Why I Teach My Preadolescent Child About Mental Health and Mindfulness
As adults, how many times in our stress-ridden lives do we think to ourselves, “I wish I were a kid again. Everything was so much easier.” This is a perspective many of us have because we deal with work, bills, relationships and much more, but being a kid is rough. Although their life may seem easy when compared to ours, it’s their entire universe. The smallest situations can blow up into huge catastrophes in their mind, and this is why I make it a point to teach my son how to maintain good mental health practices.
My Childhood Compared to My Son’s
I’m an adult who struggles with anxiety and depression, but it’s pretty well maintained for the most part thanks to my medication and mindfulness meditation practice. Unfortunately, nobody taught me about mental health when I was a kid, and I wish they would have. I was a high strung, socially anxious mess as a kid. A lot of this had to do with the fact I grew up with an alcoholic mother, so I had to endure spontaneous scenes of chaos while also worrying about my mom’s well-being.
Mental illness runs in my family and so does addiction. By the time I reached high school, I thought I was going “insane.” I couldn’t understand why my emotions and thoughts were all over the place while others were handling life so well. This eventually led to alcohol and drug abuse as a means to calm my mind, which turned into an uncontrollable addiction. Now, my mental health is extremely important to me, and I want to ensure my son doesn’t run into the same challenges I did while growing up.
I’ve been sober for five years, and luckily my son doesn’t remember me in my active addiction because he was three when I got sober. As a parent who deals with co-occurring disorders, my biggest fear is that my son is genetically prone to the same. The difference is that I can stop the cycle by teaching my son about impulse control, emotional regulation, empathy and self-love while his mind is still moldable.
One of the primary reasons I teach my son about mental health is so he doesn’t perpetuate the stigma around mental illness. I’ve taught my son that not every illness is physical. There are people who he’s going to meet in school, as well as the regular world, where they have a sickness in their head. He knows I work at a drug and alcohol treatment facility, and I’m able to talk to him about how I help sick people, but it’s a mental type of sickness. This has really helped him have a different outlook when he encounters people who may be struggling with a mental illness.
The Mind of a Child
The developing mind of a young child is extremely susceptible to the stresses of the world. I learned a lot about this by reading some of the amazing work of Dr. Dan Siegel, who has written books like “Parenting From the Inside Out,” “The Whole-Brain Child” and “Brainstorm.” The bottom line is that nurture is much more influencing on a child’s mind than nature. I’m 32 years old, and if you’re around my age, you most likely grew up in a societal environment that didn’t nurture your mental health.
The primary part of the brain that’s taken us to the top of the food chain is the prefrontal cortex. The problem is that this part of the brain is also the youngest, so it doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our late 20s or early 30s. When it comes to children, this part of the brain is extremely under developed, and when you understand some of the things it’s responsible for, it makes sense why many children behave the way they do. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for:
1. Controlling impulses
2. Having a healthy sense of fear
3. Regulating emotions
4. Feeling empathy
When a kid has an outburst in the classroom or throws a public fit, it’s not necessarily because he or she is “bad” — it’s because they are incapable of regulating their emotions. When a child does something after you told them not to, it’s typically because they have poor impulse control. The child who thinks it’s a great idea all of those dangerous things we tell them not to has a problem realizing the danger he or she is putting themselves in. Empathetic behavior may be better in some children, but we often have to nurture it.
Teaching My Son Mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness has been a Godsend for me, and I’ve been practicing for about two years. It just so happens that I was taught through a program that shows teachers how to implement it in classrooms. Once you study some of the research about how mindfulness affects the developing mind of a child, you’d be silly not to teach it to your child. Countless studies have proven that mindfulness increases function of the prefrontal cortex, helps children focus better, regulate their emotions as well as control impulses.
My son is 8 years old, and I’ve been teaching him mindfulness and meditation for a little over a year now. The change I saw in him within the first couple months was absolutely astounding. My son has always been fairly sensitive (He must get that from me), and he would sometimes start crying and have no clue how to identify what was happening. Mindfulness has helped him slow down, get quiet and communicate what’s wrong. I used to get frustrated with him because he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, but it wasn’t because he was being stubborn — it’s because he didn’t know how to identify his emotions.
Mindfulness has also helped him focus and pay attention in school. Now, this may just sound like I’m bragging about my kid, but I know these things because of the compliments his teachers have. They’re amazed at how well he can focus, even when the rest of the classroom is being disruptive. The practice of mindfulness has taught him to bring his attention back to where it needs to be whenever his mind drifts. I also see a perfect example of this whenever we’re out in public. I can’t tell you how many times I see children who don’t have emotional regulation or impulse control, and it makes me extremely grateful I started teaching this practice to my son early.
I think the biggest benefit of teaching my son mindfulness is that he’s learning something I was never taught. He’s learned that it’s alright to feel whatever he’s feeling, and it’s completely normal. Our brains are naturally designed to want to push away any negative feeling, but my son has learned to be with the feeling and let it run its course. This is something most adults wish they could do (and they could if they picked up a meditation practice), and my son is already mastering it at a young age. When he loses or doesn’t get what he wants, he knows it’s alright to sit and feel what disappointment feels like. When he’s angry, he’s able to sit and notice where it’s coming from and calm himself down. Best of all, when he feels happiness, joy and love for himself, he can fully embrace it and share it with others.
Schools around the country are beginning to teach mindfulness and meditation to our children, but it’s few and far between. Since most of our schools aren’t teaching mental health practices to our children, I feel it’s our duty as parents. Mentally healthy adolescents turn into mentally healthy teenagers, who turn into mentally healthy adults. There is one catch though: If we want to have mentally healthy children, we need to be mentally healthy ourselves. Mindfulness is a great excuse to work on your own mental health while teaching it to your child as well. I guarantee that if you start practicing with your child, you’ll see why the best part of my day is when I hear, “Daddy, could we do a mindfulness practice together?”
You can check out the above video on my mental health YouTube channel, where I show a simple mindful listening practice with my son.
Follow this journey on the authors YouTube channel.
If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA‘s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.
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