Expert Resources for Practicing Mindfulness with Your Kids

How can you pass up an approach that might help your child focus on tasks, calm nervous energy, control negative behavior, and build self-esteem?

You’ve probably heard talk of the concept of mindfulness in your workplace, your yoga class, or your Facebook feed.  It is a concept that traces back to ancient Buddhist meditation but is growing in popularity as a helpful practice for our modern busy lives.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading visionaries in the modern mindfulness movement, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that being more present in our daily lives, and aware of the moments that shape them can help us to “realize the richness and depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation” (1994, p. 4).

Mindfulness is not exactly equal to meditation (which is a relief for those who can’t imagine sitting cross-legged for hours in silence), though meditation is one form of mindfulness. It encompasses a wide range of practices from seated meditation to moving meditation, and from simple breathing exercises to philosophies on how we approach our daily lives.

A 2012 American Psychological Association comprehensive analysis of the benefits of mindfulness cited research showing that the practice: decreases depressive symptoms, increases working memory, reduces stress, increases ability to focus, decreases emotional reactivity, increases “cognitive flexibility”, and increases relationship satisfaction, among other empirical findings.  It’s no wonder the adult world is grabbing on to this practice in a multitude of settings.

How can you pass up an approach that might help your child to focus on tasks, calm nervous energy, control negative behavior, or build self-esteem?

Over the last few years practitioners and educators have begun to explore the potential for mindfulness practice to bring similar benefits to children.  While in some ways the jury is still out on long-term impacts of mindfulness programming for kids (more research is needed), preliminary research has shown promising evidence that children can in fact participate in well-designed mindfulness activities and that they may reap similar benefits to adults.  In addition to the benefits described above, research has shown that mindfulness can improve self-esteem and self-regulation as well as academic performance in children. 

Schools, counselors, and other youth settings are beginning to integrate mindfulness in many ways, but parents can also use mindfulness with their kids at home.

How can you pass up an approach that might help your child to focus on tasks, calm nervous energy, control negative behavior, or build self-esteem?

The question, then, becomes: where do I start?

The following is a curated list of resources and activities for beginning the journey of mindfulness practice with your children; it is simply a place to start but may help you to begin integrating these practices into daily life in your own house.

Explaining mindfulness to kids:

Let’s start with some resources on how you can explain mindfulness to kids.  Mindful Magazine is an excellent resource for ideas on mindfulness practice at home (or at work).  Their article on teaching kids about the brain uses a visual metaphor of a house (“upstairs and downstairs”) to help kids understand how the brain relates to the rest of the body.  You can use this concept to help teach your kids about how the brain works and to talk with them about this complex idea in a way that may help them to understand how it plays out in their life.

An artistic and tactile activity is also an option.  The glitter jar activity described in Mindful Magazine engages kids in creating a jar of water and glitter (like a snow globe); by watching the glitter float around in a frenzy when shaken up, then settle to the bottom as it is allowed to rest, kids can begin to understand how the activities of their daily life may cause their brain to get overloaded.  You can use the jar as both an explanatory tool and a mindfulness practice (“let’s sit together and take some deep breaths while we watch the glitter settle”).

I was pleasantly surprised by my son’s reaction to this project on a Sunday afternoon when he was starting to get antsy.  He embraced the fun side of the project (shaking the jar around) but also was able to relate to his father how the jar represented his brain and how it had to be allowed to rest a bit in order to calm down.

Practicing mindfulness with kids:

There are a million ways in which you might practice mindfulness with your kids, and they range in formality from encouraging your child to really focus on a given activity (my son immediately calms down when he takes on the challenge of building a new Lego figure) to doing intentional exercises with them like yoga or mindful walking.  Even my toddler is beginning to understand what I am asking when I ask her to “take a deep breath” with me.

Here are a couple of my favorite resources for kid-friendly mindful activity ideas:

  1. The Mindful Teachers website has a great list of potential mindfulness activities for kids that can just as easily be done at home.  For example, when my son is too anxious or excited to sleep we use the body scan (something I use frequently myself) to help him redirect his energy and stop thinking about whatever is keeping him awake.
  2. The Mindful Schools website also has a list of guided practices, with audio explanations to help you learn more.  Our interest in connecting our kids with nature makes “mindful walking” a favorite – simply invite kids to take a slow, quiet walk and to intentionally notice how their body moves or to gently take in what is around them through all of their senses.
  3. Scott Sampson’s book How to Raise a Wild Child is a great link between nature-based play, learning, and mindfulness.  The concept of choosing a “sit spot,” where you simply sit and notice the natural world around you, is one of Sampson’s strategies for nature exploration.  My son’s teacher uses this practice as part of her Forest Kindergarten curriculum and we have used it at home as a way to connect with the land around our homestead while also encouraging quiet time.
  4. Gonoodle.com is a site I often recommend for helping kids to use technology in a way that encourages movement.  Among their list of “channels”, Go Noodle also includes “Flow” and “Think About it” which offer short breathing and guided thought exercises (you can also find these through the “calming” category).  They also have a stretching category which includes a number of yoga videos designed to capture kids’ attention.    Most of these videos are under five minutes and many focus on positive self-image.  My son will often start with an exciting exercise video on the site and follow it up with a more calming option.
  5. Lastly, I love this “Follow the Bird” mindfulness activity profiled in Mindful Magazine.  Just invite your child to simply stand in a field until they see a bird, approach it slowly, then gently follow it as it flies away.

We cannot expect our kids, or ourselves, to be intentionally mindful every minute of every day.  But I do believe that we can use the concept of mindfulness to bring a little bit more peace to each day; in fact the essence of the practice is the act of redirecting our attention when faced with stress, anxiety, or complexity. We can also equip our children with a skill that will last a lifetime, a skill that many of us are just trying to learn as adults.  What an advantage that would be!

If mindfulness seems counter to your daily frenzied life, begin with something small and see how it goes. I would love to hear how it works for you.

55 Percent of Adults Believe Kids’ Health Worse Today Than When They Were Children

Most U.S. Adults Say Today’s Children Have Worse Health Than in Past Generations; Higher stress, diminished quality family time linked to worse health for children

Most U.S. Adults Say Today’s Children Have Worse Health Than in Past Generations

Higher stress, diminished quality family time linked to worse health for children

More than half of adults believe children today are more stressed, experience less quality family time and have worse mental and emotional health.

“We have seen major advances in medicine and public health over the last century that have greatly reduced children’s illness and death. On the other hand, conditions like childhood obesity, asthma and behavior problems have become more common,” said Matthew M. Davis, M.D., M.A.P.P., director of the poll and professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Mott Poll Children Health

The poll also found generational differences in adults’ perceptions of children’s health: Pre-baby boomers ages 70 and older were most likely to perceive that children’s physical health today is better than when they were growing up. Baby boomers (ages 51-69), generation Xers (ages 35-50) and millennials in the 18-34 age group were less likely to perceive that children’s physical health is better now.

Source: Newswise

Half a million kids have elevated blood levels of lead, according to the CDC – and Elmo

More than half a million kids have elevated blood levels of lead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We all care about lead in Flint now, which is great,” Oliver said. “Unfortunately, the problem is not just in Flint. A USA Today network report found lead contamination in almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states.” (To see your neighborhood’s risk of elevated lead levels, head here.)

At least 2.1 million homes have lead paint exposure risk and kids under six years old. As a result, more than half a million kids have elevated blood levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Study: Concussions Can Negatively Alter Parent-Child Relationships

The young brain is particularly vulnerable to injury and one of the first visible signs of social difficulties in young children is a decline in their relationship with their parents.

The incidence of concussion is particularly high in the preschool years — up to around 2% of children aged 0 to 5 years per year.

A new study by researchers at CHU Sainte-Justine mother-child research hospital (affiliated with the University of Montreal) reveals the adverse effects of mild traumatic brain injury on the quality parent-child relationships.

“The young brain is particularly vulnerable to injury because the skull is still thin and malleable. In the months following the injury, one of the first visible signs of social difficulties in young children is a decline in their relationship with their parents,” said Miriam Beauchamp a researcher at Sainte-Justine, professor of psychology at the University of Montreal and senior author of the study.

Knowing that good parent-child relationships are synonymous with better social skills later in life, the researchers stress the importance for parents to monitor behavior changes in their child in the weeks that follow the trauma and adjust accordingly during this period.

Given the relatively limited social and cognitive skills of preschoolers, a concussion at this age can slow the development of new abilities, for example, certain communication skills.

“The quality of parent-child interactions following concussion was significantly reduced compared to non-injured children,” said Gabrielle Lalonde, BSc, a doctoral student and first author of the study.

“If, as parents, you notice the effects of the accident on your own psychological state, or behavioral changes in your child that make them interact differently and that persist more than a few weeks, you should talk to your family doctor or a neuropsychologist,” said Beauchamp.

Source: Newswise.com: Concussion Can Alter Parent-Child Relationships

+ Further reading: Concussion: Why Kids are Most at Risk

 

Millions of Maternal and Child Lives Could Be Saved Every Year for Less Than $5 a Person

Improving care at the time of birth gives a quadruple return on investment.

By spending less than $5 per person on essential health care services such as contraception, medication for serious illnesses and nutritional supplements, millions of maternal and child lives could be saved every year, according to a new analysis led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Improving care at the time of birth gives a quadruple return on investment.

By spending less than $5 per person on essential health care services such as contraception, medication for serious illnesses and nutritional supplements, millions of maternal and child lives could be saved every year, according to a new analysis led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The findings, published April 9 in The Lancet, suggest it is possible to save many lives by broadly expanding basic services in the 74 low- and middle-income countries where more than 95 percent of the world’s maternal and child deaths occur annually.

“Many of these deaths could be prevented if high-impact and affordable solutions reached the populations that needed them most,” says study leader Robert Black, PhD, a professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School. “Our analysis shows that expanding access to care to keep more mothers and children alive and healthy is feasible and a highly cost-effective investment.”

Interventions ranged from improving pregnancy and delivery care, to treating life-threatening infectious diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria, and better childhood nutrition. These services, they found, could prevent 1.5 million newborn deaths, 1.5 million child deaths, and 149,000 maternal deaths — equivalent to half of all maternal, newborn and child deaths annually. They could also prevent 849,000 stillbirths, or more than a third of all annual stillbirths.

Original source: Newswise 

5 Strategies to Reduce Your Kid’s Anxiety You Can Implement Today

As a Child and Family Therapist, the concern I hear most is “I think my child may have anxiety, and I’m not sure how to help.” Here are research-based tips.

As a child and family therapist, the concern I hear most often is, “I think my child may have anxiety and I’m not sure how to help them.”

I don’t need to travel as far as my office to see the various ways anxiety impacts children in today’s world. As a mom of three, I see firsthand how the world incites excessive stress in our kids.

Our children are encompassed in a culture of fear: fear of health and safety, fear of not being the best, fear of not fitting in, fear of failing a test, fear of not making the team, and the list goes on and on.

With 1 in 8 children experiencing anxiety (and many more feeling stressed), it would be difficult to deny that our kids are facing an inordinate amount of pressure in their daily lives. Luckily, there are some straightforward, research-based, hugely effective strategies that you can practice with your kids in order to start lowering their anxiety today.

1| Be a media monitor

Evidence shows that exposure to news programming and fictional media such as video games, movies, and TV shows can cause children to experience fear and anxiety.  When children are exposed to violent or aggressive content, their brains process it in the same way as if it were actually happening to them.

This means stress hormones are triggered, and the amygdala goes into overdrive creating an anxious response in the brain. In addition to this, if children are exposed to mature content that their maturing brain can’t yet process, it will leave them feeling overwhelmed and anxious.  With the barrage of media sources out there today, resources such as Common Sense Media are invaluable for assisting parents in setting these essential boundaries.

2 | Harness the power of helpful thoughts.

Positive thinking has become a cliché, but I assure you, it is a powerhouse in terms of lowering anxiety. The thoughts your child has in any given scenario will shape their feelings and behavior.

You, as a parent, have the ability to pay attention to your child’s language and alert them to negative thought patterns that contribute to anxiety.

Good indicators of negative thinking are the use of exaggerations, extremes (I always, I never), or speculative statements such as “what if…” or “I might…” Assist them in challenging the thoughts that are not based in fact or reason, and collaborate with them to come up with a more reasonable and self-affirming statement.

3 | Become breathing buddies.

Odds are, you will be present with your child in a moment during the day where either of you may be feeling stressed. This is a great opportunity to experience the massive power of a few good quality breaths. Sit up straight, draw your breath into your abdomen, and count to four during each exhale and inhale.

There is no faster way to calm down an anxious physiology (lower stress hormones, lower blood pressure, and increase oxygenation to the front brain promoting problem solving) than taking good impactful breaths.

4 | Engage in beginner mindfulness.

A very practical way to begin sowing seeds of mindfulness with your child is practicing gratitude. Take a minute to each share three things you are feeling thankful for at that moment. When our brains are focusing on gratitude the part of our brain responsible for maintaining anxiety is forced to shut down. You are also helping draw your child’s thoughts into the present moment as opposed to ruminating in the past or speculating about the future.

5 | Be a safe haven.

Many kids work through tough feelings that contribute to anxiety through talking. Demonstrating you are available and present will encourage your child to share their thoughts and emotions. When they are sharing, resist the urge to criticize or lecture them. Repeat back to them what they shared and empathize with how they are feeling. Utilize the powerful listening skills of acceptance, validation, and empathy, and you will demonstrate to your child that you are a supportive resource to turn to when they are feeling anxious or stressed.

Resources

Concussions: Why Kids Are Most at Risk

Until recently, it was thought that concussion from accidents was a temporary malfunction rather than a permanent injury.

Earlier this year, my 11-year-old daughter got a concussion.

She was sledding with her sisters on our property and hit her head against a tree. I saw the incident: Her sled turned midway through the run (they had built their own track) so she was going backwards, gaining speed. I could tell the way she hit the tree – with a whiplash-like velocity – that the impact was not your average bump to the head.

A concussion is caused by the internal movement and distortion of the brain as it bounces around inside the cranium after an impact. This is different than, for example, getting hit in the head by a ball. In that case, the injury is caused by the force of the ball being directly transmitted to your skull.

Science is taking big steps toward understanding the effects of concussion and, although much more research still has to be done, the results so far are worrisome. Until quite recently, it was thought that concussion from accidents in contact sports (such as American football) was a temporary malfunction rather than a permanent injury.

This changed in 2005 when research by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist at the county coroner’s office in Pittsburgh, discovered a link between concussion and a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. His research showed that one out of five concussions leads to post-concussion syndrome, “a period of cognitive impairment that may last months, in which patients have headaches, unsteadiness and other problems.” In some cases it seems likely that repeated concussions lead to CTE. The results of his research with retired football players and subsequent fight between Dr. Omalu and the NFL is the subject of a recent film called “Concussion.”

Although my daughter did not pass out or have other obvious symptoms of a concussion (such as vomiting or nausea, dizziness, confusion, or loss of memory) I didn’t rule it out. My experience with concussions is very limited – I have never had one nor have any of my four daughters. They are athletic but have chosen recreational sports such as swim team and dance as opposed to higher impact sports, like hockey, for example. I figured our risk for concussion was low. The girls ski and ice skate (wearing helmets) and we have never had an incident with sledding (no helmets) until that Saturday afternoon.

We took it easy the next day and although she said her head hurt a little she seemed fine. When she came home from school that following Monday she complained of a headache. I figured this could be because she was recently sick with a bad cold and still had congestion – it could be sinus-related.

Or, it could be a symptom of a concussion.

As someone who tends to not worry too much, I decided to wait another day and see if she still had a headache. It was after school on Tuesday that I called the nurse at our pediatrician’s office. My daughter had gone to her swim team practice and I got a text from her saying she had to sit out after a half hour because of a terrible headache. The nurse recommended total “brain rest,” which meant no homework, no reading or writing, and no screen time. If her headache went away after that, it was most likely a concussion and we should come in the following morning to see a doctor. My daughter groaned, concerned about her grades and falling behind at school.

Two hours later, she no longer had a headache. We were relieved and concerned at the same time. We knew she almost certainly had a concussion, but what now?

A recent report in The Economist says that the underlying biology of a concussion is becoming clearer. This mostly relates to the release of certain chemicals when axons (the filamentous connections between nerve cells) are damaged. One main challenge is to try to understand whether a particular injury is likely to have long-term consequences. Certain proteins are released into the brain after head injuries and developing a test to find the presence of those proteins might provide a way to determine an injured player or person’s prognosis. This would help athletes, coaches and, I would argue, parents, to determine when a player should return to the field, or a child to regular activities and recreational sports.

At the doctor’s office, my daughter was subjected to a series of neurological tests that required her to do things like touch her nose then touch the doctor’s extended index finger in rapid succession. The idea is not to tell us conclusively that she has a concussion, rather it rules out other bigger problems like bleeding or swelling in her brain.

It is estimated that 4-5 million people suffer from concussions each year (those are the reported ones, most likely there are many more) and there is an emerging trend among younger, middle school athletes. Many young people return to playing sports long before their brain has had time to heal. Even more don’t report symptoms because they fear a loss of standing in their sport. According to the Economist, a survey of American university athletes in 2014 found that 20% believed they had suffered a concussion but almost 80% of those decided to continue to play rather than seek medical attention.

The point is that adult athletes can make up their own minds about what risks they want to take, but children cannot. The Economist suggests that it is therefore children who should attract the greatest attention. They cite a 2012 study by Andrew Mayer at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque that subtle brain changes in children who have sustained a concussion persist for months after the injury, even when there are no longer any obvious symptoms. They also cite a study, perhaps even more worrisome, which found that children who had sustained a single sports-related concussion still had impaired brain function two years later. Ten-year-olds with a history of concussion performed worse on tests of working memory, attention, and impulse control than their uninjured counterparts.

We left the doctor’s office with the information that my daughter had to manage her own symptoms, meaning if she felt a headache, she needed to back off and stop reading/screentime/physical activities and rest up. We were given a piece of paper outlining recent rules to live by to help her gradually integrate back into sports and activities. With each small step (24 hours symptom-free) she could ramp up her activity. If symptoms returned, we had to go back to the previous step and do less, or with less intensity.

It’s been three months now and my daughter still has headaches. We’ve become paranoid about letting her do normal things like wrestling with her Dad and sisters, going skiing, or even doing Pacers during her middle school P.E class. What if it’s too much? What if she regresses and suffers from memory loss or can’t concentrate?

Soccer season will start up in another month or so and I’m worried. I don’t want my child to get hit in the head while she is still healing and yet we don’t really know how long it will take to fully heal. Our doctor says it could take months and that she should be fine, but it’s the cumulative effect that we need to watch out for. If she gets another concussion, she runs the risk of doing permanent damage to her brain.

The good news is we know more now and concussion is not the invisible injury it once was. The teachers and administrators at my daughter’s middle school were extremely supportive of her and let her stop working at the onset of a headache, encouraged her to sit out of PE, and to take a break during long periods of iPad use. For this I was grateful. But how can we prevent children from sustaining a concussion in the first place?

I don’t know the answer to that; perhaps less emphasis on contact sports? Better testing for possible concussions after a head injury? More accountability for concussion management and time for athletes to heal? All I know for sure is that I will now require my children to wear helmets when sledding. Perhaps they will start a new trend.

 

Kids’ Grades Can Suffer When Mom Or Dad Is Depressed

Children with a depressed parent do worse in school than peers, a study finds. But other research shows that early diagnosis and treatment can help turn that around for the whole family.

A large Swedish study showed that grades may decline when a parent is depressed.

The quantity and quality of education can make a difference well beyond school years. It’s one of the “strongest predictors of health and life expectancy that we have,” she says.

The needs and demands of children can be overwhelming even for mentally healthy parents, much less those struggling to cope with depression.

But, there is a silver lining: Depression is extremely treatable. “At the end of three months, if mom got better, the children got better.”

Clinical depression is common, and a large number of adults can be expected to suffer a serious episode at some point in their lives. But even if you’ve inherited a propensity to depression, Weissman says, you can get diagnosed and treated as soon as possible, to good effect.

Source: Kids’ Grades Can Suffer When Mom Or Dad Is Depressed

45% of common sunscreen ingredients mess with sperm function

Evidence emerges that 45% of common sunscreen ingredients mess with sperm function.

Researchers have found that 13 out of 29 UV filters used in sunscreens in the US and Europe can disrupt the function of human sperm cells – with some even mimicking the effect of the female hormone progesterone, and messing with sperm mobility.

“Our study suggests that regulatory agencies should have a closer look at the effects of UV filters on fertility before approval,” said lead researcher Niels Skakkebaek from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Source: 45% of common sunscreen ingredients mess with sperm function

New Research: Kids With Autism Fixate on Mouth Rather Than Eyes

Kids with the autism fixate longer on a speaker’s mouth rather than the eyes when the conversation turns emotional.

Where do your eyes focus during a conversation? An innovative study by University of Vermont researchers reveals that for children with autism spectrum disorder, the answer depends on how emotional the conversation is.

The study, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, shows that children with the developmental disability fixate longer on a speaker’s mouth rather than the eyes when the conversation turns emotional.

It’s the first study of its kind to use eye tracker technology to monitor eye movement during an interactive conversation, and the results could affect the way speech therapists treat the estimated 1 in 68 children who struggle with the social, communication and behavioral challenges caused by autism spectrum disorder (ASD).