Meditation can help kids read and respond to internal signals of stress before their developing brains and bodies give in to a full-blown tantrum. The key is intuiting what your child needs to come back into balance and giving him or her the tools to practice.

By Kristine Jepsen
February 18, 2020
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I could hear the situation before I could see it: In the entryway of our home, my young daughter was working herself into a frenzy trying to zip her coat by herself. The crisp, waterproof fabric of her sleeves raked viciously against her body as she jerked the zipper apart and tried again. A frustrated moment later, she howled in aggravation. Thrashing her arms, she flung the coat to the floor and threw herself down beside it.

Zipper: 1, Preschooler: 0

In situations like this, I know I'm the adult. I need to keep my own frustration in check, even though the circumstances force me to set aside my backpack and insulated coffee cup (i.e., my own agenda). However, that didn't stop me that day from snapping, "Get up. We'll be late!" as I hustled her back into the coat and tugged the zipper roughly up to her chin. Tension came crawling up my neck, making my skin flush and prickle inside my own woolen layers. Clearly, we both could benefit from better coping strategies.

Meditation, or the practice of self-awareness in body and mind, has been revered for thousands of years as a natural, accessible way to regulate our reaction to stress and manifest good health. When presented with any kind of threat, humans are hardwired to fight, take flight, or freeze, explains Lorraine Murray, author of Calm Kids: Help Children Relax With Mindful Activities, and Connected Kids: Help Kids With Special Needs (And Autism) Shine With Mindful, Heartfelt Activities. A multi-modal practitioner in the United Kingdom and Ireland for more than 30 years, Murray developed Connected Kids, a training program to teach parents, teachers, therapists, and other caregivers how to create meditation practices with children.

"If you think about it, our lives allow nearly zero down time," she explains. "This is a huge shift even between the childhood I remember and the one my son has. There's no relaxation, boredom, or stillness that allows the body to relax and the nervous system to calm down." In other words, our tech- and info-driven busyness doesn't let our brains recharge in their "alpha state," the relaxed-but-alert frequency in the brain we often sense just before we fall asleep.

The Benefits of Meditation

Even in its simplest forms, meditation can help both kids and adults find this inner calm, explains Murray. Within just three or four sessions, benefits of meditation often include:

  • Better sleep
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Ability to focus and study
  • Reduced levels of stress

But kids have distinct advantages over adults in learning to meditate, as well as different challenges, says Murray. "Kids are generally more willing and receptive. They're curious and willing to embrace new things, and they're honest about what disinterests them," she says. (Adults, by contrast, can and often will fake engagement to be polite.) "However, if we expect children to sit still the way an adult would, you'll quickly see what looks like failure."

Adults, she says, have the ability to concentrate but often take much longer to relax. "We come with a lot of baggage, and the process of relaxing might bring things up that have to be processed to move forward. A body scan—or self-assessment of tension in the body—can take 30 minutes."

Getting Started With Meditation

First, Murray says, any adult wanting to teach meditation techniques to a child must be willing to start his or her own practice—and get used to going off-script. "You don't need lots of experience—just focusing on your own out-breath from start to finish is a beginning. Feel the sound, the sensation."

Kids need the adults around them to behave in ways they can model, says Murray. Kids also need to hear and feel that their adults know them well enough to adapt meditation to their needs and preferences, which can change day to day. "Trust your intuition for knowing what's best for your child, and when you practice mediation together, that connection will grow stronger."

Meditation for Toddlers

For the youngest learners, meditation is probably more like "mindful movement," says Murray. Try a light discussion of things that make your toddler feel happy and have her touch the parts of her body that feel that happiness. Then have her think of something that's unhappy and where she feels it. To relieve those unpleasant feelings, try engaging her in the sounds and satisfaction of taking a deep breath.

"You're training the brain to recognize signals of stress and respond with practices that bring the body back into balance," says Murray. (And if you're thinking this sounds impossible, she counters, it's not. After all, we get kids out of diapers by teaching them what to do when they feel the need for a restroom.)

Toddler-grade fidgeting isn't a bad thing, either, says Murray. "Remember! Their little bodies and brains are undergoing massive development, and they don't have the emotional vocabulary to tell you when they're making big leaps in understanding or needing to self-soothe." The goal is to meet children where they're at. "If it's 30 seconds, great. Let's do 30 seconds," emphasizes Murray. "If a child knows his or her own body's signals, they'll practice self-care even when away from their guiding adults."

Meditation for Preschoolers

Starting around age 3 or 4, children start to pay attention to elements of story, says Murray, which paves the way to guided meditation. "I like to teach this age group when they're lying down—even lying in bed before they go to sleep at night. It's a natural position for relaxation." Try taking your preschooler on a journey, suggests Murray, guiding them gently with your voice to think about how each part of their body feels, head to toe. Or make up a light fairy tale starring a favorite pet or toy. If your child resists this attempt at calm, practice it for yourself a little bit more, retreating to easier techniques like focusing on breath, suggests Murray. "With your commitment, kids will start to engage."

Meditation for Big Kids

Meditative music and recorded meditations can have a profoundly calming effect on kids, says Murray, but the preference is personal. "I like the chanted 'ohm' in my own practice, for example, but my 12-year-old son might find it quite strange." In other words, let your child choose the voice or sound texture that creates a comfortable space.

Traditional meditation music often incorporates Tibetan singing bowls, which vibrate on frequencies said to restore and heal parts of the body that are out of balance. In Murray's experience, neurotypical children, such as those with autism spectrum disorder, respond well to tones produced by singing bowls. In other situations, recordings of nature sounds bring children calm and peace.

Here are a few web-based meditations and music resources to try:

  • Insight Timer (free) — Available online and as an app, this collection of more than 30,000 guided meditations and recordings for children, beginning, and advanced practitioners is a treasure trove of inspiration. (Murray's own "Star Practice for Kids" appears here as well.)
  • "Mindful Kids" YouTube channel (free) — This channel aggregates thousands of music and story clips. Explore options with your child, and trust your intuition, Murray says. "If you see something and your gut says, 'I think she'd like this,' give yourself permission to believe that voice."
  • Stop, Breathe & Think (free) — With an emphasis on fun activities and meditations, this app is designed to help kids ages 5-10 with focus, quiet, peaceful sleep, and processing emotions. Your little one will learn mindful breathing and the importance of checking in with herself. She'll also win stickers for completing "missions."

The Bottom Line

You can make a kid sit still, but you can't force him or her to meditate, says Murray. As with most desirable behaviors, we the parents have to step up and demonstrate commitment to deeper awareness first. If you model a meditative practice, your kids will learn one, too.

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