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A Calm Approach to Discipline

Boy laying down with stuffed animal

When your child's pitching a fit or boiling with frustration, you may assume such behavior just comes with the age. And it's true that figuring out how to regulate all those raw emotions takes time. But that doesn't mean you can't teach him how to foster a more Zen attitude along the way. Start by introducing him to mindfulness, an ancient tradition that uses breathing and sensory techniques to settle jangly nerves and promote patience. A growing number of studies show that it has beneficial effects on physical health and mental well-being. One such study, conducted by Mindful Schools and University of California, Davis showed that teaching mindfulness to children improved their attention and made them calmer.

"Mindfulness teaches kids to pay attention to themselves and the world around them," says Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child. Equipped with mindfulness, kids can learn to channel their impulsiveness in constructive ways.

The key to introducing mindfulness to young children is to keep it fun and light. In the examples that follow, the techniques are framed as games and in some cases toys bring the concepts to life. Keep in mind that while kids 5 and under need an adult to prompt them to use these techniques, they'll eventually develop the skills to implement them on their own. Next time you're facing a charged situation like these, give mindfulness a try.

Your 3-year-old is going through a "Daddy phase," and the time your husband spends at work is leaving her distraught.

THE MINDFUL METHOD Each night before bed, or whenever your daughter's missing her daddy, tell your child to remember a time when she felt loved by him. Then have her send some love and a kiss to him, and ask her to see if she can feel him sending love back to her. "Young children don't usually understand that they can give and receive love from someone who isn't right there with them," says Amy Saltzman, M.D., founder and director of the Association for Mindfulness in Education, a nonprofit that works to bring the practice into schools. "This exercise helps them understand that they maintain those connections even when someone is away." Sending affection in this way also cultivates the natural capacity to give and receive compassion, an important focus of mindfulness. "In our culture, we often forget to practice being loving and kind to ourselves and others, and so it's helpful to build those skills when kids are young," explains Dr. Saltzman.

Your 5-year-old worries about going to school.

THE MINDFUL METHOD When a child is upset, it helps to visually illustrate what anxiety looks like and then replace that with an image of serenity. Take out a snow globe or a glitter ball and shake it up, telling him, "This is the way our head feels when we're upset." Then tell him to watch as the flakes slowly sink to the bottom. "The time it takes for the glitter to settle is usually enough time for a kid to calm down," says Greenland. "Nerves and anxiety cloud our vision. In that state, it's especially tough for a child to handle challenges or fears." Once he's calmed down, ask your son to talk about the aspects of school that worry him most. With a clear head, school won't seem so scary--and it will be easier to get him out the door to make it to class on time.

Your 4-year-old is locked in a struggle over a favorite toy with another child and the playdate is about to descend into madness.

THE MINDFUL METHOD An important part of mindfulness is fostering a deeper awareness of the body and using that to maintain calm. "In situations where kids are agitated, I tell them to wrap their arms around themselves and give themselves a hug," says Chris McCurry, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist and author of Parenting Your Anxious Child With Mindfulness and Acceptance. "When children get really upset they feel like they are falling apart, so reconnecting with their body allows them to feel more contained and centered." Children also associate hugs with comfort and reassurance; if they take a deep breath and squeeze, it breaks the negative chain of associations and gives them something positive to focus on instead. "It helps them change the channel," says Dr. McCurry. This technique also has an added bonus: With their arms otherwise occupied, the little ones are less likely to hurl a toy or hit each other.

Your 3-year-old is still way too wound up from the latest round of roughhousing with her big brother to settle down for the night.

THE MINDFUL METHOD Tell your child to lie down on her bed, and put a small stuffed animal on her stomach. Have her close her eyes and use her breath to pretend to gently rock the toy to sleep. Ask her to notice how thinking about her breath can make it become slower and deeper. "Paying attention to breathing has the effect of calming the entire nervous system," says Greenland. "It helps kids understand that feeling the breath can make them feel better." Teaching them to access it as a way to relax while they are still young can give them a powerful anti-anxiety tool later in life.

Your boys, ages 4 and 6, have been bickering in the backseat for the past half hour.

THE MINDFUL METHOD Turn off the radio and suggest this game: Tell the kids to shut their eyes and name three things they can hear. When they've finished that game, roll down the window and see whether they can name other things they can smell. "I often talk to parents about using mindfulness as a way to help their kids focus their 'attention spotlight' on something positive rather than negative, like boredom," says Dr. McCurry. "You want to help your kids learn how to filter out certain things while allowing others to come in." By having each boy keep his eyes closed, you're also limiting the information he gets from outside--including the goading sight of a brother sticking out his tongue. "This uses distraction to defuse the situation, but having children shut their eyes is intriguing and helps them shift gears faster," says Dr. McCurry. The game also helps your kids tap into the mindfulness concept of sensory awareness--a calm appreciation of the world around them.

You're trying to cook dinner, and your 5-year-old is bouncing off the walls, desperate for attention.

THE MINDFUL METHOD As soon as you can take a break from cooking, tell her it's time for a quick dance party. Set a timer for three minutes, turn the music on, and say that you'll both shimmy like mad until the timer goes off. "The essence of mindfulness is accepting what's happening rather than resisting it," says Dr. Saltzman. "By showing your kids that you can roll with things, you're teaching flexibility." Embracing a child's exuberance rather than fighting it also often has a surprisingly calming effect--and chances are she won't be able to make it to the end of the designated dance time. "As parents, our default is often to try to control exasperating behavior, but when you give that energy an outlet, you realize that kids can't sustain it very long," says Dr. Saltzman. "It often takes less time to channel wildness than to try to corral it."

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Parents magazine.