In the face of uncertainty, or when our everyday norms change unexpectedly, even the calmest among us can find ourselves with greater anxiety despite best intentions. Now more than ever, it is important to employ self-care techniques that support physical and mental wellness, such as eating well, exercising regularly, increasing our sleep time, and even meditating.
As children often look to adults for guidance on how to manage uncertainty, it is especially important to set a good example for our little ones. Many children have a tendency to quietly internalize stress and express it later in a variety of ways, such as frustration outbursts, mood swings, or even physical symptoms like stomachaches. The following are five ways parents can empowertheir children to effectively cope with stress in the moment. (Bonus: These can also be fantastic tools for adults, not just kids).
1. Enable them to express emotions
Teaching emotional intelligence skills is a critical part of promoting self-regulation in children. A good first step is to help them feel comfortable acknowledging their feelings. Often, children feel enabled to do so once they have the vocabulary to express their feelings, such as sharing that they feel excited, upset, sad, hopeless, or confused. Then, by listening to their thoughts about whythey may feel a certain way, we can empower them to take ownership of those feelings and, ultimately, use their own problem solving to create a solution to manage those feelings. Sometimes they just need a hug or a good cry, while other times talking it out can help them accept themselves for how they feel.
2. Encourage them to share their “bright side”
While it’s helpful to recognize suffering for what it is, it can also be empowering and constructive to realize the “bright side” of a bad situation. More often than not, there is a silver lining lurking or a lesson to be learned. Sharing the bright side can be a fun activity for kids— a way to help them use creativity to identify the positive effects of the moment. For example, missing a stoplight and becoming late to an appointment can mean a few extra minutes to play silly car games like “I Spy”, or staying home from school to quarantine can create the opportunity to finish fun projects that have been put off.
3. Offer them tools to self soothe
By teaching our children some of our own self-care secrets, they, too, can benefit from a toolbox of techniques to help themselves when they feel stressed or helpless. I love to teach breathing exercises in my children’s meditation classes, as they tend to be simple and accessible to children in the moment. In fact, conscious breathing can quickly and effectively engage the parasympathetic nervous system to physiologically calm us down. While breathing, thinking of a word like “calm” can give kids a point of focus to encourage relaxation. Singing, laughing, dancing, and even coloring are other great ways to burn off stressful energy and bring little minds back into balance. Parents can support children in developing these tools by building practice time into the day as a core learning activity, in addition to generous downtime for rest.
4. Help them help others
Giving children the opportunity to help others can be one of the best ways to build confidence in themselves and connections with others. We all have an innate desire to help others, which can generate a sense of common good that makes us feel good inside as well. By supporting others’ happiness and giving our children a sense of purpose, we empower them to cultivate self-love— one of the best gifts we can offer. Even during quarantine when it is not possible to volunteer for a worthy cause, kids can write kind words to their friends and relatives or draw a picture of a rainbow to put in the window as a cheerful source of hope for passersby.
5. Teach them to share loving kindness
One of my favorite meditations is the Loving Kindness meditation, otherwise called “metta”. This age-old meditation is one of the most popular around the world, and it’s an excellent way to demonstrate how to share compassion internally and with others. As with many forms of meditation, it’s been shown to foster positive connection, increased hope, reduced stress and anxiety, and a greater sense of empathy.
Here’s how Loving Kindness meditation can be simply taught to children.
Find a comfortable seat or laying position and come to your breath.
Set an intention, or goal, for the meditation, such as how you would like to feel or the effect you’d like to have on yourself and others. (A suggested intention for the Loving Kindness meditation is to share a sense of hope and love to ourselves and others).
Place your hands on your heart. This is optional but helpful for smaller children who benefit from tactile connection. Say to yourself silently or out loud, “May I be happy. May I be healthy and strong. May I be safe. May I be peaceful.”
Then, think of loved ones and say silently or out loud, “May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we be safe. May we be peaceful.”
Next, think of people you know but feel neutral toward, and repeat the words in silence or out loud, “May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we be safe. May we be peaceful.”
Then, imagine someone or a group of people you don’t get along with and repeat the words in silence or out loud, “May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we be safe. May we be peaceful.”
Finally, imagine all the people around the world, and say silently or out loud, “May all be happy. May all be healthy. May all be safe. May all be peaceful.”
Smile! The love and peace shared have created a positive impact on ourselves, our children, and the world as a whole.
After performing any meditation with a child, I always recommend reflecting on the experience through conversation or by drawing what they experienced and how they feel.