What’s So Great About the Present Moment Anyway? Taking a Mindful SEAT, and Other Ways to Find Calm (by Dr Christopher Willard)

What’s So Great About the Present Moment Anyway Taking a Mindful SEAT to Calm Down

It took me a long time to realize why the present moment was a helpful place to hang out. I can even recall as an anxious kid how my mind worked “I’m going to fail this test, then fail out of school, never get into college, probably die homeless and alone under a bridge, and no one will come to my funeral” was a not so rare thought for me. But when I learned about mindfulness and staying in the moment, I realized that I could still prepare for the future, like just studying for the darn test, without getting caught up in story of how badly it could go.

The future is where anxiety usually resides, for both adults and kids. Think about it, most of the horror stories we tell ourselves are about events that haven’t even, and probably will never happen! Mark Twain even once said “I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life… only a few of which actually ever happened.”

Taking a Mindful Seat

Our thoughts are often racing off to the past and future, feeling overwhelmed by our emotions, or distracted by senses and sensations. But we can teach ourselves and our kids to check in to the present moment by getting in touch with our senses and emotions, thoughts and the actions that we want to take, and then learn how to manage that anxiety more effectively. I call it taking a mindful SEAT. Begin by sitting up, and taking a few calming breaths, then check in with yourself.

S is for Sensations

Start by checking in with your body. What sensations are you noticing right now?

E is for Emotions

What emotions are present in this very moment?

A is for Actions

What do you feel like doing in this moment? Any urges or impulses to action?

T is for Thoughts

What thoughts are present in this moment?

Something to Try

Try this together with your child, or invite them to write down a few words or even pictures to describe what’s happening in each part of the mindful SEAT. Just putting it on paper or sharing out loud, we start to get some perspective. Encourage kids to take a Mindful SEAT during transition times, or at potentially anxiety triggering moments in the day and in their lives. It can be as simple as:

Sensation: I feel my heart pounding.

Emotion: I’m scared.

Action: I want to to scream!

Thought: There must be something wrong, I’m going to fail the test!

Once we’ve identified these sensations as sensations, emotions as emotions, thoughts and actions as just those, we can empower ourselves and our kids to get some perspective and make a different choice, like some simple breathing or distraction to turn of the panic.

The Miracle Grow Breath

I’ve been seeing an adorable nine-year-old boy, Max, as a therapist for about four years now. A sweet and sensitive child, he took to mindfulness almost immediately, having a family who was already practicing some fun and simple breathing and visualizations at home and were looking for support with his anxiety. We made up all kinds of new practices as we went, integrating movement and a whole lot of laughter into our sessions over time, that he would take home and share with his family and friends.

A few years in, he came in looking different. He was quiet and reserved, and slumped onto my couch avoiding my eyes. His mother joined him and I knew something was up. It turned out, his mother explained, that his once-best friend at school had turned on him, taunting him each day at recess while the teachers, who were supposed to be watching the kids social lives, were actually watching their own social media on their phones.

“How do you feel when Theo treats you that way?” I gently asked, leading, a bit self-consciously, with the classic therapist question. Max, eyes downcast, simply shrugged off my question, continuing to look defeated and downright deflated. His mom, who had joined us for the session leaned in. “Max, can you show us what you feel like?” Max sighed, sat up straight, and then crumpled over.

            “You look,” his mother suggested, “like a wilted flower.”

With his brain and body flooded with emotion sadness and shame, logic and language failed, but his body language told the story of the trauma.

“How do you think you could feel strong and confident again,” I asked, “Blossoming again, like a freshly watered flower?”

I could see Max listening and thinking, though his body remained slumped at wilted. Then, he took a long deliberate breath in. As his chest rose and expanded he became a bit more upright, and held the posture. On the next breath he sat up straighter still, until by third breath in his shoulders were back, chest expanded, and on the fourth breath his head rose and he smiled. He held out his arms like blossoming petals. “The miracle grow breath!” his mother declared with a smile, and we all had a laugh.

With each inhale, Max had breathed in more confidence, slowly shifting his posture into a confident and radiant pose, transforming how he looked and felt to us, but more importantly to himself. “Let’s try it all together,” I suggested, as the three of us wilted down, and then Max guided us breath by breath until we were sitting, then standing, our minds and bodies blossoming in full confidence.

Breath practices with kids don’t have to be boring, they can be an outlet for creativity and confidence. What’s more, practices like this where we adjust our posture may even change how confident we feel, down to the hormonal level. Max’s Miracle Grow breath can boost the confidence and resilience of any child has experienced a setback—be it bullying, a break up, or a dreaded B-minus. 

There’s an (Excellent) App For That

There are a massive number of apps out there teaching meditation, mindfulness and related practices, and easily a few dozen aimed at a younger audience. For the most part, the apps share similar features, and the field is littered with serviceable, if mediocre and uncreative apps.

Thankfully for those of us with kids, or who work with kids, there are a few exceptions out there that can help us parents and professionals feel more ease about handing over a screen to our child when there is “nothing else to do.”

I’ve recently encountered The Mindfulness for Children app, by Danish couple Jannik and Pia Holgersen. Their experience in production, and physiology, but more importantly parenting, suggest a lot of credibility. Long term practitioners themselves, they were hoping to find fun and practical ways to share mindfulness with their own kids, and well, your kids as well. They’ve achieved this with The Mindfulness for Children app.

The app has a simple interface and easy to use features, with a number of types of mediations, primarily adaptations of body scans, visualizations, and simple breathing practices (unfortunately there’s not yet a Hygge practice) that are developmentally appropriate and fun for all ages, to work with challenging emotions and body states.


About the Author: Dr Christopher Willard

Dr. Christopher Willard (PsyD) is a psychologist and educational consultant based in Boston specializing in mindfulness.  He has been practicing meditation for 20 years, and leads workshops nationally and internationally. He currently serves on the board of directors at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and is the president of the Mindfulness in Education Network. He has presented at TEDx conferences and his thoughts have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, mindful.org, and elsewhere. He is the author ofChild’s Mind (2010), Growing Up Mindful (2016), Raising Resilience (2017) and three other books. He has three children’s books forthcoming, and teaches at Harvard Medical School. Find out more on drchristopherwillard.comFacebook, or Twitter.

 

About the Creators of Mindfulness for Children: Jannik and Pia Holgersen

As a qualified psycho-motor therapist, Pia is passionate about helping people help themselves. In her private as well as in her professional life, Pia has gathered the benefits and joy of mindfulness meditation, which she regards as a powerful tool for creating physical and mental stability – a daily life with more inner peace and increased energy. Jannik Holgersen has a background as a freelance TV cameraman and sound engineer. He has 15 years epxerience as a mindfulness practitioner, and has developed and produced several different apps – among them Sound of Bornholm and Sound of Mindfulness. 

Find out more about Jannik and Pia and their work their websiteFacebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

3 Comments

Jean

I’m a retired adult but my emotions have often been too big for me to handle. Is there a good app. to help me with short mindfulness sessions?

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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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