It was a Sunday afternoon. My children were feeling out of sorts for a number of reasons. My son, age 6, was upset and angry. My daughter, age 10, was feeling tired and emotional. I spent time with each of them, comforting them and hugging them, listening to them explaining their feelings, and helping them make sense of themselves. This went on for some time, with my son being particularly upset. After a while, I decided it would be a good idea to change the pitch, a little. So I suggested they make some tray cake, which they love doing. My son, who still felt upset and frustrated, got to work on demolishing a packet of digestive biscuits – first of all bashing them with a rolling pin (the big heavy one, not the smaller pastry one!), then breaking the broken biscuits down into smaller pieces with his hands. My daughter enjoyed melting the chocolate, with the added bonus of being able to lick the bowl clean afterwards.
This activity was more than just a distraction for my tired, upset and emotional children. It was a mindful process for both of them. They were each able to quietly think about what was upsetting them, releasing their feelings and frustrations in a way that wasn’t destructive for them or anyone around them, without overtly paying attention to them – being self-judgemental – enjoying the process and sensations, with the end result of something tasty to eat. Exploring feelings in this way removes an expectation from the adult, that the child will communicate their feelings, or “calm down” – something I find myself saying a lot to my children, but try to avoid – why should they inhibit their own feelings because it isn’t convenient for the adult? Children can learn to self-regulate in other ways, and should be encouraged to find soothing methods in a safe, supervised way.
By the time the tray cake had been placed into the fridge to chill, my son felt calm and happier. He expressed his upset, saying that he still felt some sadness about the original reason, but instead of internalising it, he had expressed it verbally, then worked his way through his feelings by banging the rolling pin, squashing biscuits, stirring up and laying the mix out in front of him to see. He actually gave a big, ragged sigh as he finished adding the mix to the tray, showing he was releasing his frustrations. A mindful activity for an active mind.
Here are five activities to try with your child when they are feeling emotional, frustrated, or finding something difficult to express. You should be with your child to support them in a non-judgemental, loving way. Most importantly, you know your child better than anyone, so choose an activity with them that you know will be enjoyable and rewarding for both of you.
1. Making Bread
As I described above, baking and cooking is great for releasing tensions and emotions. can be so rewarding, as it is such a physically demanding, frustrating (sticky, messy) activity to do when kneading and rolling out the dough; then an act of patience whilst waiting for the dough to rise and prove; but the reward of the aroma of freshly-baked bread, the sight of the golden crust, followed by the wonderful taste of warm bread to share proudly with friends and family is a powerful visual evaluation for the child or teen – look what can be done when you concentrate on something, using the essential skills of persistence, patience and physical strength. A very symbolic, enjoyable activity.
This picture was drawn by my son when he was feeling really upset (I should explain here that he did give me consent to use this photo here). I asked him to draw how he was feeling, because he was having trouble expressing his feelings and thoughts verbally. I left him at the kitchen table whilst I “pottered around” (i.e. keeping an eye from a respectable distance, to give him some space without feeling like he was being watched or judged). Initially, he drew the sad child, which was of himself. I then explained that I loved him and wanted to help him. Together we drew hearts around him, to show that the sad child was surrounded by lots of love, including, crucially, his own love, too. This might sound like new-age hippy stuff, but it is a powerful visual for a child. He was visibly reassured by this picture when we had finished. I have worked with children and their parents in this way, too – drawing out feelings, fears, even what their pain looks like – is a great way to communicate to the outside world their internal feelings, which can be very difficult for children and teens to articulate. , used in mindfulness to tap into and be aware of how the body feels in a non-judgemental way, can be used, too. Adults can also do this.
3. Mindful Eating
Place a few bowls containing a range of different foods (preferably foods your child likes, but also place , in a bowl, too) on the table and spend some time trying them with your child. You could try tasting the food using all the senses to start with. If my children are trying something for the first time, I guide them to experience it in this order:
1. Look at it. What does it look like? (be prepared for them to say “yucky” or something similar, but don’t dwell on that, just accept their judgement without judging them)
2. Touch it. What does it feel like? Be prepared for a similar answer as above, but also ask them to come up with some descriptive analysis!
3. Smell it. Ask the child to hold it to their nose and take in a big breath to smell. Ask them if it smells different when they close their eyes
4. Lick it. Ask the child to lick the food as if it were an ice lolly – can they taste any differences on the different parts of the tongue?
5. Bite it. Watch their reactions, and then ask them what they can taste.
6. Eat it! If they don’t like it, let them spit it out again, and praise them for following the steps above – it’s a big achievement for some children, so avoid drawing attention to the spitting out part if they didn’t like it – it can take a.
For older children and teens, exploring the ideas of how a fruit was grown, harvested and then arrived at the kitchen table is another form of
4. Create an intention box
In our house we created this box, and filled it with our own intentions. We thought about what we’d like to achieve in any given day, and wrote them down. We thought of the kinds of things we know well and love to do, as well as things we don’t always enjoy so much but know are important for us. We also thought about things we’d like to do if we felt brave enough. The intentions are just that: the important thing to remember is that it is something the child “intends” to do, but is not obligated or forced to do it. It is designed to motivate a child to do something if they feel they want to/feel brave to try something new, or wants a focus for their day.
Today I will have an extra glass of water
Today at school I will offer play with someone I don’t know very well (to make a new friend)
Today I will try my best
Today I will be brave
At the end of the day, we sit down together and talk about how we got on. I pick out a card, too. It’s not always easy! But the idea is that it sets some focus on the day, places an intention – not an expectation – and it is then up to the individual to explore how or if they meet their intention, knowing that there is no judgement of the self or from others, regardless of how they got on.
Spending time doing nothing can be difficult as an adult, as well as for a child. But it is a great mindful activity to be able to lie down, and observe thoughts as they come and go. Learning to detach an expectation (judgement) of ourselves once the thought has entered our minds is a skill known as . If you were to lie on a warm patch of grass on a sunny day and watch the clouds go by, after a while you are likely to find your mind drifting, with different thoughts entering your head. With open monitoring, your thoughts are like the clouds, whereby you observe them, then watch them passing over you. We are so used to having our minds full of things we need to/should be doing, with the judgement and expectations of ourselves to fulfill these thoughts. In open monitoring, the expectation and judgement is suspended. Allowing children to have the free space and time to do this is vital, especially when it comes to exams or school pressures. If you do this with your child, don’t expect them to lie perfectly still! Let them fidget, move around the floor, sit up/lie down – this is a way of expending extra pent-up energy. If they are particularly fidgety, you could try doing some star-jumps or push-ups before lying down, even create a designated “den” or “quiet space” for them to go to when they have finished jumping around. Make it a technology-free space though – for you and your child.
Nikki Harman is a tutor who works with children and adults, teaching mindfulness and meditation. Contact Nikki at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to book a session.