I taught about recovering resilience at the Changing Brains, Changing Lives Symposium in Aspen, CO this week. The symposium focused on helping adults who work with children that experience stress and trauma on a daily basis offer those children tools to soothe, comfort and regulate themselves, in the context of caring, helpful relationships; the children can thus deal more skillfully (emotional-relational intelligence) with the difficulties they experience every day.
The Symposium’s keynoters, Susan Kaiser Greenland and Tina Payne Bryson, are pioneers in the fields of teaching kids to use the tools of mindfulness and emotional regulation to help themselves calm down when distressed and cope with whatever is happening right in that moment. Michelle Kinder and Heather Bryant have pioneered the cutting-edge work of Momentous Institute, a school in Dallas, TX that incorporates all of the those tools, and neuroscience as well, into a curriculum for pre-K – 5th graders in the Latino community.
Here are exercises from the symposium to help you teach skills of resilience to any children in your life, whatever levels of stress or distress they might be experiencing.
From Susan’s masterful book The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate.
The Clear Your Mind Game
Fill a clear glass with water, put in on a table, and ask your child to look through it and see what’s on the other side. They’ll probably see you or whatever’s sitting on the tabletop.
Pour a cupful of baking soda in the water and stir the water in the glass. What does it look like now? Can they still see through to the other side? Probably not: the baking soda clouds the water and obscures their vision. Just like baking soda in water, thoughts and emotions can create havoc in our perceptions and cloud other otherwise clear minds.
After a minute or two, take another look at the water. What happens when you leave it alone? Sure enough, the more the water rests, the more the baking soda settles, and the clearer the water becomes. Soon, all the baking soda will settle to the bottom of the cylinder and your child will be able to see through the glass again. The same holds true with our minds. The longer we rest in the steady rhythm of our breathing, the more our thoughts and emotions settle down and the clearer our mind becomes.
Making Connections between Breath, Body and Mind
Check in to see how your mind and body feel now. Take three deep breaths and check in in with your mind and body again. Anything change? Consider three separate parts of breathing: breathing in, breathing out, and the pause between the two. Let’s notice each of these three parts of the breath and see what happens. Sitting comfortably, we’re going to pay attention to absolutely everything about our breathing.
1. First, let’s feel what it’s like when our breaths are long. Take a long breath in and a long breath out. Pay attention to everything about your long breathing in. Now pay attention to everything about your long breathing out. How does it feel? Where do you feel it in your body? Is it fast? Is it slow? Is it smooth? Is it rough? Is it steady? Notice how your body is feeling right now. Does your body feel any different than it did before? How? Where? In your head, your stomach, your shoulders, your neck?
2. Next, we are going to notice what it feels like when our breaths are short. Take a short breath in and a short breath out. Pay attention to everything about your short inhalation. Now pay attention to everything about your short exhalation. How does it feel? ; Where do you feel it in your body? ; Is it fast? Is it slow? Is it cool? Is it warm? Is it smooth? Is it rough? Is it steady? Notice how you are feeling right now. Does your body feel the same when you take long breaths as it does when you take short breaths? If not, what’s different about it? Where do you feel the differences? In your shoulders? Your neck? Your back?
3. Now, breathe naturally. Pay attention to the inhalation, the exhalation, and the space between. Notice the beginning and the end of each inhale and each exhale. Can you rest in the space between the two, extending it for just a moment? How does that feel? Does anything change in your mind and your body? Do any parts of your body feel differently than they did before?
4. Let the feeling of your breathing fade into the background as your shift your attention from your breath to your body as a whole. How do your arms feel? Your legs? Your stomach? Your forehead? Your shoulders? ; Are you hungry? Cold? Warm? Relaxed? Tense? When you change the way you breathe, does the way your body feels change, too?
5. Now, use your breath to help you slow down and relax. Breathe in and let your muscles relax. Breathe out and let go of any tension in your mind and body. Breathe in and let your muscles relax. Breathe out and let go of any tension. Breathe in, relax. Breathe out, rest. Breathe in, relax. Breathe out, rest.
Rocking a Stuffed Animal to Sleep with Your Breathing
Ask your child to lie on their back with their legs flat on the floor (or mattress), arms by their side, gently closing their eyes. Once your child is settled and comfortable, encourage him/her to let the weight of their body drop into the floor or mattress below them and relax. Then you place a favorite stuffed animal on their abdomen and gently guide them through this exercise:
See if you can relax and feel your head against the pillow. Your back against the floor or mattress. Your arms by your side. Feel the weight of your stuffed animal on your belly. Now imagine that you’re giving the animal a gentle ride with your breath: as you breathe in, your belly fills with air and the animal rocks up; as you breathe out, your belly empties and goes down. Breathing in, the animal rocks up, and breathing out, the animal rocks down. You don’t have to change your breath or do anything at all, just notice how it feels as you breathe in and out.
You may notice that by paying attention to your breathing, it changes naturally; it may become slower and deeper.
You may notice that by paying attention to your breathing, the space between the breaths in and out lengthens.
You may notice that by paying attention to your breathing, the feelings in your body change naturally; you may feel more calm and relaxed.
You may notice that as your breath becomes slower and deeper, it becomes easier to lie still; your mind may naturally slow down and become quiet as well.
It may become easier to rest and to imagine that you have rocked your stuffed animal to sleep. It is relaxed and resting, too.
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From Tina’s New York Times best-selling book, co-written with Dan Siegel, The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.
Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions
When a child experiences painful, disappointing, or scary moments, it can be overwhelming, with big emotions and bodily sensations flooding the right brain. When this happens, parents [counselors, teachers, coaches] can help bring the left hemisphere into the picture so that the child can begin to understand what’s happening. The right side of the brain processes our emotions and our autobiographical memories, but the left side is what makes sense of these feelings and recollections. What kids often need, especially when they experience strong emotions, is to have someone help them use their left brain to make sense of what’s going on – to put things in order and to name these big and scary right-brain feelings so they can deal with them effectively.
One of the best ways to promote this right brain-left brain integration is to help retell the story of the frightening or painful experience. To tell a story that makes sense, the left brain must put things in order, using words and logic. The right brain contributes the bodily sensations, raw emotions, and personal memories, so we can see the whole picture and communicate our experiences. Even merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere. This helps the child makes sense of what happened and keep the big feelings safely held in the larger context.
Ask your child to tell you, again, (and as many times as is needed) what happened. The left brain is putting the events in order and the experience into words, and you can help fill in the details as you go along. You can also revisit the emotions of the experience, helping your child find the right word or name for the feeling, and by naming each emotion in turn, help to tame it.
There may be times when your child won’t want to retell the story when you first ask. It’s important to respect their desires about how and when to talk, because pressuring them to share will only backfire. You can gently encourage them by beginning the story and asking them to fill in the details, and if they’re not ready, give them space and talk later.
You may find that some of the best conversations with children take place while something else is happening. Children are much more apt to share and talk while building something, playing cards, or riding in the car than when you sit down and look them right in the face and ask them to open up.
Even with children too young to use their own words, you can retell them the story in your words, attuning to their feelings and responses as you go along, helping them experience a resolution of the story in the safety of the connection with you now.
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From the Momentous Institute Social Emotional Health handbook:
Bedtime is a wonderful time to try this activity because a child will often welcome the distraction from lights out. This can also be done in a classroom setting. Have the child lie down and imagine he is blowing bubbles with his thoughts. Have him fill each bubble with something that happened during the day he wants to release. It could be a word or a picture. Guide him through imagining the bubble floating up until it’s out of sight and out of mind.
After doing this for a few breaths, have the child imagine another bubble coming toward him filled with something he is grateful for. Have him imagine the bubble floating closer and closer until it pops right above his heart, letting the image melt into him. Bring in one or two more gratitude bubbles before saying goodnight.
[Momentous Institute has developed a free app you can download for some great visuals in doing this exercise.]
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Jane Baraz and I will be teaching similar skills of using mindfulness and emotional intelligence to help our (inner) children recover resilience in moments of distress in our Mindful Self-Compassion course at Spirit Rock Meditation Center this fall, Thursday evenings beginning October 15, 2015. Click here to register.