Meditation: A Family Rx
Seattle mom Eve Enslow practices meditation with daughter Lily, 2, nearby
Clinical psychologist and best-selling author Laura Kastner is passionate when it comes to connecting parents with the age-old practice of meditation.
"Every parent should meditate – every parent," stresses Kastner, whose best-selling books on navigating the challenges of adolescence are nightstand mainstays for parents across the country.
Not just parents, actually. Kastner, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Washington, believes wholeheartedly that "every human should meditate."
By every human, Kastner includes kids, tweens and teens.
Still, lest solution-oriented moms and dads see meditation classes for their kids as the panacea for any and all household strife, Kastner is quick to clarify the order of things. The many benefits that flow often from a consistent meditation practice – including reduced anxiety, more thoughtful responses to conflict, better grades in school – begins with parents.
"Everybody needs skills for calming their brains, calming their upset, and like everything in raising kids, parents should first learn how to be more mindful and present themselves," Kastner says. "If they role-model it, kids will follow. It has to start with the adults. So what I want parents to hear is, ‘First teach thyself.'"
Ingrid Lyne, a Renton mother of three, did just that when she turned to transcendental meditation (called TM), a year ago. She had used other forms of meditation at different junctures in her life, but committed to a daily TM practice because she had seen compelling research on its benefits. On most days, Lyne meditates for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening, a practice she says has helped her "realize the importance of every moment."
"As parents, we get caught up in the same routines and same mistakes. I feel like meditation has helped me be a happier person with a more even temperament," Lyne says. "That makes being a parent more fun; when you have less stress, more energy, you can be a better parent and be available for your kids."
Lyne's children, Reese, 8, Brooke, 6, and Noelle, 3, are indeed following her lead, as Kastner suggests. Each child has a special word she repeats as she engages in a simple, age-appropriate walking meditation.
"I see improved temperaments for the most part," says Lyne of her kids' experience. "They have a walking meditation they can say whenever they want." (They say it silently with eyes open.) "They never say, ‘No, I don't want to,' when I ask them if they want to say their words. They say, ‘OK,' and they get this peaceful look on their faces, and their eyes sort of drift away from my gaze. They really go inward."
Lyne's eldest daughter, Reese, recently told her that her special word and walking meditation "helps her feel calm when she is mad or sad." And, her middle daughter, Brooke, admitted: "It does change the thoughts in my head." Brooke says her meditation makes it easier to go along with whatever game her younger sister Noelle wants to play – even if it's a game Brooke isn't really interested in.
Erica Rayner-Horn, MA, LMHCA, a Seattle mindfulness-based stress reduction instructor, Listening Mothers group facilitator, meditation teacher and practitioner of 30 years, agrees with Kastner that meditation and other avenues for increasing inner awareness (called mindfulness) are critical tools in the parenting toolbox. However, she warns parents not to make meditation just another task on the must-do-to-be-a-good-parent list.
Becoming more mindful through meditation should not be another "set up," she says. "It shouldn't be one more thing I've got to get right, or be another stress on a parent, but much more an invitation to deepen their own inner world and work with their own emotions and reactions in a way that is very helpful to their children. You can show and demonstrate to your children how you work with stress, because we all experience challenges and difficulty in our lives – both parents and children."
A Growing Trend
The seeds of meditation are taking root all over Seattle as more and more parents like Lyne turn to this ancient practice of pushing distractions away to be present to oneself and the moment at hand as a tool for becoming better mothers and fathers. At the same time, a growing number of kids are learning that meditation can help them calm in conflict, improve focus, and even improve grades.
"I definitely feel more patient," says Lyne. "I feel like I am able to parent better because I see the effects of my actions in parenting before they occur – like I am preventing myself from making the same mistakes, like raising my voice. I am more self aware and able to control my temper. There is an easiness or gentleness that keeps growing within me. I think that transfers to my kids and they feel it, too."
Laura Johnston, a Sammamish mother of two teenagers, agrees that patience has been a primary take-away from her meditation practice.
"Teens go through lots of changes that can include some very irrational times," Johnston says. "Since I've been practicing, when those irrational statements and actions hit me, I can easily see that my child isn't tormenting me on purpose, they are just wading through all the hormone, brain, social, and general self-identity changes teens go through.
"I can keep the forest in mind even while focusing on these irrational trees," Johnston continues. "This makes it much easier for me to not take things personally – and more able to react in a way that is beneficial or at least neutral during the rough times. If I've missed an afternoon meditation or two, I can really see the difference in my reactions. With meditation I notice I can keep my train of thought much easier."
The value of the latter benefit cannot be understated, Johnston says.
"One of my children has perfected the tangential topic when I am trying to have a specific discussion," she muses. "But now that I've been meditating, I can enjoy the side-roads and still get back to what I was originally talking about!"
A survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health in 2007 found that 20 million adults in the United States (9.4 percent of the adult population) and 725,000 children (1 percent of that population) practice some form of meditation. The adult statistic is a significant increase from a similar survey conducted in 2002 that estimated 15 million (7.6 percent) adults were engaging in meditation.
It's Not Religion, It's Meditation
The increase may be attributed to two things, experts say. First, a growing body of research confirms numerous mental and physical health benefits to practicing meditation. Second, there is a growing openness across the U.S. toward incorporating what are essentially traditional Buddhist teachings into modern, busy, largely secular life.
"Meditation has nothing to do with religion," says Mary Davis, RN, MSN, FNP, who teaches meditation through Meditate Seattle. "You don't have to believe any credo or participate in any other processes. All you have to do is sit down, close your eyes, and silently focus on a sound or your breathing. When you find yourself distracted by a thought, sound or sensation, you gently bring your attention back to your sound or breathing."
Ultimately, this shift in the national perception away from meditation as a purely religious practice toward meditation as tool for reduced stress, self-acceptance and enhanced focus, has made meditation far more accessible.
"It's just learning to pay attention," says Davis who is the former director of the Family Nurse Practitioner Program at the Seattle University College of Nursing. "Kids are so bombarded with choices and activities, that their nervous systems are easily overwhelmed. Meditation gives them the opportunity to focus on one thing for a period of time. This gives the body and mind a chance to slow down, calming the nervous system."
Even those who do practice meditation as part of the Buddhist tradition are encouraged by the secular interest in practicing mindfulness, particularly when families practice together.
"When I first started studying Buddhism about 20 years ago, the learning environments were not so kid or family friendly," says Gen Khedrub, resident teacher at Kadampa Meditation Center in Ballard. "It was more quiet and serious. (Today) many people practice Buddhist meditation techniques without considering themselves Buddhist. Many families come to our Temple each Sunday from many different religious backgrounds. It is great to see things change to meet everyone where they are at, and create an environment where we all learn together."
How Meditation Works
There is no doubt that meditation makes a difference for those who start and stick with a practice.
"The most exciting new research shows that the grey matter of the brain changes as a result of meditation, even after as short a period of time as six weeks," says Davis. "MRIs of people taught to meditate show that the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain associated with learning, memory, and feeling good, grows new brain cells through meditation. The amygdala, which is the area of the brain associated with stress and anxiety, shrinks through meditation. Practicing meditation on a regular basis can rearrange your brain to help you learn better, remember more, experience less anxiety and feel happier."
But how does simply sitting quietly and emptying the mind of complex thinking achieve so much? Local experts say the answer is simple: because meditation calms the mind, it calms the body. A calmer body is a healthier body.
"During any stress, our body reacts in a predictable way, automatically," Davis explains. "Stress hormones are released which cause physiological changes that enable the body to either fight off the stressor or run away. This physical reaction is called the fight/flight reflex and is essential in times of great stress."
When the body is in fight or flight mode, blood pressure rises, the heart beats faster, blood sugar rises, the immune system is suppressed, platelets get stickier and blood flows to the muscles. These physiological changes direct the energy and reserves of the body to the circulatory system, the brain and the muscles, enabling a person to literally fight the threat or stress they are facing, or to run away.
Meditation has the exact opposite physiological effect. When a person is meditating, their heart beat slows, their blood pressure goes down, their blood sugar normalize, breathingslows and the immune system works better. Meditating regularly reverses the effects of stress accumulated during each day, balancing mental and physical systems.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control whittle it down this way: Stress causes the sympathetic nervous system to mobilize the body for action by producing the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system reverses these reactions.
"It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system," according to the CDC's website. (www.cdc.gov/features/Meditation)
When the body is in the highly aroused fight or flight state, the rational brain is flooded, and impulse takes over.
"Emotional flooding makes a productive discussion practically impossible," Kastner writes in her book Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens & Teens. That is why the first step to weathering a tantrum or a flooded interaction with a teen is the same. The parent needs to bring the heat down, to soothe him or herself, before tackling a problem. They need to meditate.
Meditation vs. Mindfulness vs. Mindfulness Meditation
A simple Google of the term "meditation" brings a wealth of information – and a good dose of confusion. The terms meditation, mindfulness, mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindful meditation all pop up as you scroll down the page. Often the terms are used together, sometimes interchangeably. Davis breaks it down for parents:
"Mindfulness means being aware of this present moment and everything happening in it; observing whatever is happening in your body and your environment without judgment," she says. "You observe your thoughts, sensations, and emotions without reacting to them immediately."
This alone, she says, is mightily helpful in child-rearing. Meditating parents in Seattle agree.
"The better you are at being a detached observer of these processes, the easier it becomes to control or modify your automatic reactions to them," Davis explains. "Practicing observing your emotions might help you control anger. You just observe the process that is happening in your body, like feeling your heart thump, your face flush, your head pound, your breathing become more rapid, your chest tighten; and you think about how you are going to react before bursting out with a verbal reaction. The observation and evaluation help you make a clearer choice in your reaction to whatever has made you angry."
Consider this: if it's your kid who has sparked your anger, the ability to observe, evaluate and calmly choose your reaction could mean the difference between yelling at or spanking your child and calmly, rationally helping your child understand and solve the problem at hand.
"Sometimes my daughter and I get into heated discussions about her time management," says Johnston. "Before I started practicing, I could only see the issue from the practical side – if she didn't start working on the particular project, there would be no way for her to finish ‘in time.'
"Now I can see that the issue isn't really about getting the project done, it's more about her having control over her own life and challenging herself to see what she is capable of. Often times I would be able to see the differences in viewpoints only a few hours after the fact, but now I can see them ‘real time' and act and react in a way that doesn't damage my daughter's need to understand herself. I've noticed that my daughter's drive to do an excellent job has grown since I've been able to back off, and she is even getting better at getting it done ‘in time.'"
Meditation, on the other hand, is the process of focusing your awareness on a sound, object or mantra (repeat a sound either vocally or silently, for example) and is usually practiced for a defined period of time each day.
"When your mind wanders during this time, you consciously bring it back to the focus of your meditation," explains Davis.
"Mindful meditation" combines these two forms of practicing mental awareness and thought release. Rather than needing the four elements that the CDC says are central to all meditation practices (a quiet location, a specific, comfortable posture, a focus of attention, and an open attitude), mindful meditation can be done anywhere, at any time –even in the midst of conflict – by simply stopping your actions, turning inward for a period of time and finding an internal focus.
"Essentially what you are doing is training the brain to pay attention. Mindful meditation allows you to react with consideration, rather than automatically, especially in times of stress," Davis explains.
Therapist Rayner-Horn explains the connection between mindfulness and meditation this way:
"Mindfulness is being aware, and meditation is the practice of developing and deepening awareness. Mindfulness, says Rayner-Horn, is the awareness of our moment-to-moment experience of our thoughts, feelings and sensations, without trying to fix or change them, but being with our life, just the way it is. It's waking up to living in the present and becoming more conscious, more sensitive, more tuned in to ourselves and to each other. Mindfulness meditation is how we practice to be become more mindful. But its not only about sitting down quietly in formal meditation, reflecting inwards, but is also about going through the motions of everyday life with more awareness. Peeling a potato or brushing your teeth can be a mindfulness meditation! It's an extremely important and helpful practice for kids and adults to develop."
Don't want to sound like your own mother? Meditate.
This training can literally transform you as a parent – helping you, for example, to not repeat mistakes made by your own parents, Davis says.
"Most research shows that parents react in times of stress the way their parents reacted in times of stress. You learn these reactions by observing them in your childhood, and this is imprinted on your neural circuitry," says Davis. "When a stressful moment arises, you might find yourself sounding just like your mother. Meditation allows you to slow down and choose your reactions, by changing the neural circuitry in the brain. You are able to choose a more rational, considered response."
Born by Meditation
Researchers have proven that meditation is useful from cradle to old age. Even before the cradle, in fact. Women who use meditation during pregnancy and labor tend to have fewer birth complications, have fewer interventions and rely less on pain medications, for example.
"I used meditation as my primary birthing method," says one Seattle mom. "I had a very easy birth, no drugs, no complications. My labor was very peaceful up until I went into transitional labor and actual birthing. During those final stages of birthing, my mediation practice gave me the awareness to fully relax between contractions. Meditation allowed me to keep a very calm and relaxed mind, no matter what my body needed to do."
Perhaps the most compelling research in the area of meditation's impact on childbirth comes from Thailand, where scientists are studying a correlation between mindful meditation and reduced risk of preterm labor.
According to scientists, who published the research in International Journal of Public Health Research in August 2011, mindful meditation helped reduce stress and improve mood in study subjects by increasing their ability to regulate negative affect.
"The findings indicate that mindfulness meditation reduces prenatal stress and the preterm birth rate," they wrote. More studies are underway to see if the results from Thailand can be applied to the world population.
Can Kids Really Learn to Meditate?
Breathing, relaxing and letting go to get a child into the world is one thing; getting that same child to mentally let go at age 3, 6 or 15 is another. Or is it? Is it really possible for a today's fast-paced, media-focused kids to slow down and focus enough to call it meditation?
"Kids can definitely be taught to meditate," says Kit Gianas, who teaches the kids class at the Kadampa Center. "The way it works is similar to learning to tie shoes, or ride a bike. Demonstration, step by step instruction, familiarity and practice are all elements that enable people of all ages to learn meditation."
Davis concurs. "They usually love having a special sound to focus on, but they can even be shown how to focus on their breath. It works the same way in kids as adults, calming the mind and body. It's a great practice to do everyday with the kids. Usually the amount of time they can sit still is the same as their age. A 3-year-old might be able to sit with you for three minutes. A 10-year-old for 10 minutes, and up to 30 minutes as they get older."
The fruits of meditation for children are "huge," says Mercer Island mom Adrienne Shoenfeld, who has enjoyed a meditation practice for 30 years. Her children Marcus, 14, and Drew, 12, each began simple meditation at age 6 and moved on to a longer sitting practice at age 10.
"When my children have contact with their own nature, or Self, everything in their active daily life benefits," Shoenfeld says. "They get along better with their peers, they have a better sense of themselves, meaning they are not easily swayed by the actions of others. With all of the pressure on our kids these days, what a fantastic tool to give them."
"My meditation technique makes me feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders," says Marcus.
For families just starting out, Davis points out that there are many online programs with audio meditations for children and adults. For parents of young children interested in helping them embrace meditation, Kadampa's Eve Enslow suggests simply practicing in the presence of children as a good start.
"Creating a practice that invites participation has been the best way in my experience to engage young children," adds Enslow. "Each morning, I sit cross-legged on the floor and do a simple breathing meditation in the same room where my toddler is playing. Most days, she comes and sits in my lap to enjoy the experience with me for a few minutes. At night, we enjoy a similar quiet time in the rocker after we turn the lights off, and before I lay her down in her crib. I think children particularly enjoy mantras and prayers that are sung. You can use these as a calming experience in place of a lullaby."
Learning to Meditate in Seattle
Numerous meditation centers and private teachers across Puget Sound offer mediation classes designed for children of various ages, including:
- Meditate Seattle (meditateseattle.com)
- Kadampa Meditation Center (http://nkt-kmc-washington.org/)
- Ananda Sangha (http://anandaseattle.org/)
- Transcendental Mediation Program of Seattle (www.tm.org/transcendental-meditation-seattle)
- Seattle Insight Meditation Society (http://seattleinsight.org/).
Most also offer classes designed just for teens. But at least one Seattle meditation instructor suggests meditation as a perfect parent-teen activity.
Seattle Insight offers a six-week Introduction to Meditation series four times a year. "It might be helpful to mention that, if parents and teens wanted to take a meditation class together," says Krista Harris, who teaches a teen meditation class for Seattle Insight Meditation.
"While the six-week class is intended for adults, a mature teen could definitely get a lot out of it. It would be particularly interesting to have a teen and a parent take the class together," Harris adds.
Seattle Insight, in conjunction with Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, is offering a meditation retreat just for teens at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, Wash. this summer. The Aug. 4-9 event is a first for Cloud Mountain and will teach teens the basics of self-awareness, authentic communication, and techniques to calm and focus the mind. For more information, go to www.ibme.info.
Meditating Toward Better Academic Outcomes
For some lucky kids in Seattle, meditation comes to class rather than the other way around. Several Montessori schools in the region have incorporated meditation into their classrooms as a way of helping students get settled and grounded and to help improve focus.
And at least one Seattle public school (Whittier Elementary) has included tips for creating and sustaining a meditation practice in its employee assistance program, while another has made an extended period of silence a part of the daily schedule.
South Shore School has a long standing, school-wide commitment for three minutes of "Silence and Stillness" at the start of each day and the start of each school community event/gathering.
Says South Shore Assistant Principal Laurie Morrison: "We just started investigating ways of growing this commitment – we have learned about two schools, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco, that are having good success with differentiating this for a broad range of ages and developments, and part of that is moving toward a more meditative practice as children grow into the latter portion of elementary and middle school.
"We are currently in the learning phase of what that might look like and how it is inclusive of all students."
In 2004, the Garrison Institute of New York conducted a survey of mindfulness programs in schools. According the institute, the schools found that using meditation in the classroom made students "more responsive and less reactive, more focused and less distracted, more calm and less stressed."
"Research shows that meditation enables the brain to pay attention," stresses Davis. "Many of the problems in the classroom arise from kids not paying attention, so they're not aware of what they are supposed to do, or they don't learn what is being presented."
The research shows a lot of other academic benefits too, according to national Schools That Work (www.edutopia.org/stw-student-stress-meditation-schools-research). Meditation in schools increases positive emotions and attention in class, reduces aggressive behavior, reduces test anxiety, decreases class absences, misbehavior, and suspensions and reduces students' blood pressure.
Kadampa's resident teacher, Khedrub, says kids in school are open and eager for ways to de-stress.
"We all could benefit from a little time to slow down and calm our mind, both kids and teachers," he says. "I was once invited to teach meditation in a first/second grade class at a Montessori school. We kept it simple. Sit with a straight back. Turn your mind to the sensation of your breath. And then try to count each cycle of breathing in and breathing out. See if you can count to 10, or 20. The kids loved it. Then I asked them to pick a number. We turned it into a counting game. One boy wanted to count to 100!"
Meditation to Reduce Pain
Across town from South Shore, doctors at Seattle Children's Hospital are also using silence and stillness – to treat young patients with chronic illness and pain. Based on research conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the hospital's Biofeedback Clinic is now using a variety of mind-body biofeedback techniques (including meditation, guided visualization, progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing) to help children cope with chronic pain and reduce stress-related illness and pain – for example, chronic migraine headaches.
Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program is perhaps the best-known secular version of the Buddhist mindful meditation practice. More than 1,000 studies have confirmed the program's effectiveness as reducing chronic pain, alleviating depression, mitigating post-traumatic stress, and treating eating disorders.
According to Dr. Cora Collette Breuner, head of Children's Biofeedback Clinic, most patients seek care at the Biofeedback Clinic to relieve headaches. But Breuner has seen biofeedback work for a wide range of symptoms and diseases, including cancer, lupus or Reynaud's disease. Biofeedback, including meditation, said Breuner in a recent interview on the Seattle Children's website, is "something that could change your life if you let it."
Perhaps most important to Breuner is that such strategies empower kids, and help those experiencing chronic pain, nausea or other symptoms to "take control of their own experience."
Should All Parents Meditate?
That is the question Kastner posed to the audience when she recently spoke at a Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS) event.
"Yes, absolutely!" answers Johnston. The other 15 parents, 12 meditation instructors, four educators and three doctors interviewed for this story all emphatically support Kastner's assertion. How to get parents to join the bandwagon is a harder question.
"The sad thing is a lot of people hear the word meditation and they say, ‘Yeah, right, just breathe . . .' and it's made into a caricature," says Kastner. "People just don't know how profound it is, what a difference it can make for the whole family. That's why, as a person with a Ph.D., I talk so much about the science, about the neuro-biology and how it works. It's the way to get more and more people on board."
Cheryl Murfin is an editor for Seattle’s Child. She lives and meditates in Seattle with her partner and two teens.