How to Practice Mindfulness With Children in Minutes
Our latest 'Growing Up' column
Mindfulness can help you raise a calmer, more connected family, and it doesn’t take years to master or hours to practice. Rooted in the ancient art of meditation, mindfulness encourages awareness and focus on the present moment without judgment or attachment. Studies show that even brief mindfulness-based practices like breathing exercises, posture awareness, yoga, and short meditation sessions improve attention and impulse control, reduce social anxiety, and increase emotional resilience in children of all ages. Here’s an age-by-age guide to adding a few minutes of mindfulness to your family’s routine.
Early Years // 0-5
Mindfulness practice can begin in babyhood, says Jennifer Hawthorne, PsyD, a Charlotte-based licensed child psychologist and mindfulness coach. “Humans of any age can practice mindfulness. Very young children tend to be naturally mindful. They actually stop to smell the roses, or just indulge in being curious about how something feels or tastes without judgment. Mindfulness is a skill that can be easily shared in playful ways, which works great for young kids.” Young children can build their ability to stay present by tuning into bugs, flowers, or rocks during a nature walk, listening carefully to a chime or bell until the sound fades, or simply closing their eyes and paying attention to their breathing for one minute.
“Research shows a positive effect on children’s functioning when parents practice mindfulness, even when there’s no direct mindfulness intervention with the child,” Hawthorne says. Try setting a timer for five minutes before children wake in the morning or get home from school, and use that time for a short meditation (find simple five-minute breathing exercises at headspace.com or mindful.org).
Elementary Years // 6-12
Bringing mindfulness to mealtimes can help families slow down, connect, and build healthier relationships with food. “When we slow down and savor each bite—chewing slowly, experiencing the taste and texture of foods—we feel more satisfied and enjoy our food more, while eating less,” says Natalie Digate Muth, MD, RDN, a pediatrician and obesity expert who covers mindfulness in her book Family Fit Plan: A 30 Day Wellness Transformation.
Start by teaching children to tune in to their body’s hunger cues. Digate Muth uses a hunger scale of 1 (ravenous) through 10 (uncomfortably stuffed) to help children build mind-body awareness and healthy nutritional habits. “Aim to start eating around 3 or 4 (stomach growling) and stop eating around 5 or 6 (feel content but not uncomfortable). If your child finishes everything and asks for more food, ask your child where he or she falls on the hunger scale, reminding him or her that it can take 20 minutes to feel full after eating.”
Teen Years // 13-18
Practicing mindfulness can help teens cope with academic stress, whether they’re studying for an exam, taking a big test, struggling with a new skill, or making decisions about college. “Mindfulness is, both intuitively and empirically, an effective and broadly applicable tool for academic life,” Hawthorne says. “It can help teens manage factors that interfere with optimal academic performance, such as stress and anxiety. It can also help strengthen attention, both in class and when studying.”
When a big test looms, teens can spend a few minutes visualizing the exam and performing well, even coping with problems that might arise during the test, like forgetting an important notecard, breaking a pencil, or blanking on an answer. Helpful self-talk, relaxation, and visualization can help with test-related anxiety, Hawthorne says. “An easy practice could be noticing thoughts that come up while studying, anticipating taking the test, or actually taking the test, then picturing your mind as an open blue sky and thoughts are the clouds that float across the sky, showing up and then floating away.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and author of Ready, Set, Sleep: 50 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep, So You Can Sleep Too.