Mindful

I’ve been seeing an adorable nine-year-old boy, Max, in therapy sessions for about four years now. A sweet and sensitive child, he took to mindfulness almost immediately. His parents were already practicing some fun and simple breathing and visualizations at home with him and they were looking for support with his anxiety. In therapy we made up all kinds of new practices together over the years, integrating both movement and stillness and a whole lot of laughter into our sessions. He brought these practices home to share with his family and friends. I’ve found that practices stick best when kids invent them on their own, or we find a way to help them co-create them with parents or teachers.

A few years into our sessions, he came in looking different. His usual jittery and chatty self was absent, and in its place was a boy slumping on my couch avoiding my eyes. When his mother joined him for the session I knew something was up. It turned out, his mother explained, that his once-best friend at school had turned on him, taunting him each day at recess while the teachers, who were supposed to be watching the kids’ social lives, were actually watching their own social media on their phones.

“How do you feel when Theo treats you that way?” I gently asked, leading, a bit self-consciously, with the classic therapist question. Max, eyes downcast, simply shrugged off my question, continuing to look defeated and downright deflated. His mom, who had joined us for the session leaned in. “Max, can you show us what you feel like?” Max sighed, sat up straight, and then crumpled over.

“You look,” his mother suggested, “like a wilted flower.”

With his brain and body flooded with emotion, sadness and shame, logic and language failed, but his body language told the story of the trauma. Often when people of any age struggle to find the words to express how they feel, whether from lack of language or from the crushing shame, it can help to simply make an expressive sound like a sigh or show someone with their body language how they feel.

Often when people of any age struggle to find the words to express how they feel, whether from lack of language or from the crushing shame, it can help to simply make an expressive sound like a sigh or show someone with their body language how they feel.

“How do you think you could feel strong and confident again,” I asked, “Blossoming again, like a freshly watered flower?”

I could see Max listening and thinking, though his body remained slumped and wilted. Then, he took a long deliberate breath in. As his chest rose and expanded he became a bit more upright, and held the posture. On the next breath he sat up straighter still, until by third breath in his shoulders were back, chest expanded, and on the fourth breath his head rose and he smiled. He held out his arms like blossoming petals. “The miracle grow breath!” his mother declared with a smile, and we all had a laugh.

With each inhale, Max had breathed in more confidence, slowly shifting his posture into a confident and radiant pose, transforming how he looked and felt to us, but more importantly to himself. “Let’s try it all together,” I suggested, as the three of us wilted down, and then Max guided us breath by breath until we were sitting, then standing, our minds and bodies blossoming in full confidence.

Breath practices with kids don’t have to be boring, they can be an outlet for creativity and confidence. Max’s Miracle Grow breath can boost the confidence and resilience of any child who has experienced a setback—be it bullying, a break up, or a dreaded B-minus.

The Miracle Grow Breath Practice: For Building Confidence (For ages 6 and up)

  1. Wilt. Begin this practice by slouching your body over, like a wilted flower or the posture you feel when you feel down, ashamed, or depressed. It’s important to not start with a really intense emotional memory, but something small.
  2. Notice. From the “wilted” position, simply notice how your body and mind feel.
  3. Breathe. Now take a breath in, feeling the cool and refreshing air nourishing you. Notice the slight movement as you breathe in and feel your back straighten up just a bit. Allow your body to remain at this new slightly more confident and upright posture even as you breathe out.
  4. Breathe again. Breathe in again, raising your posture ever more. Repeat so that with each breath you are sitting (or standing) up more confidently each time, shoulders back, head held high.  If you still want to“blossom” even larger, raise your arms with each of the next few breaths like petals opening and expanding.
  5. Notice. Notice after your blossoming how much different you feel not just in your body, but in your mind and well.

While this practice was designed by a kid for kids, shifting our posture upright breath by breath can help people of any age regulate their breath and restore a sense of confidence and clear thinking. You can let go of the flower visualization part and just raise your posture breath by breath.

Adapted from Raising Resilience: The Wisdom and Science of Happy Families and Thriving Children.

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Christopher Willard

Christopher Willard, PsyD, is a psychologist and educational consultant based in Boston, specializing in mindfulness for adolescents and young adults. He has been practicing meditation for over fifteen years. He currently serves on the board of directors at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and the Mindfulness in Education Network. Dr. Willard has published five books on contemplative practice, including Growing Up Mindful. He teaches at Harvard Medical School.

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