritability (39%), restlessness (38.8%), nervousness (38%), loneliness (31.3%), uneasiness (30.4%), and worries (30.1%). About 75% of parents reported feeling stressed about the quarantine situation. Parental stress was associated with increased reports of emotional and behavioural symptoms in their children. According to a report by Australian Human Rights Commission and Kids Helpline, surveyed children and young people spoke about worry, stress, feeling trapped, frustration, anger, sadness, loss and grief.

For children, mindfulness is an excellent way to provide experiences that enhance their emotional intelligence including self-regulation, impulse control, understanding their emotions, controlling their emotions and generally become more aware of themselves as a whole person. The benefits of regular mindfulness include keeping themselves calm, reducing stress, being less reactive, increased resilience to life’s inevitable difficulties, a decrease in anxiety, and a renewed energy and reservoir of strength. Children of all ages can benefit from mindfulness, the simple practice of bringing a gentle accepting attitude to the present moment.

There have been thousands of research papers written on the benefits of mindfulness and its health benefits over the last 40 years. It has been proved that even just a few minutes of mindfulness a day has enormous benefits and helps children to focus and bring full attention to their tasks. To date, majority of research into the effects of mindfulness on children and adolescents has been carried out in the United States and, to a lesser degree, in the United Kingdom, at least one study has also been conducted among primary school children in Australia. This research has shown that the mental health and wellbeing outcomes for younger people are consistent with those observed for adults. In particular, reduction in stress, and depressive and anxiety symptoms, and increases in calmness, self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-regulation and sleep quality have been regularly observed. In the Australian study, there was a significant reduction in depressive symptoms and the number of children falling into the borderline or diagnostic category of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) following completion of a 10-week mindfulness in schools programme. Other benefits of mindfulness training among children and adolescents include improved social and emotional competence, and behavioural regulation.

Research also suggests that mindfulness practice also has more direct benefits on academic achievement, including an increased ability to transfer previously learned material to new situations, increased creativity and independence, an improved ability to retain instructional knowledge, an improved ability for selective attention and a decrease in levels of test anxiety.

By teaching mindfulness to kids, we can provide them with the tools they need to build confidence, cope with stress, and relate to uncomfortable or challenging moments. In terms of life skills to teach children, mindfulness is up there with learning about money, sustainability, etiquette, resilience, and adaptability.

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