Teaching Peace With Mindful After-School Activities
As parents and caregivers, we often make the mistake of interpreting behavior from children as bad when they are really just struggling to deal with overwhelming emotions. They don’t have the maturity or experience to deal with the sensory overload of certain feelings, and it can be difficult for them to calmly and rationally regulate their responses. This is how you have a child screaming and thrashing around the floor in Target like it’s the ocean, and they are being attacked by a shark. It’s not because the parent is inept or doesn’t instill discipline in their home. It’s not because the child is bad or needs a quick exorcism. It may certainly feel that way at the time. But the reality is that children aren’t little adults; they’re just kids, and we keep holding them to behavioral standards that might be a tiny bit unrealistic.
I’m not saying we should go buy our child a treat for throwing themselves on the ground of the nearest department store and yelling like they’re being tortured. I’m certainly not advocating that we promote a permissive parenting style with no rules or boundaries. But I also think that we should factor a little more compassion into our approach to raising kids than our generation was likely raised with. While gentle parenting is certainly a solid way of teaching boundaries without perpetuating violence, an overall lifestyle approach to teaching kids to manage and regulate their emotions can be helpful.
In short, we’re talking about teaching peace through educating kids about coping skills and stress management techniques.
We can even start by adding mindful practices into our after-school activities with our children. Mindfulness is an important part in teaching coping skills because it requires that we pay close attention to how we are thinking and feeling, and it also requires that we pay attention to our surrounding environment.
An excellent start to teaching peace through mindfulness is to teach children to meditate in small doses. Start small because their attention spans aren’t as long as adult ones. Help them practice sitting quietly for a short amount of time and taking deep breaths. Teach them to sit up straight, count their breaths, and close their eyes. Make this a daily practice if possible.
Yoga is an excellent way to teach children peace and healthy stress management techniques. Most PBS stations offer a free kids’ yoga show, and YouTube also has a variety of kid yoga options. My children each received a yoga mat for Christmas a couple of years ago (at 2 and 4), and they think it’s a lot of fun. They may not perfectly do the poses, but they are learning to practice, to breathe deeply, and to take time for themselves.
If we want to teach kids about mindfulness, it’s a good idea that we either declare a screen-free night each week or we set aside certain times each day when we’re not watching television or scrolling through our phones. We need to model how to live mindfully through our own actions, and entertainment is often the kind of distraction that acts as an unhelpful buffer between us and our children.
And I don’t mean punishment.
We can teach children to ground themselves through their senses by encouraging that they notice what they see, hear, feel, see, and taste. We can encourage them to be observant of their surroundings and themselves by asking a few questions to help them turn their attention to their sensory experience of this world.
Scavenger Hunts and I Spy
A scavenger hunt can be a great way to teach this without it coming across as a lesson. Play “I Spy” during a walk or look for a list of items in your community as a way of encouraging children to pay attention to the world around them. But make sure the emphasis is also on what they’re thinking and feeling and not just what’s going on in the outside world. That inner world greatly impacts how they’ll perceive the outer one.
Kids need to know that we’re not just hearing them. They want to feel listened to and understood, and in particularly stressful situations, they especially need this reassurance, as we all do.
When our kids are struggling, it’s important that we validate their feelings, even if we don’t entirely understand them or would react differently. We need to make sure that we’re reflecting back to them what they’ve told us, so that they understand that we’re paying attention to what they’re telling us. If this sounds like a counseling technique, it is. As a former family therapist, this was an absolute must for counseling sessions, but it’s also a great tool in any communication scenario to let others know that we are respectfully listening and compassionately understanding- or at least trying to. It’s just as important when we’re talking to our kids – even if we assume they are just tattle-tailing.
A fun game to play with kids is the mirror game. Let them sit facing you and try to have them silently copy your movements and expressions. Then do the same for them. It’s silly, but it’s a fun way to tune in to them and to have them tune in to you right back.
It’s difficult to teach peace, coping skills, and general stress management when most of us had to learn it all the hard way. When I was a child, kid yoga wasn’t a thing, and I’d never even heard of a mindfulness meditation. I might have played I Spy, but I don’t remember a lot of adults asking how I felt or what I thought about and actually listening to what I had to say. I remember my feelings being something I was told to control, but I wasn’t told how I was supposed to do that.
In fact, the only thing I ever really learned from this was that my emotions were somehow wrong. It wasn’t okay to be sad or angry because I would certainly get in trouble for crying or raising my voice or having a tough day. I learned to suppress them whenever possible, and I grew into an adult who struggled to feel certain emotions without guilt or shame. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable expressing them. I wasn’t taught peace. I was taught to make everyone else comfortable by hiding my emotions away. I was taught that how everyone else felt was more important than how I felt. It took a long time to undo that learning enough to realize that I mattered, too.
I’m not saying that we should encourage our kids to make poor choices. I am saying that we shouldn’t treat their emotions on those tough days or bad moods as if they are somehow wrong. I am saying that we should start listening to understand rather than just to dole out punishment. We can teach our kids to be a little more tuned in to how they’re thinking and feeling to help them learn how to manage their emotions, not how to pretend they don’t have any. Teaching peace doesn’t start with adults. It starts with our kids. It starts with us re-parenting ourselves enough to acknowledge that our discipline shouldn’t just be a replica of how we were raised. Maybe our parents didn’t buy us yoga mats and teach us to meditate, but there’s nothing wrong with trying something new. You might even have fun with it.
And if it doesn’t work? You just sat down and spent a little quality time with your kid. That never hurts.
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