By Catherine Darroue
The end of August brings with it the promise of cooler weather and, for those of us with children, signals the start of a new school year.
But while many parents might feel like breathing a sigh of relief after a busy summer, going back to school can be a time of heightened anxiety for youngsters.
New classrooms, new teachers, new coursework and, as is the case for many here in Dubai, an all-together new country, can severely impact our children’s well-being and mental health, particularly in the first few weeks of a new term.
Mindfulness for children of all ages can help reduce ‘back to school’ anxiety by helping them deal with emotions when they arise. Mindfulness can also:
Depending on the age of your child(ren), practising mindfulness can be a challenge, so here are just a few fun mindfulness exercises for you to try.
Tell your child that you’re going to think about your breathing while you do it. “I’m pretending to smell a freshly baked cake [breathe in] and blow out the candles on the cake [breathe out]”. Try it 10 times to start with and increase the time, getting them to focus on their tummy and chest rising and falling, and the sensation of air rushing in and then out.
The foundation of much meditation, this is a great beginner’s exercise that children will soon get the hang of and be able to practise alone.
Sit outside with your child, preferably in a park or garden, but almost anywhere with a bit of nature will do. Get them to choose and pick two different leaves. Ask them: “How do the leaves feel? How would you describe their textures? How are they different? What do they smell of? How are they different from leaves at home? How do the leaves make you feel? Why do you think that is?
This exercise puts kids right in the moment, removing external pressures and stresses.
Ask your kids to turn on their superhero senses: smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. If they put all their powers into hearing; what can they hear? Have them describe every sound that they can hear — describing, listening, describing, listening. Tell them to put all their powers into touch; what can they feel? In their hands and fingers, on their faces, their clothes against their skin? How does it all feel?
This is a classic mindfulness exercise that encourages observation and curiosity, encouraging children to pause and focus their attention on what they sense in the present moment.
Mindful eating is a growing trend — especially for those seeking to lose weight and/or eat more healthily. It’s also a perfect way to help children practise mindfulness. Getting a child to eat a mindful meal may be out of reach, so try one mindful mouthful.
Say that you are going to choose one mouthful of your meal to be a mindful mouthful and that they can tell you which one you should do so you can both do one together. Tell them that before they take that mouthful, they should describe what it looks like, what it smells like, is it hot or cold. Tell them that once they’ve put it into their mouth, they should feel their teeth biting it and slowly chewing, their tongue tasting it, all the textures and tastes of that mouthful. They should think of all the ingredients and how the whole mouthful makes them feel.
You can also do this with snacks. The slow-motion mouthful is also another approach to this method.
Given that we are spoiled for choice when it comes to food in Dubai, you might choose to do this with a new food from a new restaurant, to help them become more aware of themselves and their environment.
It’s polite to say your please and thank yous, and you’ve doubtless taught your children this. But really thinking about the things for which you’re grateful can be a great mindfulness exercise. Ask your children to think about the people, things and places in their life that they’re grateful for.
To start with, they may choose simple or even selfish things, but as you do it more and more their ideas of gratitude should start to become more sophisticated and nuanced. You can also start to ask them why they are grateful for those things — really explore what gratitude means and how the things they list have affected how they feel.
For expat children this can be a great way to think about the things in their new life that they enjoy. By focusing on the things that bring us joy and happiness, that happiness expands.
This activity is particularly useful for children with strong emotions. With practise, this exercise can provide children with a great way to take control of raging emotions and find calm.
First, create a glitter jar by mixing glitter and glue in a clear jar of water. Shake the jar and hold it, saying: “This is a jar full of glitter, glue and water. It’s a bit like our thoughts when we’re frustrated or angry — everything’s whirling around and it’s hard to see clearly.” Pass it to your child and say: “But see what happens when the jar is still for a few moments”. Wait as they watch. After a few moments ask them to describe what’s happening inside the jar. Ask them how that makes them feel. If your child is particularly angry, you might add: “Can you see how the glitter is starting to settle and water is clearing? It’s a bit like how our minds work. When we just take a moment to be calm, our thoughts and feelings start to settle and you start to see things more clearly.”
Getting your children to practise a few of these simple mindfulness exercises will not only ensure that their transition into a new school year is a smooth one but will also set them up for success in the classroom, on the playground and at home.
For more information, please visit www.aetnainternational.com
Catherine Darroue, senior director of customer proposition, EMEA, at Aetna International