Managing Big Emotions with Mindfulness

When my children were little and dealing with sibling arguments, I taught them a quick mindfulness practice to help them manage their frustration. Together we would breathe in deeply, filling our lungs and watching our bodies expand, and then blow out in a big exhale. As we repeated this slow breathing two or three times, I asked them to remember our family rules. To be honest, it didn’t always prevent one child from taking a toy from another or otherwise acting out, but I was hopeful that one day it would become second nature.

So much of parenting is about instilling small practices or habits in our children’s lives that we hope will benefit them. In the case of spiritual practices, one of our goals is that children will discover ways of reconnecting with themselves and their values when they feel stressed and overwhelmed. We also want them to recall and use these practices on their own initiative when needed. But it can be hard to know whether the mindfulness exercises we do as a family really work when children try them on their own.

Researchers Julia Hutchinson and Dusana Dorjee have explored how children use mindfulness practices outside of guided programs. One of the most significant benefits they found was that children who had learned mindfulness techniques used what they had been taught when they felt overwhelmed, scared, or frustrated. Their mindfulness habits helped them feel safe, stay present, and reframe their self-perspective.

Children practice mindfulness to create a safe space for processing big emotions. They use the techniques they have been taught to take a much-needed personal timeout when they are feeling overwhelmed. Retreating to a safe interior space gives children time to identify how they are feeling and claim those feelings without their own or others’ judgment. It provides room for them to manage their emotions rather than letting their emotions take over.

Children also practice mindfulness to stay present. At times when anxiety or fear might generate a ‘fight or flight’ response, they instead use their mindfulness techniques to remain in the moment. This gives children time to remember and act based on their values. It helps them evaluate a situation and make less reactive decisions. Their mindfulness habits thus help them to be more connected to themselves, even in times of stress.

Finally, children use mindfulness practices to reframe their self-perspective. Children report that they practice mindfulness when they are frustrated by others’ hurtful statements or tempted to engage in negative self-talk. They are able to re-engage with challenging activities without negative feelings slowing them down.  Their mindfulness habits reinforce a healthy sense of self-love as they manage new and difficult tasks with self-awareness and compassion.

While some days it may not seem worth the repetitive process required to instill a habit, the spiritual benefits of teaching children how to be mindful are clear. The next time your child whines about pausing to take a few deep breaths and tune into their body, remember: a habit of mindfulness is a powerful, lifelong tool for spiritual well-being.

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