The bedtime negotiations had reached their nadir.
If our 5-year-old daughter wasn’t finagling a family dance party, then she was pleading for a packet of applesauce. Tooth brushing took 15 minutes with nary a speck of enamel clean. There were garments rent over bedtime story selections and whether the dog was lying too closely outside her door. Or not close enough.
It was such a shit-show.
My husband and I foolishly thought we’d conquered the hell-scape that had become getting our daughter to sleep by 7 p.m. — rigid adherence to routine; a Pinterest-inspired reward system involving pom-pom balls; bribery involving screen-time and M&M's for breakfast — but we were outmatched by a child determined to stay awake and ruin our lives.
(Kidding. Sort of.)
About a year ago, I began sending our kid to weekly yoga classes at the same studio where I regularly practice and learned to meditate.
I tinkered for months with mantras and modes and mala beads, trying to find the right balance between a practice that spoke to me and one I could stick with. I can’t fall asleep without the dulcet sounds of a “Parks and Rec” rerun in my ears, so the idea of sitting still for long periods of uninterrupted silence seemed unnatural. Not to mention that chanting embarrassed me. I am somewhat of a skeptic and I really struggled with figuring out how or when I would fit all of this in.
Finally, I settled on a mixture of guided meditation and morning reflections on my home office floor. This 15-minute, pre-coffee, pre-kid ritual helps me to identify and unlock whatever emotions are swirling around in my heart, providing me a small slice of peace with who I am and whatever is going on in my life.
My father had noted early on that my daughter was born “with an agenda,” which is not too dissimilar from my own — a temper mixed with a lack of tolerance for anything but perfection. I reasoned that if someone had introduced me to yoga and meditation at my daughter’s age, perhaps the agony that comes with being human would have been less likely to manifest itself in so many eaten feelings.
Turned out, my daughter adored yoga. Practicing savasana (known as “corpse pose,” when you lie on the floor, still, on your back) was effortless for her, which chapped my hide to no end considering the machinations involved at home for a moment’s peace. “She’s drawn to that place in her that’s quiet,” the yogis at the studio said.
One morning, at the tail end of my practice, my daughter plopped herself down and excitedly yelped, “Mama! Can I meditate and take deep breaths with you?”
Sometimes inspiration whispers gently; sometimes it comes crashing into your lap, demanding you take notice of the obvious. And once we began to bridge the gap between her practice and my own, something happened: Our daughter asked to meditate together before she went to bed.
What was once a 90-minute, Sisyphean effort slowly weaned to 30. We incorporated calming yoga poses into our routine, and then happened upon kid-friendly guided meditations. Happily each night, our daughter was requesting by name certain breathing exercises along with her bedtime stories, all designed to help kids relax and sleep better.
Research on meditation and mindfulness benefits for children aren’t robust, though studies done by UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center have demonstrated that the practice increases focus, relaxation and even classroom cognitive benefits for kids.
I won’t lie: We haven’t completely cracked the code. Delay tactics are still employed on a regular basis, and there are plenty of nights when I’m convinced my husband and I will never again watch 30 minutes of television before falling asleep slack-jawed on the couch. Still, she turns to meditation more than not, with the end result being a calmer, sleeping kid.
Here are some things to consider before incorporating meditation into your kids’ lives:
1. Don’t make mediation a punishment
Badgering your child to take up meditation is a surefire recipe for them to reject it. “If you tell a child that they’re feeling anxiety so you want them to meditate, you’re putting an expectation or an agenda on them to feel something,” Carly Carney, owner of the Beverly Yoga Studio in Chicago, says. After all, mindfulness and mediation is a tool used to help people identify their own emotions, whatever they are. “[Mediation] shouldn’t be forced,” says Tamara Levitt, head of content at Calm, a mindfulness meditation app. “We don’t want children developing a negative association with it.”
2. Do be opened-minded
Though many adults turn to meditation to relieve stress or anxiety, that’s not necessarily the motivation for kids who want to learn. Often, kids see meditation as another game to play and are actually drawn to the quiet. We finally put together that at bedtime, our daughter wasn’t acting out or being defiant — she needed something besides a story to get settled. “Children have more access to their vulnerability,” Carney says. “If your child is interested and has a natural curiosity, there doesn’t have to be a why. You can trust that in your child.”
3. Take a look in the mirror
Levitt says that while it’s not essential for parents to also meditate, it doesn’t hurt. “When parents practice mindfulness, they develop greater patience, more compassion and a deeper connection with themselves they can bring into their relationships with their children,” she says. Carney agrees. “Check in with your own motivation,” she says. “Investigate your own life first and notice what that brings up for you.”
4. Put your oxygen mask on first
In a culture of immediacy, it’s tempting to view meditation and yoga as a way to Band-Aid our kids’ feelings and ignore our own. “We’re in a constant state of grasping onto what we want and pushing away what we don’t like,” Levitt says. Carney counsels that difficult emotions are a part of being human, and the first thing parents can do is get comfortable with being uncomfortable, modeling for their children how to honor and talk about emotions. “You have to take care of yourself first,” she says. “You have to understand what it’s like to experience anxiety and sadness for yourself.”
5. Apply the KISS principle
Investing in classes and cushions are not prereqs to meditating. “When you hold your child in your lap and just breathe with them, that’s meditation,” Carney says. Apps such as Calm provide kid-focused practices that introduce brief meditation practices for kids ages 3 through high school.
6. Find what works for you
This applies to your kids too. Some people love chanting music; others prefer silence. Guided meditations are wonderful, but so is white noise. There is no hard and fast rule for how long anyone should meditate or when. Some guided meditations for children are as short as three minutes and as long as 12. Experiment with taking deep breaths with your kids and build from there.
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