This week is Mental Health Week here in Australia. And on October 10, we celebrate World Mental Health Day. This is an international day dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues and reducing the stigma associated with these debilitating illnesses.
Mental health, but particularly youth mental health, is something I’m very passionate about. My entire career as a psychologist has been spent working in mental health. I have seen first hand, the damage mental illness can have on young people and their families.
But I have also seen the positive relationship between mindfulness and mental health. I’ve seen the powerful effects of mindfulness. And the research agrees with me. Mindfulness build healthy minds. Which is of course, why I started Mindful Little Minds! I believe that teaching kids mindfulness skills can have a hugely beneficial impact on rates of mental illness in children and can drastically improve their mental wellbeing.
So just in case you need more reasons to practice mindfulness with your kids, here are 6 ways mindfulness can protect, support, and improve your child’s mental health.
Stress affects our ability to cope. It can lead to feelings of overwhelm, depression, and anxiety and is a major contributing factor when it comes to mental illness.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to help us deal with stress by physically changing the brain. Mindfulness meditation increases the density of grey matter in the brain. What is grey matter? Grey matter is responsible for reasoning, planning, problem solving and other executive functions. It’s the “thinking” brain.
At the same time, mindfulness also shrinks the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for activating the stress response. This means that when we introduce our kids to mindfulness from a young age, we can help mould the physical structure of their brains. A well developed pre-frontal cortex and a smaller amygdala means our brain is less reactive to stress. Mindfulness helps to lower baseline levels of stress and improves the brains ability to cope with stressors.
Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder experienced by children, affecting around 7% of kids in Australia. We just learned that mindfulness strengthens the pre-frontal cortex and helps us manage the stress response. This means it’s also very effective at managing feelings of anxiety and reducing the physical symptoms that the stress response triggers.
In addition to this, when we experience anxiety, we tend to focus on the past – worrying about things we believe may have gone wrong. Or, we focus on the future – contemplating all of the “what ifs” and things that could go wrong.
When we focus on the present, we are able to allow those thoughts that maintain our anxiety to pass on by. Mindfulness helps us learn how to stop reacting to these worry thoughts and allowing them to dictate our behaviour. This helps us calm both our bodies and our minds, and gives us the courage to choose a different course of action in response to our anxiety.
Depression is another significant mental health problem affecting young people. Approximately 1 in 35 Australians between the ages of 4 and 17 has experienced a depressive illness in their lifetime. That’s almost 3%!
And often, our experience of depression is worsened by our reluctance to accept “negative feelings”. Practicing mindfulness encourages children to express, accept and experience ALL emotions, which gives them an opportunity to work through them and subsequently, allows them to pass.
Furthermore, focusing on the present moment encourages us to be aware of the small things – the small moments that bring us joy. When we are able to focus on, accept – and even find joy in – what is happening right now, we are able to move away from the negative bias and rumination about the past that frequently accompanies depression.
We’ve already mentioned the changes that occur in the brain when we practice mindfulness. These changes improve our ability to regulate our emotions.
Remember, mindfulness makes the emotional control centre of the brain smaller, and less reactive. And it makes the thinking brain – responsible for executive functions – larger and stronger. This improves our ability to manage the stress response and makes it easier for our brain to switch it off and think clearly again when it feels threatened.
This means children who practice mindfulness regularly have brains that are more resilient. They are better able to bounce back from difficulties and cope with stressors. And they also experience stress less intensely. When they do experience big emotions, they are able to respond rather than react to them – using their emotions to guide their decision making.
Mindfulness is all about acceptance. Acceptance of the present. Of your thoughts, feelings and experiences without judgment. But also acceptance of the self without judgment. This focus on self acceptance and self compassion is good for your child’s self esteem.
Plus, when we give kids skills to cope with difficult emotions and difficult situations, we help them feel capable and competent. When they experience success they feel good about themselves! And while low self esteem is not a mental illness itself, there are clear links between the way we feel about ourselves and our overall emotional wellbeing.
Because mindfulness helps kids notice their thoughts and feelings, it builds their self awareness. And understanding their own emotions and thoughts can also help children understand the emotions and experiences of others. Being mindful of other peoples thoughts and feelings helps our children develop empathy and teaches them to communicate and interact with others in a kind, thoughtful and compassionate way.
These skills help them develop mutually satisfying, supportive relationships. These social supports, apart from being enjoyable and rewarding in and of themselves, also help to protect children against mental illness! Social isolation is a significant contributing factor when it comes to mental illness. But social connection, is a protective one.
Want to know exactly HOW to teach your kids mindfulness skills? What to say? When to say it? Which exercises to use and how to get your kids to actually use them? Then get yourself on the waitlist for my new course, Mighty Little Minds! Mighty Little Minds is an online kids mindfulness course that will teach your child everything they need to know about using mindfulness to regulate their emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Give your child skills that will keep them healthy and happy for life, and help them build mighty little minds!