this article original appeared in April/May 2018 canfitpro magazine
I’ve been struck recently by the importance of the TD Bank ads surrounding teaching our children about money. Speaking for myself, I can certainly say I learned the hard way on this road. Interestingly enough, until the last few years we’ve also maintained the same attitude around mental wellness and self-care. Making the same assumptions that kids will figure it out along the way, because that’s how we did, and our parents did etc. The problem is the world is different now. We’ve made a consolidated effort in the western world to deal with the epidemic of childhood obesity by getting our kids outside, getting them involved in sports and of educating the public on the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. This is amazing and has helped so many kids find an outlet for their energy and get fit and then by default (because lucky for us, exercise does this) has improved anxiety and mental wellness as well.
But there is something else many of us have discovered over the last few years. That working out is just not enough to deal with the daily and built up stress in our lives. Certainly, it works in the short term, but what about long-term stress. What about the triggers that occur that bring up memories and past-traumas that we need to cycle through, or the sudden challenges we find ourselves in: illness or loss of a parent, ending of a relationship, financial stress etc… Countless people that I meet (including myself) say “I wish I had discovered Yoga sooner” and my reply is always: “Yoga finds you when you need it the most” which makes us all feel better in the moment, and at the end of the day we can only work with the tools we have at the time. But what if we took that feeling we have for ourselves, and instead of throwing it into the wind, we did something about it. We taught our kids about Yoga tools before they needed them. What if we taught our kids about mindfulness to help them become more resilient to stress/anxiety before the stress or anxiety occurred. I don’t know any parent who hasn’t wished for their child to have a better life than theirs. So, isn’t this the ultimate gift?
Children learn by mirroring the behavior of the people around them. According to research by Bruce Lipton in Biology of Belief, our brains are hard-wired by the time we are 7. Certainly, the latest neuro-science proves we can continue to learn amazing things and create all sorts of adaptations for as long as we live, however what is hard-wired is our default system. One of the things we learn by default is how to cope with stress based on how our care givers dealt with it. By going for a run or reaching for a drink, by shutting down or by making the effort to talk about it. When under stress the human brain tries to rationalize first, depending on either the stress itself (losing car keys vs. being involved in a car accident) or amount of times stress has occurred (losing car keys on the way to a court hearing) both of which are entirely subjective. When rationalizing becomes impossible, we move into our emotional or limbic brains and our emotions take over. Most of us spend a lot of time in this state, ruled by our emotions. When even our emotions can’t make sense of what is happening we move into our survival brain or fight/flight mode. This all happens in nano-seconds and is controlled by our autonomic nervous system, the same system that controls heart and organ function. In other words, it is built in.
In children, their rational or cognitive brain doesn’t begin to develop until after the age of 3 and doesn’t reach full maturity until around the age of 25. This explains temper tantrums in toddlers and also teenage angst. Their brains haven’t grown enough to properly comprehend and process different levels of stress. My definition of stress here is vast and based around any requirement of the brain to assess a new situation, this can also arise from hunger and lack of sleep to actual events like being told no or being bullied at school. I also want to be clear that stress isn’t necessarily bad. A healthy brain and nervous system can and will navigate between the two quite easily, creating a resiliency to a certain extent in the brains ability to process what is happening over shutting down or acting out. Mindfulness practices can pull us out of our emotional/survival brain or sympathetic nervous system and back on line very quickly, or as stated above better maintain the equilibrium needed so we react appropriately when needed, and remain calm when needed. Understanding these experiences must be felt inwards to be true, someone can look calm but be completely shut down or in a rage on the inside.
Mindfulness practices at any age help restore this equilibrium. A young brain that is currently developing receives the ultimate benefit. In teaching the coping skills required to map out the greater challenges and trauma that life brings, they learn resiliency and therefore the ability to more easily navigate daily stresses. Mindfulness practices consist of anything that allows us to connect to our self in a quiet and calm way. From The Sutras of Patanjali, the oldest known text on Yoga: “Yoga is the cessation of the mind-stuff.” The following mindfulness techniques can be practiced at any age, but have been categorized based on age as a guide post for what to introduce when.
- Teach them how to breathe. This should be done when the child is in a good frame of mind and already calm so that they can rationalize the process and understand how this makes them feel. Trying to tell a kid to breathe while they are in the middle of playing is about as useful as telling them to stop crying when they are having a tantrum. Easy breathing techniques for kids are ujjayi breath or whisper breath, 3-part belly breathing and choo-choo breath.
- Set up daily quiet time that doesn’t involve the iPad. As a TV kid myself I have nothing against using screens for relaxation, however I am also grateful for the love of books my mom ingrained to me at a young age (led by example) but also time for quiet play with toys or just cuddling and talking.
- Journaling and writing down one’s thoughts on paper, perhaps a locked diary. Somewhere that is private for them to move through thoughts and emotions that feel very intense, with the ability to read back through entries from the past to understand that emotions are fleeting and that sometimes the biggest events (loss of first love, failing a test) lose their impact quite quickly.
- Meditation and spending time in stillness. Finding the same time every day, perhaps when they come home from school or before starting homework, taking 3-5 minutes of stillness to just be present without talking or screens. Time to be fully present.
- Time in nature. Between the safety/fear of leaving our kids alone to the distraction of screen time, our older kids aren’t getting enough time outside. No matter the season, find activities you can do as a family that help everyone get some fresh air. Walk through the zoo or go hiking, camping, tobogganing or to the beach. In Canada, there are a wealth of places to explore no matter where you live.
- Practicing traditional Hatha or Vinyasa Yoga, whether finding a class or doing videos from YouTube. Yoga poses offer a great physical workout on their own or as a compliment to any sport. Yoga also offers the mental benefits of calming and clearing the mind with focused breathing.
- Meditation, but now increasing the time spent to 10 minutes + daily.
- Establishing a self-care routine that involves adequate sleep, proper nutrition, physical exercise and time for social activities and fun.
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