Does it seem like you’re always rushing from one activity to the next with your children? The pressures of being a kid or a teenager can be heavy, and sometimes they need a break – even if they don’t tell you. That’s where relaxation techniques like body scan meditation can be helpful.
Cheryl Blackington, a youth teacher at Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness, stresses the importance of children practicing mindfulness meditation – specifically a version that gets them more attuned to their bodies and emotions.
About body scan meditation
“It’s one of the many forms of training that we use with all ages, down to small children,” Blackington says. “Mindfulness is bringing us into the present moment and into our body. We’re ‘in our head’ a lot and not in the present moment of what is happening right now.”
At its core, body scan meditation “focuses attention on physical sensations in the body,” according to the Stanford University Mindfulness Program. During the practice, “attention is given to every inch of the body,” from the skin to the internal organs and even digestion. The idea is to build self-awareness – and better understand “how physical experience is tied to emotional experience.”
It might sound a bit deep, but it’s actually a simple concept kids can pick up quickly: Slow down and listen to your body to find out what’s fueling your feelings.
“If they’re younger, they can start even before kindergarten,” Blackington notes.
This type of mediation is a tool that’s highly adaptable, too. It can be done lying flat on the ground or sitting upright in a chair – there’s no right or wrong way.
Beginning with breathing
First, though, take a deep breath – literally. “Talk with kids about breathing before you would jump into the body scan,” Blackington says.
For younger kids, she suggests having them do something like, “Lay down and put a teddy bear on your tummy and watch it go up and down as you breathe. Or pretend there is a butterfly on you and pretend it’s going to different spots on your body.”
Connecting this type of “conscious” breathing and body awareness to visuals like animals appeals to toddlers and preschoolers – and helps them keep their focus.
I know what you’re thinking: “My child will not stand (or sit) still for all that.” I was thinking that very thing about my child. But Blackington explains younger kids do really well with this.
You just have to play to their age level and pick things they’re interested in. “Some kids need to move” during this exercise, she adds, “and we honor that.”
Keeping the length of time compact is also important. “For our elementary ages, we’ve done it for no more than five minutes, even when they are sitting in their chair.”
Building up body scan meditation
“Once the children have the breathing down, you can ask them questions, like, ‘What do your feet feel like in your shoes?'”
Guide kids in trying some small, basic “scans” like this, all geared at exploring different physical aspects. Do their toes feel tight or free? Feet airy or snug? How do socks and sneakers feel versus wearing open sandals?
During this practice, kids can keep their eyes open or closed, depending on what’s more comfortable.
“No matter what age, you always go for sensations,” Blackington adds. “You want to get them into sensations more and out of their head and into their body.”
Having kids check in with temperature sensations is helpful, too. Do they feel hot, warm or cold? Is one part of their body feeling different than another?
For additional ideas, there are a variety of guided body scan meditation options for kids on YouTube, ranging in length from a brief three or five minutes to fuller options that are longer than 10 minutes.
“As far as full body meditation, typically we will start with teenagers at around 13 and up,” says Blackington. “They have the attention span and maturity to stick with it.”
Different body scan techniques
“Sometimes when I work with kids, I will play music when they come in, but not during the scan,” Blackington says. “Unless it’s for mindful listening, which is trying to focus all your attention on what you can hear.”
An example of mindful listening would be, “I’m going to ring the bell. Raise your hand when you cannot hear it anymore,” she says.
“Traditionally, you start with some breath work,” she reiterates, but from there, “Everybody does it a little differently. Maybe starting with your left toe and progress upward.”
In other words, kids focus on one body part at a time, slowly moving focus from the feet to the ankles, the legs, torso, shoulders, the neck and up to the head. Or, in other cases, it might be the opposite direction.
How long this takes depends on the pace you are going and also the age of the child. If kids are younger, you’d want to move a bit faster for them, to fit their age-appropriate attention span.
“This can go up to an hour and sometimes as little as 10-15 minutes,” says Blackington. “For adults, a typical one would be about 20 minutes.”
Some approaches might involve observing parts of the body, while others may entail tightening and releasing muscles as you go, which can also be helpful for alleviating stress.
For kids and adults alike, anyone who’s experienced trauma or PTSD should proceed with caution when doing this meditation technique, Blackington adds.
Why it’s important for kids
Body scan meditation can teach children how to cope with the stresses in their everyday lives. “It helps them relax and makes them feel calmer,” Blackington says. It even can show them why they may have frequent stomachaches or headaches, for instance.
This was the case with Blackington’s grandson, Cohan, who started complaining about a stomachache. But the root of the cause was that he was really worried about something.
“Young kids normally only see physical symptoms,” she says. Both Cohan and Blackington’s granddaughter, Lea, practice these techniques.
Blackington’s daughter and the children’s mother, Ahnuh, was actually the person who got Blackington into mindful training – she learned about it in college while studying to be a social worker. They’ve incorporated it into their everyday lives and feel it’s something other families should consider trying, too.
“We do the body scan because the more in tune we get with our body, the more aware we are with what is happening with it that we never knew before,” she says.
Other ways to de-stress
Blackington notes there are other ways to get kids to de-stress and unwind, too, such as handling squeezable stress balls or even a smooth-textured blob of slime.
The most important method to her, though, is teaching kids breathing techniques they can use in their everyday lives.
“We really like to teach breathing techniques, such as the five-finger breathing,” she says. “You put one hand out and use your pointer finger to trace in between your fingers – it’s really calming to people of all ages it doesn’t take long for us to regulate our emotions. You breathe in and out while going up and down between your fingers.”
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.