Mindfulness: What. How. And The Difference 5 Minutes a Day Will Make

Mindfulness: What. How. And Why We Should All Find the 5 Minutes a Day

What mindfulness can do is remarkable. Once the domain of Buddhist monks or the ‘alternative’, mindfulness has made its way into modern medicine and modern life, and the world is taking notice.

You don’t need anything special to start and you don’t need a lot of time. Five minutes a day is enough to make a difference. There’s no chanting or knotted poses, unless you want to, then go for it. For those who think it’s all a bit too offbeat, it’s basically sitting, breathing and observing – nothing offbeat about that.

Mindfulness: What Is It?

Mindfulness is the practice of observing thoughts, feelings and sensations with the indifference of an objective bystander.

The need to analyse, change or judge is sidelined which can be easier said than done.  The reality is that our attention very easily drawn away from the present. We often worry about what happened yesterday, what’s happening tomorrow, whether the iron has been left on or what’s for dinner. It’s this tendency to be drawn into the past or the future that lies at the core of so many disorders.

What’s All the Fuss About?

The changes that stem from mindfulness are not just because people relax. Mindfulness has been found to cause measurable physical changes in the body and the brain. Wait. What? Yep. By practicing mindfulness – five minutes a day is enough to make a difference – you can actually change your brain. 

In the first study of its kind, researchers at Harvard have established scientific proof that meditation can change the brain’s gray matter.

After 8 weeks of practicing mindfulness exercises for an an average of 27 minutes per day, MRI scans of participants showed that mindfulness:

  • stimulated a significant increase in the density of gray matter in the hippocampus, important for learning and memory;
  • increased the density of gray matter in other neural structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection;
  • decreased the density of gray matter in the amygdala – the part of the brain associated with anxiety and stress.

According to Harvard, mindfulness also:

  • relieves stress;
  • relieves depression;
  • relieves anxiety;
  • lowers blood pressure;
  • improve chronic pain
  • improve sleep;
  • improves capacity to deal with stress;
  • improves ability to form deeper connections with others.

According to the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness, mindfulness can also help to:

  • improve the quality of life for patients with cancer;
  • improve the experience of various conditions and illnesses such as gastrointestinal disorders, HIV, and fibromyalgia;
  • alleviate asthma; 
  • alleviate hot flashes.

Mindfulness has also been found to boost immune function.

Sounds Brilliant. I’m In. So How Do I Do It?

Anyone can practice mindfulness but it might take a bit of practice. At first you might find it hard to stop your mind from wandering. That’s okay and it’s completely normal. It’s what minds do and they’ve been doing it for a while.

When you give your mind the opportunity to unwind – it’s going to unwind. There will be thoughts. feelings and things you didn’t even know were there. If it gets a bit much, your mind will go for a wander. Just bring it gently back to the moment – observe what you’re feeling and thinking – and don’t judge. Let it be. It’s all part of it and you’ll notice that the more you practice, the more you’ll be able to stay in the moment.

Now for how. Ready? Here we go:

  1. You can practice mindfulness anywhere but if you can, find somewhere quiet and uncluttered.
  2. It’s helpful to establish the duration at the beginning so you don’t get distracted thinking about when you should stop. Use a timer if you can (I use the one on my phone), but set the alarm to be something gentle – nothing too jarring.
  3. In the beginning, try for five or ten minutes. Eventually you can extend this to longer – 20 minutes perhaps eventually right up to an hour.  If you can, try for once in the morning and once again at night. If you’re busy, don’t worry, anything you can do will make a difference so don’t get too weighed down about how much time you ‘should’ be taking. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do something.
  4. How you position yourself is up to you. The main thing is that you are supported, balanced and comfortable – but not too comfortable – you don’t want to fall asleep. Try sitting in a chair with your feet on the floor, kneeling, or sitting with loosely crossed your legs – up to you.
  5. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. Notice the sensation of the air and follow it as it goes in and out of your body. When your mind strays, come back to this point. Observe your thoughts, feelings or sensations. Just notice. You don’t have to do anything with it. Undoubtedly your mind will wander to something other than the present moment – what’s for dinner, the deadline, or maybe the conversation from yesterday. When that happens, gently come back to your breathing. Don’t judge, analyse or try to change anything. Just come back to the moment.

With mindfulness, the more you practice the easier it will get. It’s a bit like cleaning out a wardrobe. It might get messier before you get to the calm. There’ll be things unwinding that you knew about and bits and pieces you didn’t know were there. That’s the way it’s meant to happen. Just notice them and let them go. Then come back. And enjoy. 

44 Comments

Sarah

Thank you for this article! I am a 19 year old girl with issues that can be traced back to my father. I moved out at 18, fresh out of high school, to get away from the toxic behaviors he brought. I was anxious and depressed for a long time, thinking that something was just wrong with me. After moving out, I realize the anxiety and pressure that was put on me was not my fault and I can be normal. I have grown up significantly (sooner than I needed to) and have grown out of my anxious life.However, being young with parents still together makes the cut from my father particularly hard. There are times where I will see him act not so terrible and second guess cutting him out of my life. This article was shared by one of my Facebook friends and I bookmarked it after reading it. I still come to tears sometimes after thinking about my father and our relationship, but articles like this help me realize how OK I will be when it has ceased.

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Julie kent

Way being mindful has help me, I used to drive on autopilot, and was a poor driver, I am now far more aware of what I’m doing and I am a calmer driver. My memory has improved, my mood has evened out, rather than hi peaks and low troughs. Dealing with the public, I am less judgemental about customers, and because I’m happier, I’m finding people are nicer to me.
My advice is practice, it gets easier and the benefits are genuine.

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Kaizer

For someone who has been on the fringes of meditation (the very outer fringes) this article has helped me understand what it really is all about and more importantly how simple it is. Thanks you

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a j marr

here is a new interpretation of mindfulness you may find of interest

A New Interpretation of Mindfulness and a Simple Proof

Arguably the most influential non-religious movement to advance personal happiness and satisfaction in present times is the variant of meditation called ‘mindfulness’. Simply defined, mindfulness represents continuous non-judgmental awareness. But the converse of non-judgment, namely making judgments, may entail negative outcomes (perseverative judgments as represented by rumination, worry, or distraction) or positive ones (non-perseverative judgments on what to have for dinner or what route to take on the way home). Perseverative cognition is uniquely correlated with stress, anxiety, and depression, but non-perseverative thought (as well as thinking of nothing at all) is correlated with relaxation, positive affect, and feelings of happiness. Thus it may be concluded that the definition of mindfulness over-prescribes the type of cognitive operations that need to be curtailed in order to attain positive emotional outcomes. It follows that the definition of mindfulness must be attenuated to represent the avoidance of perseverative judgments alone. By no means does this invalidate mindfulness, rather it merely determines the type of judgments we should be mindful about, and allows one to be easily mindful all of the time rather than from time to time that is the practical result of avoiding all judgment, and significantly enhances the argument for its practice.

This definition of mindfulness complements the ‘perseverative cognition hypothesis’ which associates the debilitating aspect of stress with perseverative cognition alone. As advanced by the psychologists G. Brosschot and JF Thayer, “The perseverative cognition hypothesis holds that stressful events cannot affect people’s health, unless they think repetitively or continuously (that is, ‘perseverate cognitively’) about these stressful events. Stressful events themselves are often too short, as are the physiological responses to them. Therefore, the physiological responses during these stressors are unlikely to cause bodily harm. More importantly, many stressful events are merely worried about, or feared in the future, while they often do not happen or do not have the feared consequences. Nevertheless, the body reacts with prolonged physiological responses to continuous thoughts (perseverative cognition) about these stressors. Therefore, it is the perseverative cognition, and not the stressors that can eventually lead to disease. In scientific terms, it is said that perseverative cognition is a mediator of the detrimental effects of stress on one’s health.”

How Meditation Elicits Profound Relaxation

Meditative procedures work so distinctively well to counteract stress because they uniquely require the consistent avoidance of perseverative thought for a significant and continuous period of time, and you need to consistently avoid distractive, worrisome or ruminative thoughts for at least an hour for your muscles to fully relax. In other words, full or profound relaxation takes time. When your muscles do completely relax, you will feel a sense of pleasure or euphoria due to the release of endogenous opioids in the brain that is concomitant with profound relaxation. (Citation)

Since distraction is the preeminent cause of neuro-muscular activation or tension, it’s easy to prove this point. Simply avoid all distraction for a timed hour, and see if you can do that for two or three consistent hours a day, and merely record your progress over a few days. You will note that you will feel totally and pleasurably relaxed, a feeling that will extend into your otherwise stress filled day.

And the good thing is that you will be fully rested and have a natural ‘high’, and will not have to take a course on mindfulness, or meditation, or even for that matter read the link to the book that follows! It’s that simple.

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Anne

Very useful information, I am ready to give it a try. Anything that can assist me now, I am willing. So much of what I have read about anxiety and IBS relates to me.
Thanks.

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Sue F

Karen, I’ve just come across this article while reading your article on anxiety. I am sitting in my lounge room having a bit of a practice. There is a lovely breeze blowing and it is catching the wind chimes from the neighbour’s verandah. What a lovely way to spend a few minutes.

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Kylie

Hi….I now live in Thailand and I spent 12 months living in a mindful community…..I loved it! Mindfulness has taught me to be less reactive in emotional situations……well most of the time! lol Thanks for sharing this great article.

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Danielle Truini

Karen… Well Done. “Mindfulness” can be a difficult concept to put into words. I’ve seen it presented in a number of ways. You, however nailed it! Your explanation captured the essence of the practice, all while maintaining a simple and thorough explanation. You left no questions unanswered and even managed to entice the reader to give it a try.

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Mike

This is a great article – I have a child who is now a freshman in college and one who is in first grade. both experience anxiety in their own ways. I have always told them “you’ll be ok”, “nothing to worry about” etc. My older daughter has found over the last 2-3 years that sitting in the presence of Jesus in the form of adoration and simply being quiet (mindfulness with a purpose) has immensely helped reduce anxiety, stress, & depression. No doubt some will see this post and scoff. I challenge those to simply give it an honest try and see if it makes a difference in his / her life.

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Cathy Egan

I am a mature woman, and have a 42yr old daughter who is rebuilding her life, and a nearly 40yr old son who has been depressed for nearly 20 years. Son has been made redundant, and is soon to lose his present accommodation. I have recently been meditating for 20 minutes every day, and using being in the moment when either of my children are feeling at crisis point. I have been able to support them in loving personal ways, and seen them develop strengths they were unaware of. Instead of giving up when my son feels at rock bottom he is using this difficult time as an opportunity to change and grow. Instead of being stressed and worried, because I am meditating, I can support from a place of calm, and hopefully love. Love this site.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you Cathy! I’m so pleased that you have been able to find a way to move in strength through difficult times. I really know how hard it is watching people you love go through pain and loss – when it’s your children it can feel as though it wouldn’t hurt more if it was happening to you. It sounds as though this is a rebuilding time for both of them, but know that tough times don’t stay tough forever. You sound like a wonderful support. Much love and strength to you and your family.

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nishtha

I like this article, I m a teenager & I do practice mindfulness.This article gives me more incentive 2 practice mindfulness meditation.

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Paul

I am fighting depression, with anxiety present a great deal of the time. Doing something about it, researching tools to address it has helped a great deal as has heysigmund.com
Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

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betty

I am a kindergarten teacher who has recently had a string of extraordinary bad events. I am now left suffering from severe anxiety and are struggling to do anything normal at all. I am going to try mindfulness tonight and please can you pray that this could be the way out of my nightmare. I just want my life back

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heysigmund

You will be in my thoughts tonight. Mindfulness does take time, so keep with it. If your anxiety is becoming debilitating, counselling might be worth a try. Anxiety is something that is very responsive to intervention. Anything you can do at home is also important. I’m so pleased that you’re trying the mindfulness but be sure to stay with it. I hope you find a way out of this too. Sending you my very best wishes.

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Maree Smith

HeySigmund, I am so glad that I stumbled on to this article about anxiety. I have been a very strong and independent woman all of my life, but at 56 and many many years of difficult situations and heartache I have now found myself in the anxiety club along with my husband who has always suffered anxiety from childhood. Your article has helped immensely. Keep up the great work. I’m sure you help many more people than you realise. xx

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laurie bernhard

I’m a school psychologist and sent your anxiety piece to a number of colleagues. One passed on the website/app for smilingmind.com.au which has a free mindfulness program which is for children and adults. I’ve now used it with two school populations (following an overview of your anxiety article). Looking forward to seeing how this goes.
Thanks for what you provide!

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Anne

I’ve always found the idea of meditation a bit daunting because it somehow feels like you need years of training to do it properly! But the way you’ve described mindfulness makes it seem so much more approachable… and really it’s the same thing isn’t it?
I struggle with anxiety and have learnt about the benefits of mindfulness but your summary of why and how is the best I’ve read. Thank-you!

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heysigmund

You’re welcome, and yes – mindfulness is just a form of meditation. Do you know, I used to think the same thing as you about meditation. Then I found mindfulness and I love it. It takes a bit of practice though so stick with it – it will be worth it!

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Karen Dille

Thankyou so much for your article on mindfulness. I’m forever thinking to far ahead or thinking about the past. I will certainly use your mindfulness techniques.

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heysigmund

You’re welcome! I’m so pleased you’re going to try the techniques. Stay with them – they might take some practice – but from someone who, like you, spends too much time thinking in the future or the past, I can tell you they really work. Would love to hear how you go.

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Wayne

Ok sounds great but what are the thoughts you are talking about noticing. Meaning the difference between the ones we are supposed to allow ourselves to think of and then the ones that we are supposed to get back to our breathing. I am confused on this. Please explain. I have a mind that constantly wonders and jumps all around thinking of so many things all at the same time.

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heysigmund

It can be a little bit confusing I know. The idea is to stay completely in the present. So just notice what’s happening to you in the moment. You’ll find if you’re thinking, you’re probably thinking about the past or the future. It’s important that you don’t judge yourself for wandering, just notice that you’ve done it then come back to the present. It will take a bit of getting used to to stay in the present, particularly if you’re one (like me) who quite likes to wander. Stay with it though and it will make a difference. Hope that makes a bit more sense.

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Carol

Thank you. Your example explanation for young ones is nicely phrased (though for our family everyone is over 15 years old and very scientifically minded), the information is good and to the point. I like your explanation and info about mindfulness and it’s so very relate-able, simple to apply. I had not realized that I use some of this technique to dissolve headaches when I want to avoid medications, but I’ll be more mindful 🙂 of it now. Now, to help our teens who don’t really want my input….!

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heysigmund

You’re welcome! Ahhh teenagers! For what it’s worth, mine rarely want my input too. I can’t tell you how many times my advice is met with ‘yeah. I know. What’s for dinner?’ Sheeesh! Fortunately, the advice in this article was one piece of advice my daughter lapped up (it doesn’t always happen that way!) which is why I wrote the post. I love hearing from people about how they are using some of the techniques – like mindfulness for your headaches. Here is a link – just in case – to the original ‘grown-up’ version I wrote about anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/dealing-with-anxiety/ . Thank you for taking the time to make contact.

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Julie

Such important information for each individual. And with all of these benefits, mindfulness also creates such an awareness of who we are. Thank you so much!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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