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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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