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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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