(Stop laughing already and hear me out!)
I know that many of you are laughing hysterically at the idea of getting your squirmy, hyperactive, impulsive and occasionally belligerent child to meditate.
I mean, really… if your children were able to sit still long enough to meditate, you wouldn’t be having all of these problems in school or at home, right?!
Oh, the irony.
Here’s the honest-to-goodness-truth: In order for your ADHD child to begin to develop the executive function / self-regulation skills she lacks, she must become aware of her thoughts. She must understand that who she is – her value as an individual – is different than the thoughts floating around her head. For it is this awareness and understanding that will give your child the power to make better choices and have a sense of power over her life.
Meditation or “mindfulness” is hands down the number one way to do this. Like, really guys, I’m not sure there is another way.
Let me back up. Our brains are bizarre organs. The brain is the only part of the body that not only works completely involuntarily (telling your lungs to breath, your heart to beat, hormones to rage, etc.) but also can completely hijack our sense of who we are if it’s not kept in check. And the part of our brain that keeps our thoughts in check is our pre-frontal cortex – that part of your child’s brain that is significantly impaired by ADHD.
All of our brains go on tangents that cause us to ruminate about irrational fears, or berate us over the smallest of mistakes. They play tricks on us telling us that we aren’t smart enough, pretty enough, brave enough, that no one likes us, that even that the world would be better off without us. Our brains make up completely false stories to explain things we aren’t sure about. They encourage us to do totally dangerous or cruel things (“Let’s see how fast this new car can go,” or “Man, I’d love to punch his face in right now.”).
Our brains can be renegade organs for all of us. Luckily for those of us who have solid executive function skills, our prefrontal cortex often steps in and helps bring us back to reality. It’s the voice of reason that tames the “fight, flight or freeze” impulses that pop up from time to time.
Not so much for kids with ADHD. Remember that the most fundamental problem ADHD creates for your child is the ability to pause and reflect before acting on impulses. Dr. Russell Barkley calls it the Mind’s Brakes. David Giwerc calls it the Power of the Pause. Dr. Hallowell refers to the ADHD brain as having Ferrari speed with bicycle brakes.
However you refer to it, the concept is the same for ADHD kids: Stimulus comes in, reaction goes out. Thought pops up, emotion and behavior follow suit. Over and over, all day long. With ADHD your children literally feel “compelled” to respond to every stimulus coming in and every thought passing through. Because they can’t [yet] pause before acting, their sense of “free will” – of being able to effectively change a course of events – is severely limited.
Your child will remain a victim of his ADHD as long as he continues to struggle to resist his every thought, impulse and emotion and lifelong struggle is not a pretty picture.
To move your child away from this victim position, we have to empower him to control or compensate for his ADHD. This starts with his ability to pause and recognize that every impulse does not have to be recognized much less followed up on.
Your child has to learn how to pause. There isn’t a better way to teach this than through meditation or what some people call mindfulness.
Studies support this conclusion. When children with ADHD have participated in meditation studies they have experienced the following benefits:
• Reduction in feelings of stress and anxiety related to ADHD;
• Reduction in impulsive or “defiant” behavior;
• Improvement in thinking processes and concentration;
• Improvement in the ability to pay attention to a task despite outside distractions;
• Reduction in hyperactivity (both in mind and body);
• Improvement in self-esteem and relationships; and
• Reduction in need for ADHD medications.
How to Begin Meditating with Your Child to Tame ADHD
First, you be a model of mindfulness. (Of course, it always comes back to you, doesn’t it??!) The best way for your child to learn the art of meditation is to watch you. Read up a bit on meditation or mindfulness (our two favorites are: Mindful Parenting for ADHD: A Guide to Cultivating Calm, Reducing Stress, and Helping Children Thrive & Mindful Games: Sharing Mindfulness and Meditation with Children, Teens, and Families), or grab one of the Apps I list below and set the example. I promise you’re going to feel amazing. Win-win.
Second, set the stage for meditation. Create an environment and time where your child can focus, be (somewhat) still, and can embrace a bit of silence. This can be a bedroom or any other space that will be interruption-free. It could also be a treadmill or a familiar walking path at a calm time of day.
Third, start slow. The general rule of thumb from the Chopra Center is one minute per year of your child’s age. This is something you’ll need to play with a bit as every child is different, but in any event you’ll want to start SUPER short so they feel like it’s totally doable.
Fourth, let go of your expectations. Your child isn’t going to be “good” at this. You probably won’t be either for that matter. You don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to yell, “stop fidgeting!!” during a session, only to bite my tongue. (Did I mention fidgeting can drive a mom crazy?!?!) Meditation is not a time for criticism. Sometimes my older son meditates with his head hanging off the bed. My younger son really doesn’t stop squirming … ever. But they love it, they do it, and that’s what matters.
Fifth, help them focus on something. Their breath; the flame of a candle; or a visualization of a blue sky with white clouds (i.e., their thoughts) floating by.
Sixth, use tools – don’t do it alone! There are a ton of great apps, CDs, podcasts, or audiobooks to help get you and your kids started. Here are a few free apps you can download right now!
• Smiling Mind
• Insight Timer
(If any of you find other resources, feel free to share in the comments!)
Finally, use external rewards if needed. Some people struggle to get their child to WANT to meditate. In our house we reward behavior that is “good” for our health — mental or physical. When we take care of ourselves we get closer to earning a family reward. This can be family night out at the movies, a video or board game we want to play together, or even earning money to splurge while on a family vacation! Whatever your end goal, be sure you keep a picture of it somewhere obvious. Then, set out a big jar or vase and let your children fill it with cotton balls every time they meditate. When the vase is full, you earn your reward. Simple & effective.
Mindfulness / meditation has been a key component of my son’s empowerment. We talk about his thoughts as objectively as we talk about the weather. The more he understands that thoughts are neither good nor bad, and that he can control how he responds, the better every day becomes.
This isn’t a fast fix. Certainly not. But this is a permanent tool that can stay with our kids and enrich their lives forever. Happy meditating.