How Meditation Helps My 3-Year-Old Get Through Tough Situations
“Mommy can we met-tate?” My 3-year-old daughter has gotten into the habit of meditating most nights at bedtime. This was born out of my own desperation to zen out, being the single mom of a toddler and the caretaker for an elderly mom. One night when I literally collapsed into bed with my daughter doing gymnastics over me, I said, “Turn out the light.” I grabbed my phone and looked for a seven-minute meditation. I hadn’t done one in more than a year. “Shhh,” I said. “Take a deep breath.” The guided meditation relaxed me and before it was over, my daughter was fast asleep. Unbelievable.
Since then I’ve noticed my daughter taking a deep breath on the potty (I told her once to relax and her poop would come out easier). When she’s having a tantrum, I calm her by asking her to think of all the things that make her happy. She is more in touch with her feelings and even has said to me, “Mommy I’m feeling sad because you yelled at me” (insert crying emoji). And then we talk it out. I let her know it’s wonderful to speak about how she feels, however she is feeling.
Being in the present moment and accepting it, while not pulling in anxiety from the past or the future, is what I want my daughter to learn through meditation. But I wondered if I was piling too much into her little mind. Was it too early to start meditating with her? To make sure I was approaching meditation with my daughter appropriately, I decided to speak to a professional.
As it turns out, meditating with your child is, in fact, beneficial and no age is too young for them to start, according to Gisselle Acevedo, president & CEO of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, a New York-based institute for family therapy. “The goal of meditation is to relax the mind. It helps the child to reduce stress and anxiety,” says Acevedo, a licensed marriage and family therapist who implements meditation in her sessions with patients. “Teaching a child when they’re very little is giving them calming techniques that they can use for themselves at any time.”
And a parent, she says, is a child’s best meditation teacher. "If a child sees their parent relaxing, centering on their breath, and figuring out a way to reduce their stress they are more likely to incorporate this into the way they function.”
Acevedo began learning about meditation with children when she was an elementary school teacher some 40 years ago. As she taught kids in K-6 grades, including children with special needs, she was always thinking, “How can I make children aware of the connection between their thoughts and responses to things?” One day while shopping at a local bookstore, she noticed a book with the picture of a child meditating on the cover and realized that’s exactly what she needed.
Since then, she’s seen that no matter what physical or mental challenges some children have, they are able to calm themselves through the practice. “For many children, guided meditation allows them to see the world differently,” she adds. “If they can see a park or ocean in their mind or see themselves having an amazing conversation with their parents, they work very hard to make it a reality.”
The number of sessions that it takes for meditation to be beneficial varies but Acevedo has noticed when parents continue the meditation past what she does at the institute, it’s much more valuable. Research shows mindfulness training improves children’s cognitive skills, social and emotional competence, and academic performance. Other studies show mindfulness therapy helps reduce anxiety symptoms in children and attention problems.
It's never been easier to bring meditation into your child's life, thanks to child-friendly apps available at low or no cost. One such app is Stop, Breathe & Think (free; App Store), which teaches kids meditation through a series of mindful activities. Kids get "stickers" for completing these missions, and they also learn about deep-breathing techniques and checking in with their emotions. The end result is better focus, improved sleep, and decreased amounts of stress and worry. Stop, Breathe & Think is best suited for children ages 5-10.
I have certainly seen changes in my daughter since we began meditating together almost a year ago. She can readily identify her feelings and know what they mean. She even knows which meditation she wants to do. Just last night when she was feeling sad she said, “Mommy, I want to listen to the blue water,” referencing a calming ocean sound in the app we use. My heart is filled with joy at how seamlessly my daughter has taken to meditation. It’s become clear I am doing what is right for us and will continue to foster the awareness of her true self as time goes on.