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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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